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Florida Gulf Coast University and New College were jointly awarded a New Florida Cluster grant to “create a collaborative nexus for the targeted integration and dissemination of research related to the sustainability of the unique Gulf coastal watersheds of Southwest Florida.” Both institutions undertook various pathways to seek effective methods of communicating and educating selected target audiences in the region in the most up-to-date and relevant science regarding watershed sustainability. The effective delivery of findings to a lay audience was a critical objective. One such approach was the Southwest Florida Coastal Watershed Workshop, held at the Sugden Welcome Center on the campus of Florida Gulf Coast University on April 25 – 27, 2012. The purpose of the Southwest Florida Coastal Watershed Workshop was to bring together researchers, managers, and policy makers to present recent research findings and to discuss how to better share such findings with the general public, elected officials, and educators regarding southwest Florida’s coastal watersheds. By sharing our collective knowledge and experience in disseminating scientific findings, our aim was to develop a list of action items to implement to better reach our target audience.
The general structure of the workshop consisted of morning presentations (5 – 7 each day) on current research projects being conducted in southwest Florida, followed by afternoon discussions on how to present such findings in ways that can best reach our target audience. The afternoons then closed with poster sessions (21 posters) summarizing student research projects and research activities conducted in the region. The first day of the workshop focused on the geology, chemistry, and physics of local watersheds, in order to provide the background and setting for the dynamic processes occurring in these systems. The second day of the workshop focused on the biology and ecology of the watersheds to integrate how biological processes are affected by the physical/chemical dynamics discussed on day 1. The third day of the workshop focused on terrestrial communities, particularly wetlands, the status of ecological restoration and keystone species, and how human activities are impacting the watersheds of southwest Florida. The above format created a collective, integrative view of local watersheds, providing a platform for future discussions on how such knowledge can be 1) better packaged and delivered to be utilized in a meaningful way; and 2) compiled and catalogued to better conduct a gap analysis.
The afternoon discussions led to the following strategy to proceed forward.
- Firstly, a conceptual model of a (the) southwest Florida watershed should be developed. This model could be similar in nature to that developed by Barnes et al. (2006). Major components should be included, but at some level the resolution may need to be “kept large” to prevent the model from becoming overly large and cumbersome.
- Secondly, data sources (reports, databases, publications) should be listed under each component (where available). Metadata information can be hyperlinked to each citation to indicate the types of data available, range of measurements (spatially and temporally), source of data, etc. If the data are available but need to be compiled or better organized, that information should also be included. Existing gaps will become evident in this early stage (addressed in more detail in #4 below).
- The data should be housed (or linked) to a central location. For example, many data sources are well-established and integrated into large data management systems, so a link will suffice to these locations (e.g., DBHYDRO, CHNEP Water Atlas, etc.). Possible locations include the Coastal Watershed Institute at Florida Gulf Coast University or at CHNEP.
- Assess “state of the watershed”. Identify gaps in knowledge, as well as critical areas in need of further study/remediation/restoration. Develop a strategic plan (including clear goals) that is integrative, addressing everything from the topic of interest, to experimental design, expected findings, and how these findings can be implemented. Examine similar efforts (e.g., CERP & CHNEP) to see how much overlap exists and what components can be integrated.
- Prioritize list of action items from the above gaps and critical needs findings. Is this our task? Can we reach a consensus? How well will our list match up with a public list or policy-maker list?
- Outreach. We should take a more active approach to outreach, rather than passive approaches (e.g., data on a webpage). Suggestions included touting our successes – demonstrate that our research and management activities have positive outcomes and are therefore worthwhile investments. We should also pursue other avenues of delivery including newspapers (articles and guest editorials), local magazines, local TV/radio, Facebook, etc. When we do such outreach endeavors, we should provide findings in manageable “spoonfuls” – not too technical, not too wordy (editorials are a good template in this regard). We should put more effort into talking to policy-makers, legislatures, legislative assistants – putting a face on a topic or group can improve interactions and outcomes. We should also consider a two-pronged approach – reaching out to the public and officials to garner support for watershed topics of concern across the board.
- Web-based technologies should be pursued and developed to best extract and present the data to the end user. A GIS interface is one visual approach that could work well in this regard. Such efforts are already underway at FGCU. In addition to the components of the conceptual model, efforts should be pursued to develop and incorporate historical geography and ecology in the region, which can provide simple, yet vivid examples of how local ecosystems have changed over time. The CHNEP Water Atlas is a great example of how to approach this, maybe efforts could be integrated.
What are the main hurdles hindering progress on the above steps?
- Resources. The biggest obstacle to implementing the above steps is personnel. Who can undertake these endeavors? Besides pursuing funding to hire people, other resources could include FGCU students and local retirees. FGCU students could be a good resource as many students look for internship opportunities, and FGCU has a service learning requirement for undergraduate students that could be (partially) fulfilled through this project. Additionally, the experience gained by students (and potential networking opportunities) could be of great benefit for their post-graduate careers. There is a large and active network of retirees in southwest Florida, many of whom have expertise that could be of great benefit for this project. Many of them already give their time to local charities and non-profit organizations, so their interest in helping with this project should be gauged and pursued.
- Time. Besides the need for time to undertake the above steps (relating back to resources), there is the time needed (or utilized) to successfully complete each step. Similar efforts have been discussed before, many of which went nowhere. Part of the failure could be due to the lack of progress in reasonable periods of time. Once resources are identified to pursue the steps, a realistic timeline can be developed and followed.