On May 8, East County Water Control District hosted the first in a series of four community presentations in honor of its 55th anniversary.
"The speaker series is an opportunity to explore the history of our area and help residents better understand the issues facing Southwest Florida's environment and the function of the district," said ECWCD Commissioner Michael Bonacolta.
ECWCD preserves and protects water resources through drainage, conservation, mitigation, navigation and water best management practices in 70,000 acres of land in both Lehigh Acres and the western portion of Hendry County.
James Hull presents at ECWCD’s 55th anniversary speaker series.
The district began as part of the Lehigh Corporation and has long history with the community.
"Community members are embracing this educational series and filled every seat in the room for the first session," said David E. Lindsay, ECWCD manager.
The first session covered the early life in Southwest Florida from the 1800s to 1930s and examined the environmental impacts on the area.
Audience members took a journey through Fort Myers history with author Amy Bennett Williams as she shared knowledge learned from compiling her pictorial history book, "Along the Caloosahatchee River."
Williams shared the importance that the river played in the early life of Southwest Florida. The historically winding river became a center of commerce for Southwest Florida with business popping up along piers.
Commissioner J. Nathan Stout's family settled in Fort Myers in the 1880's and for a number of years ran the Fort Myers newspaper.
"It was truly wonderful to see the photographs of places I had only heard of as a child," said Stout.
Presenter James Hull, is a descendant of one of Southwest Florida's pioneer families and CEO of AIM Engineering and Surveying. As a native southwest Floridian, Hull has a passion for the area's rich history and has deep roots in the cattle industry.
Hull shared with guests the important roots of the original Florida cowboys and his personal accounts of growing up in the area.
"Southwest Florida can be likened to the Lonesome Dove series," said Hull. "Historically, Florida was the largest producer of cattle and was responsible for restocking the Great Plains with approximately 18,000,000 head of cattle after the demise of Buffalo herds in that area."
According to Hull, cattle were driven from central Florida through what is now Lehigh Acres before heading to Punta Rasa to be shipped. The Mirror Lakes/Halfway Pond area of Lehigh Acres played an integral role in the cattle industry as it was a favored stopping point of the early cowboys.
Presenter Kevin Erwin is a certified ecosystem ecologist specializing in large-scale wetland restoration, biodiversity conservation, watershed evaluation and management. His work typically relates to improving the functional capacity of wetlands, and large landscapes and mitigating the impacts of climate change.
Erwin helped paint a picture of how the Florida's wetlands and waterways used to work before the area was developed.
"Until about the 1980's water was seen as a common enemy of the state of Florida, "said Stout. "The historic purpose of water districts was to focus on simply the drainage of land to prepare it for development. Now water districts operating on a water management plan to try and restore some balance to the natural ecosystem."
Erwin showed an aerial of a segment of Lehigh Acres from 1953 and made a side-by-side comparison to that same cross-section in 2007. The 1953 aerial showed deep wetlands and ponds covering a vast area while the 2007 photo showed the wetlands overtaken sprawling development.
"Historically, Southwest Florida and particularly Lehigh Acres, used to have water year round, said Erwin." "It is the unplanned development that drained the area, changed the natural flow of water ways and lessened our storage capacity."
Erwin noted that Lehigh Acres is headwaters, the literal area that feeds a river, and historically water used to flow both north and south from Lehigh Acres. Development caused the redirecting of water solely to the north which exhausts both the Orange River and Caloosahatchee Rivers.
"It is up to the residents to make a different and change the path we are on in regards to water management, said Erwin. "To make a change you must be willing to support your water management districts, pay taxes and get involved so you understand our water situation better."
According to Erwin, it is a reality that Lehigh Acres needs more water storage and infrastructure.
"It was a truly eye opening presentation," said Gayle Sheets, community member. "I don't think many people are aware of the damage development has done to the area or how much we have changed the natural landscape. I think the District is doing a fabulous job at trying to educate people and manage the stormwater needs, but there is more we as citizens can be doing to help."
The free speaker series will continue to run Wednesdays, from May 15-29 at 601 East County Lane. Refreshments and check-in begin at 12:30 p.m. and the presentations run from 1-3 p.m. Seating is limited and reservations are required. Light lunch is provided.
To reserve a seat, contact Carla Ulakovic at (239) 368-0044 ext. 17 or firstname.lastname@example.org.