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An Advocate for Environmental Responsibility

Stetson University’s Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience is promoting interdisciplinary learning and research, advancing policy development and demonstrating environmental stewardship that is benefiting the entire region.

Hurricane Irma recently reminded Central Floridians of the importance of our water resources and how we go about making changes to our fragile ecosystems as we continue to grow as a region. At the most recent Volusia County Water Summit, Jason Evans, Ph.D., assistant professor of environmental science and geography at Stetson, spoke about the impact rising sea waters are having, including record high tides and tide levels since 2006. He said his work indicated that many times the rising sea levels have an adverse impact on aquifers, as well as sewage systems, through the introduction of seawater.

Kirsten Work, Ph.D., a professor in Stetson University’s Biology Department, also spoke about preserving and protecting our water resources. She has been studying Blue Spring for several years and said there are three things stressing the springs in Florida — water quality, quantity and the impact of exotic species.

The research being conducted by Evans and Work represents the kind of efforts being put forth at the Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience, whose purpose is to become a center for innovative approaches to tackling complex environmental challenges that will ultimately benefit the entire region.

A Leader in the Region and Beyond

The vision of the Institute is to have Stetson emerge as a leader in Central Florida and the southeast United States for education, research and policy development that will generate innovative technical, social and political solutions for the current and future challenges of strained freshwater resources and related environmental concerns. Students who are majoring in Environmental Science and Studies, or any other students with interests in the environment and sustainable solutions, have opportunities to work with faculty and community leaders from government agencies, not-for-profit organizations and businesses in the region to conduct research, develop policy or participate in public education efforts that identify environmental problems and help implement solutions.

“We see ourselves in a convening role,” said Clay Henderson, the Institute’s executive director. “We want to conduct the research, bring people together to discuss these issues and act as advocates for environmental responsibility.”

The Institute has four main focus areas: the Indian River Lagoon, Central Florida springs, climate adaptation and sustainability. All are critical to the future of not only Central Florida but to the entire state. Blue Spring is the largest spring in the St. Johns River system, and it has been impaired due to the factors Professor Work highlighted in her research. The state government has come up with a restoration plan, but what policy makers are recommending is not enough to reverse the damage.

“The restoration plan doesn’t include dealing with 26,000 septic tanks,” said Henderson. “This is part of the process; we give them the hard facts, and they reassess. It’s part of our overall strategy.”

Wendy Anderson, co-director of the Institute and professor and chair of Environmental Science and Studies, sees the Institute as a facilitator connecting science and policy. “We have a huge bank of scientists here who understand how the environment works, and that knowledge is critical to helping shape policy in Tallahassee,” she said. “We’ve also brought different stakeholders, including county officials, faculty, mayors and students, to the same table.”

Anderson is also responsible for faculty engagement, and through a steering committee they are able to come together and set priorities based on important research focus areas. She also draws in students, whose research projects tie directly into the work of university professors. Anderson noted that because Stetson is a private university, it has more freedom to take on contentious issues.

“Nobody is telling us we can’t utter the phrase ‘climate change,’ so we have the independence to tackle the tough stuff,” she said. “This benefits the entire region because we’ve been able to emerge as a leader in these environmental conversations by presenting honest research to a variety of stakeholders and policy makers. The truth is, everyone is a stakeholder when it comes to the environment.”

The Institute has several goals, and one is educating the general public about freshwater and other environmental resource conservation and sustainability through special events, non-credit programming and online sources. By doing so, it can help shift the behaviors of millions of people to conserve valuable, clean freshwater resources and associated ecosystems. Henderson also stressed the importance of getting students involved with these research projects. “We’ve tapped into student interest and in three years have grown from having less than 10 students involved to having more than 85,” he said. “We want to train students to become leaders and global citizens who can affect change in how people consume and impact environmental resources.”

Critical Research

Last summer, as Professor Kirsten Work and Stetson student Jifu Jennings put on wetsuits and waded into the cool, clear water of Blue Spring, they understood the significance of their research efforts as an environmental imperative.

“Our springs are critical to the health of our overall ecosystem,” said Work. “Through my research, I’ve been able to make recommendations to policy makers on how to help the springs, so the information is valuable when trying to positively impact environmental policies.”

Assistant professor Jason Evans walks the same path as Work. He is wholly committed to his research, which he feels is more important than ever. Increased flooding caused by sea-level rise is a growing threat to the homes and businesses in coastal cities around Florida. An increase in the strength and size of hurricanes (see Irma) has exacerbated this issue, as storm surges rise and become more deadly.

Part of Evan’s research is mapping how vulnerable public facilities such as stormwater drainage systems, fire stations and wastewater treatment plants are to rising seas. The elevations of the structures Evans records give him insight into how exposed buildings can be adapted to future floods, and he hopes this data can help communities become more resilient to coastal hazards.

“Resiliency is the idea that a community can bounce back from some kind of stressor, some kind of disaster,” he said. “With sea-level rise, the best thing we can do is acknowledge it and try to deal with it by planning ahead.”

The research he and his team recently published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that as many as 13.1 million Americans who live in low-lying coastal areas would be displaced due to sea-level rise by 2100.

“It’s basically a collision course when thinking about sea-level rise,” said Evans. “We’re starting to do studies that say, OK, how much is it going to cost to adapt?”

All of the research being conducted by Evans, Work and others engaged with the Institute speaks to the importance of our water resources and related environmental concerns. Henderson believes the Institute is making, and will continue to make, a difference.

“Water is everything in Florida, so having clean, healthy water is critical to our lifestyles,” he said. “Our goal is to conduct research that makes a difference in the health of our environment, and this all comes down to influencing political outcomes.”

About the author

Jack Roth

Jack Roth

A veteran journalist and author, Jack Roth is managing editor of i4 Business magazine. Jack has been writing about Central Florida business, technology and economic development for more than 20 years.