In today’s episode we discuss the National Estuary Program and how it works. The NEP functions within a unique collaborative governance model structured around collaboration and communication among every stakeholder in the watershed. We talk about the EPA’s connection to the NEP, the NEP Management Conference, how the NEP brings people together and our shared mission of protecting and restoring waterways.
IRL Community Engagement Coordinator Jessy Wales discusses all these things and more with Jennifer DiMaio, Physical Scientist with the US Environmental Protection Agency and Duane DeFreese, Executive Director of the IRL Council and the IRLNEP.
To learn more about the IRL Council and our lagoon home, visit OneLagoon.org.
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[Audio transcription via Rev.com]
Jessy Wales, Northern IRL Community Engagement Coordinator
Duane DeFreese, Executive Director of the IRL Council and the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program
Jennifer DiMaio, Region 4 Physical Scientist with the US Environmental Protection Agency
Duane DeFreese: Hi, I am Duane DeFreese, Executive Director of the IRL Council and the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program. Welcome to our One Lagoon, One Voice podcast. Each week myself or one of my staff members will host leaders in the community, scientists along the Lagoon, people who know a lot about the system to talk about some of the problems, and most importantly, some of the solutions to solve the Indian River Lagoons health and make sure it’s great for future generations. If you enjoy hearing us talk story about the Lagoon, a like and subscribe to this podcast. So let’s get the show started and let’s talk a little Lagoon.
Jessy Wales: Hey there, and welcome to one Lagoon, one voice. My name is Jessy Wales, one of the community engagement coordinators for the One Lagoon program, and I will be hosting today’s podcast, and I’m very excited because today we have both Dr. Duane DeFreese, our Executive Director of the IRLNEP, the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program, as well as Jennifer DiMaio, who is the Region 4 Physical Scientist with the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Thank you guys so much for being on the podcast today.
Jennifer DiMaio: Thanks for having me.
Duane DeFreese: Yeah. Thanks Jessy, and good to see you, Jennifer.
Jennifer DiMaio: Good to see you too, Duane.
Jessy Wales: So I know that I am relatively new to this position, but you guys have been working together for a while, right?
Jennifer DiMaio: Yeah, since 2015. I think we came on about the same time. I was just like a couple of months before Duane.
Duane DeFreese: Yeah, we sure did. So when we reorganized back in 2015, we both hit the road running simultaneously.
Jennifer DiMaio: Yeah, we did. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we did it.
Duane DeFreese: I think we were flying the plane at the same time we were building it.
Jennifer DiMaio: Yeah. For sure.
Jessy Wales: That’s awesome. I love that. And obviously you guys have built a gorgeous plane because the IRLNEP is a fantastic program that we’re going to be actually talking a lot about today. So I wanted to start out with some questions. Jennifer, I’m going to put you on the spot first. Okay. So how exactly did you get into working with the Environmental Protection Agency or the EPA, and the NEP specifically? Did you see yourself working in politics as a child, or how did this come about?
Jennifer DiMaio: Well, it’s funny. I still don’t see myself working in politics. A lot of hard work and a lot of luck.
Yeah, I mean, as a child, I always knew I wanted to be a scientist. I first thought of myself as being a mad scientist. I remember in third grade drawing a picture of the messy hair and the test tubes and stuff, and then I had a creek in my backyard and that was my playground.
I went to University of Georgia and I was lucky enough that they had an environmental health field. And like I said, a lot of luck. And right out of college, I accepted a position into the Environmental Protection Agency. And just like I said, a lot of hard work, but a lot of luck.
Jessy Wales: That’s awesome. So you work with many different National Estuary Programs in region four. Can you tell me a little bit more about what is the National Estuary Program specifically?
Jennifer DiMaio: Yeah, I mean that sounds like such an easy question to answer, but because every National Estuary Program is different, actually defining one can be a bit difficult, or at least to me it is. In the general sense NEPs are, they’re community-based, they’re watershed organizations. So it’s really a refreshing place. It’s not defined by political boundaries, which is why I said I really don’t see myself really working in politics, but I work where the water flows.
What’s special about National Estuary Programs though, is that they receive a dedicated amount of federal funding from the Environmental Protection Agency every year, and they carry out EPA’s mission, which is to protect and restore, but they’re not a federal agency.
