BROOKSVILLE — When it comes to environmental and economic challenges facing the Nature Coast, the list is long.
From nutrient-loaded waterways and reduced spring flows to habitat destruction and the decline of fishing and shell fishing, the issues and causes are complex.
A group of more than 40 federal, state and local government and agency officials assembled recently to talk about how to tackle the problems. The discussion focused on identifying specific issues in Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.
The impetus for the first meeting of the South Nature Coast Watershed Planning Group was the pending award of settlement money from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon gulf oil spill to communities that were affected.
The meeting was facilitated by Anne Birch of the Nature Conservancy and Jessica Koelsch of the National Wildlife Federation. Similar watershed groups have been meeting in the Panhandle.
The group's ultimate goal: Identify regional environmental and economic projects to recommend to the Gulf Consortium, a group of representatives from the 23 Florida counties affected by the oil spill. The consortium is charged with developing Florida's plan for the BP oil settlement money.
The thought is that counties and regions that come up with plans that best meet the stated criteria for the money have the best chance of receiving it. Several participants in the meeting pointed out that resolving the ongoing environmental concerns would be beneficial to both the coastal habitat and local economy.
"The economy and the environment are very closely linked,'' Koelsch told the group. "If we restore the environment, we hope to restore the economy.''
"The BP oil spill woke people up'' on that point, said John Hagen, CEO of the Pasco County Economic Development Council.
"To sustain economic development we have to sustain the environment,'' said Hernando County Administrator Len Sossamon. "We only have one Mother Earth.''
The group talked about the economic value of recreational scalloping, the shrimping industry and manatees, which bring nearly half a million people to Citrus County annually.
If the area really wants to see an economic boost, "give me $11 million to develop Three Sisters Springs,'' said Andrew Gude, acting manager of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, which manages the Three Sisters property and springs.
But not all activities have increased like manatee viewing has. Officials from various agencies represented in the meeting spoke about the decline in tarpon fishing, decimated stone crab populations, declining oyster beds, and the decreasing profitability of commercial fishing because boats have to go so far out into the gulf.
Gude, who lives in Cedar Key and is familiar with the clam farming that takes place there, said other counties along the coast could take advantage of that idea.
Developing mariculture and aquaculture facilities would be a good fit for the region, he said.
Hagen agreed. "A good economic thing to do would be to get your own sustainable fishery going here,'' he said.
Hernando County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes spoke about how Hernando hopes to improve the environment for fish to breed by expanding the artificial reef system off the coast.
Gude also suggested that students should learn more about how the environment is tied to the economy. The need for better education of the public was emphasized during the discussion of several issues. Other areas of concern included improper use of fertilizers that degrade waterways and a lack of understanding about the need to conserve water.
Many of the issues are interrelated and complicated, Citrus County Commissioner Rebecca Bays noted.
Bays said that, as a staunch Republican, she is a strong believer in economic development and job creation. But she said she has come to realize that growing business includes clean, abundant water and other resources.
"And we can't take our eye off the fact that tourism is the No. 1 industry in this state,'' she said, noting that much of that activity is water-focused.
"We have got to get ahead of this,'' she said. "We can't wait for this to become a crisis.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.