Seated at table from left, COTI panelists Barbara Joy Cooley, Mike Miller and Larry Schopp field attendee questions at the first “COTI Conversations,” Dec. 7 at the Community House.
Seated at table from left, COTI panelists Barbara Joy Cooley, Mike Miller and Larry Schopp field attendee questions at the first “COTI Conversations,” Dec. 7 at the Community House.

The impact of Sanibel’s recent red tide and blue-green algae catastrophe dominated discussion at “COTI Conversations,” held Dec. 7 in the Community House’s Founders’ Room. Sponsored by the Committee of the Islands and offered to COTI members, it is the first such gathering in the organization’s history, and it drew a capacity crowd.

Opening the discussion, moderator and COTI president Mike Miller cited statistics that were guaranteed to disturb. As he reported, the calamity left 248 sea turtles dead or stranded on the Islands’ beaches, and over 1000 dead in all of Southwest Florida. In total, 425 tons of dead sealife covered our Island shores, and over 2000 tons were removed in all of Lee County, marking the largest cleanup in the County’s history.

The impact on sealife has persisted into the dry season,” Miller said. “As recently as late November, 40 dolphins were discovered having washed ashore on Lee and Collier County beaches.”

Drawing attention to the impact on the Islands’ economy, Miller also reported that Sanibel and Captiva businesses suffered lost revenues of almost $27 million. “Our accommodations businesses lost $4 million in bookings,” he said, “and restaurants lost $1 million, which translates to $100,000 in gratuities lost to servers.”

Among the proposed solutions, the Minimum Flow Level rule, adopted by the South Florida Water Management District and challenged by several municipalities—including Sanibel—was greeted with skepticism. “What is the rationale for not increasing the MFL to the needed 750 cubic ft per second?” one attendee asked.

According to Miller, the District’s rationale is based on insufficient reservoirs to handle the increased load, “but my take is that they don’t want to reduce water for agriculture, preferring agricultural users over us,” he said. “The District must establish to the court that the rule is not unreasonable or capricious,” he added.

The challenge to the District’s proposed MFL rule was heard in October. The court will hand down a decision later this month.

Attendees also expressed concern about deep-injection wells as a solution to the water crisis. Miller described the concept as a system whereby water from Lake Okeechobee or the Caloosahatchee watershed is injected, by means of 50 wells, 3000 feet below ground. “The advantage is speed,” Miller said. “These wells can be constructed in under ten years, and some perhaps could be online in fewer than two years.”

Putting holes in the earth doesn’t make sense to me,” one concerned attendee said. “Are there any data that would record the impact of deep-injection wells?”

While COTI board member and forum panelist Barbara Joy Cooley did not express outright opposition to the concept, she remarked that “for deep wells, data must be site specific. I think the priority should be moving the water south.”

Water storage options reported by Miller include the C-43 reservoir, to be built in Hendry County at a cost of over $800 million, and the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir passed in 2017 by the Florida legislature (Senate Bill 10).

Of the C-43 reservoir, Miller said, “It is too small, and it provides for no water purification. It could do greater damage to the estuary by virtue of the nitrogen and phosphorus content.”

According to Miller’s report, the EAA reservoir requires double the amount of Stormwater Treatment Areas being planned. “But in conjunction with other existing and planned projects, it should reduce the number of damaging discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers by 63 percent,” Miller said.

Sanibel’s Mayor Kevin Ruane pointed to the importance of COTI’s advocacy role. “Advocacy is important. Take each [water quality proposition] and pick it apart,” he said, adding, “the Water Management District Board Members have to go. We have a new administration coming in, including a new Commissioner of Agriculture [Nikki Fried]. So things may change.”

The question of short-term housing rentals beyond the Island’s resort district fueled lively discussion among “COTI Conversations” attendees. COTI Board Member and panelist Larry Schopp reported that Sanibel has experienced a resurgence in such illicit rentals.

Transactions take place between homeowners and Airbnb, HomeAway or Vacation Rental By Owner,” Schopp said. “For the moment our regulations are safe, because they are grandfathered; but these companies will aggressively press state legislators to eliminate our ability to regulate, by preemptive state legislation.”

Speaking for many in the audience, one attendee pushed for strong enforcement of the regulations. “Some people spend only three weeks here, and rent their place out the rest of the year,” he said. “We should publish names of violators. They are thumbing their noses at us.”

Schopp acknowledged that violations are “hard to track. The City is considering tools, but they cost money,” he said. “Software programs or outside monitoring agencies are very expensive, but City Council is anxious to address the issue.”

Councilwoman Holly Smith affirmed that short-term rental regulation “is one of City Council’s key projects. I plan to write a guest opinion editorial, to educate citizens about rules and what can be done to assure that the rules are followed,” she said.

The Committee of the Islands will hold a second “COTI Conversations” forum, 10 a.m., Feb. 11, at the Community House.

For more information on “COTI Conversations” or on the activities of the Committee of the Islands, contact President Mike Miller 239 395 0593 or visit the COTI website, http://www.coti.org/.