Jessy Wales: Oh, okay. Yeah. That’s what I find interesting. And Duane, feel free to jump in here, because when I learned about the NEP and the IRLNEP, I had this very strong picture in my head of it being this strict environmental agency and DC and all of that, and it’s been cool to learn that we have a little bit more autonomy than I thought we did. And I saw that when I was at the Restore America’s Estuaries program, their conference last year, and I saw this great panel with a bunch of folks that were running different NEPs around the country, and every single one of them was run a little bit differently, and everybody had their own visions and goals of how they wanted to run it. Some ran it like we do as a special district. Some ran it like a nonprofit almost that was focused on getting the community involved. Some are running it as a state organization. It was just interesting to see how differently everybody did it. So I’m still a little bit confused on what exactly is it that the NEP does.
Duane DeFreese: Well, before we go to that, let me tie a thread among those 28 National Estuary Programs, both nationwide and Puerto Rico. So our federal authorization is actually by the US Congress as part of the Clean Water Act. It’s called Section 320. And what makes us so unique, the things that you saw, Jessy, that we’re all NEPs but we’re all very different, was a visionary view that Congress had over 30 years ago when they created the National Estuary Program and authorized us to do a couple of things that make us unique and very unique within government. And one is that we convene a management conference.
And for our listeners, think if you lived in a neighborhood and you have all different walks of life, all different backgrounds, and you get everybody together, the Management Conference is a business model that is really structured around a coalition and a collaboration and a communication among every stakeholder in the watershed. So whether you’re industry or an environmentalist or a nonprofit or an educator or a scientist, each of the NEPs bring that group together to work together, identify problems, and hopefully solve them in a consensus way. So it really is a collaborative governance model that you don’t see in industry, and you really don’t see it in government almost anywhere other than the National Estuary Program.
Jessy Wales: It’s definitely unique.
Jennifer DiMaio: And I think that’s exactly really the answer to Jessy’s question about what do NEPs do? They convene. That’s exactly… The Management conference is so critical to the success of the NEP because that’s where everything happens. And the power of the NEP is to bring all those people together. And I mean, without the Management conference volunteers, there would be no NEP. There would be no decisions for the NEP staff to carry out.
So what does the NEP do? When I think about it’s like they convene. It’s like everybody who lives or works in the watershed, they’re invited to the NEP table to solve problems. Everyone has a voice. It’s based on science, but you don’t have to be a scientist to be a part of the NEP. And to do that, EPAs set up that structure, like the governance structure to have the management conference and to do those things. But yeah, every NEP looks different. It’s not a one size fits all.
Jessy Wales: I love that because I feel like one of the main goals in my position is to engage these stakeholders in what the NEP is doing. So it’s really cool to hear that these stakeholders have a seat at the table. What they’re saying in these presentations and these different workshops and meetings is so important in that they have a seat at the table. And I think sometimes that gets lost a lot in these bigger meetings.
Duane DeFreese: It’s really essential if you think about how you take action at the back end of convening all these stakeholders. Our particular management conference right now this year has 91 individuals representing citizens and one advisory group, scientists and other resource managers, and they all have different perspectives. We actually take that collaborative, very diverse community, and then we build a 10-year Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan that is the plan for action. And the plan itself, you’re never going to get 100% agreement, but that plan reflects what we all agree on. So if we have 80% agreement, that’s how we’re going to take action.
And 20% might take us a while to figure out how to move forward, where we build consensus. But Jessy, I think you said it, everybody’s at the table. Everybody has an equal voice. Everybody gets heard. At the end of the game, maybe not everything happens exactly the way every individual wants, but we’re building this coalition with a unified vision to move forward for a healthy Lagoon. And it’s challenging to keep that dynamic and that what I would call open communicative atmosphere. You have to work at it in order to make it work.
Jessy Wales: Yes, that’s a great point. And we will get more into the CCMP later on because I know that that is our guidebook for the NEP.
But Duane, I want to learn a little bit more about you. So you are the man behind the scenes. You are such a well-respected figure in our community, and I want to know how you got to become the executive director of the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program. Is it everything you thought it would be? There’s only one correct answer there, it’s yes. And just, yeah, tell us a little bit more about what brought you to the IRL and one of the reasons why you wanted to run such a dignified program.
Duane DeFreese: Gosh, that’s a tough question. I don’t know how I got here. So my path in my career was very different than what I thought it was going to be. So I came to marine biology and I got my degrees both a bachelor’s and masters and PhD in marine biology. But what brought me to marine biology was surfing and diving and fishing in a love of the ocean. And I wanted to make sure that the things that made me happy was also part of what I did for a career. And I’ve really been blessed and lucky, as crazy as my career has been because I’ve done a lot of different things, each one has really built a broad understanding through experience, which I couldn’t have pre-planned if I had tried to make it happen from the front end. So I thought I wanted to be a professor at a university. I loved teaching. I did that for a long time, but had an opportunity to run Brevard County’s Endangered Lands program, as Its very first director and found myself doing real estate acquisition for conservation programs like the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. And then went from there to Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute as a senior scientist in a nonprofit world, coordinating a team working on sea turtles and marine mammals. And then shifted eight or nine years later into industry where I was with a startup company. And then after that academia.
And to be honest, in 2015 when I heard that the National Estuary Program was going to be reorganized, I had no intention on applying, but I had a vested interest because some 35 years ago, I had the opportunity to help develop the technical report for then Governor Martinez that brought the National Estuary Program to the Indian River Lagoon in Florida. So I had been tracking the progress, watching the good work, watching the changes over time. And then back in 2011 when we had this catastrophic, harmful algal bloom and this reorganization started to happen, part of what brought me here was this interest that I gained in industry about how cool would it be to reorganize a government agency with a different perspective. Not the bureaucracy, but let’s figure out what the problems are, let’s get the right people in the room and then let’s solve the problems.
And so when I came on board in October 1st, 2015, and Jennifer knows this, we’re not joking when we say we were flying the plane while we built it, we didn’t have an office. The revenues that were coming in through the IRL Council weren’t in. We had to set up a bank account. We had to hire staff. And then we had to reassemble that management conference with a new view of how you do the business of habitat restoration and stewardship in the 21st century. And I’ll be honest, it’s still a work in progress.
We’ve been eight years. This is never going to be something you sit back on. The people change, the problems change. We find solutions, but we are evolving every single day. And that’s really exciting for me.
Jessy Wales: Yeah. And I can tell that you were a professor in a past life because I feel like I learned something new every time we chat. And people do hang onto your every word too when you give presentations. So I love that
Duane DeFreese: It’s really dangerous for those people who are hanging on every word. But I’ve been blessed by having so many different experiences, including being in a startup company with industry. I don’t see myself as a scientist anymore, part-scientist, part-entrepreneur, part-business. I just see myself with lots of different headspace.
Jessy Wales: Interesting.
Duane DeFreese: And try to bring it all to the decision-making that we make, including the political side, which I am pretty deeply engaged in.
Jessy Wales: You mentioned too that the NEP is a special district. So how exactly does all that work? This is a pretty loaded question.
Duane DeFreese: I’m going to pass this off to Jennifer at some point because she sees this from the federal perspective, which is maybe a little different than I do. But an independent special district is a association or a body that is developed following Florida statutes. And most of our listeners are very familiar with the Water Management district. So for us, it’s a St. Johns River Water Management District, and South Florida Water Management District. Those are special districts at the state level. So they’re state agencies that are authorized under Florida law.
With our independent special district, we were set up for one purpose and one purpose only, and that was to serve as a host agency for a reorganized Indian River Lagoon. So we’re not regulatory, we don’t tax or collect taxes. We really are structured around investment from five counties. So each of the five counties along the Indian River Lagoon, Volusia, Brevard, Indian River, St. Lucie, and Martin County came to the table with investment dollars and they serve on the IRL Council board of directors. We also get funding from South Florida and St. Johns Water Management Districts, and they serve on our board of directors. And one I didn’t mention was the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
And so our structure is very holistic, and I like to think of it almost like a family. We are running a family business, and our focus is clean water and a healthy estuary. We all bring something really unique and different to the table. But together it’s really an amazing thing how well this NEP structure works and what a powerful force we can be collectively, so much more than we would’ve been individually.
Jennifer DiMaio: Absolutely.
Jessy Wales: Jennifer, are you local to Florida?
Jennifer DiMaio: No. So I am actually in region four, which is out of Atlanta, Georgia. And so we have regional offices, and then we have headquarters and headquarters located in Washington DC. And we have a headquarters representative that also will participate in the NEP activities from time to time. And so we have oversight from headquarters. And then you also have a regional representative, which is myself.
Jessy Wales: And you get to come down to the meetings quarterly, bi-annually, because we’ll see every now and again, I feel like.
Jennifer DiMaio: Yeah. Yeah. So I try to get down there as much as I can. So I would say what on average about two to three times a year maybe?
Duane DeFreese: Yeah.
Jessy Wales: Nice. Yeah. So Duane, you brought up funding. So I did want to hear from both of you a little bit about how the IRLNEP is funded. I feel like we have a lot of different pots of money that are coming in. So where are we getting it from locally? Where are we getting it from the EPA? Can you guys go into that a little bit?
Duane DeFreese: Sure. Jennifer, do the EPA side.
Jennifer DiMaio: Okay. Yeah. So as I mentioned before, NEPs, they’re the only organization that receives annual federal funding from EPA and that is authorized by Congress. Duane already talked about that a little bit. So essentially, the region receives funding from headquarters, and then we make our awards to the NEPs. We get the NEPs annual work plans, and then we approve those work plans, and then we provide funding to the NEPs based on those work plans. And so that’s essentially how it works. I mean, every year. I mean, I think it’s worth mentioning that there is a 50% match requirement for these federal funds. So that is an important caveat there. It can be cash or in kind contributions, but congressional support has always been very essential for the NEPs for them to continue to get as much money as they can from Congress every year so that they can continue their unique work, so.
Duane DeFreese: And we are reauthorized every five years. So Congress has to reauthorize Section 320, but every year we go through congressional appropriation. Also mentioned the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funding that we now call the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, that’s a unique federal five-year additional funding that we’re seeing from Congress.
Jennifer DiMaio: Yes. So last year it’s a transformational opportunity for the NEPs where every year for five years, they’re going to get $909,000.
Jessy Wales: Wow.
Jennifer DiMaio: Yeah. So they’re able to even get more annual funding for the next five years.
Jessy Wales: That’s awesome.
Duane DeFreese: What’s really unique about that, Jessy is, even though it’s one time, and in addition to our normal annual grant from EPA, it allowed us to do some things that we normally wouldn’t have been able to do, and including setting up a Seagrass Nursery Network and reaching out to some of our underrepresented communities, some 26 communities have been identified in the process. So we’re taking our management conference and really expanding it to make sure everybody’s included. And so we’re really excited about how that money over the next now four years is going to be delivered, but it’s one time, and is totally separate from what we get from the EPA through our annual work plan process.
Jessy Wales: And I do think that that is one of the things that the IRLNEP is well known for, is the funding that we’re able to provide for different priority projects. So we provide funding for water quality projects, habitat restoration, community-based restoration and research. And most of those are coming from our vital signs wheel, which we’ll get into a little bit with the CCMP. And annually, we are able to provide those funds to different partners to do projects within the IRL Watershed.
So a little bit of background for the listeners. My position previously at Marine Discovery Center as the Shuck and Share Coordinator was funded exclusively by the IRLNEP. I was on Soft Money for seven years, and I was able to fund my program through the NEP funds each year, which is how I grew so close to this team working. So I would have to say that that is my favorite IRL project. Might be a little biased, but I would love to hear from you guys what are some of your favorite NEP projects? And Jennifer, feel free to bring something in from outside of Florida. It might be cool for our listeners to hear about some things going on in other parts of the region as well. But You will get bonus points if it is IRL-focused. So totally up to you. No, I’m just kidding. But feel free.
Jennifer DiMaio: Well, I was going to say Marine Discovery Centers, they’re Shuck and Share. Checked.
Jessy Wales: Nice.
Jennifer DiMaio: No, actually my response is very broad. I was just going to say any successful project, and I know I don’t want this to be a cop out, but over the years as I’ve started managing more projects and seeing how difficult it is for a project to come to fruition and how many obstacles that can happen for a project, I mean whether, obviously we saw all the difficulties that were encountered with staffing and personal spaces with COVID, but then obviously in Florida we have hurricanes and what that can do to projects. And then hungry manatees with the seagrass growing and then with theft. I mean, sometimes people just see the shiny object next to a dock and they’ll just take it. It wasn’t worth anything to them, but it was just some piece of a project that people just keep on taking and batteries. We’re looking at innovations and things just go wrong so many times with these innovative projects.
And so when we get a successful project, whether or not it’s the results that we were, I don’t want to say hoping for because data is data is data, but just the fact that we can close a project and we got results and we got information that we can use, I think is moving in the right direction, because so many times there’s just so many obstacles that causes a project to fail. And so yeah, I really enjoy seeing all of the projects that either point us in some direction that lead us to do better the next round or helps another organization so that they can continue on the work from someone else. So that was what I was thinking.
Jessy Wales: I love that. That gives a very broad overview of the program as a whole, and you do get this different view of it where we’re very focused on specific projects in the IRL. You get to see the overarching goal of the entire program. And I think that’s really cool.
So Duane, what about you? You’ve seen all the funding come in firsthand name. Can you list one or two? We don’t want to seem biased. So can you list one or two of your favorite projects that you’ve seen come through?
Duane DeFreese: It’s really hard for me to do that for our listeners. Since 2016, we’ve funded 195 projects.
Jessy Wales: Holy moly.
Jennifer DiMaio: Woo-hoo!
Duane DeFreese: With over $14.6 million. And so the projects, they’re all favorites of mine because we’re empowering our community to do really good work. But there’s a couple that stick in my mind, and those are the ones that I feel are more transformational. It’s not a project start and a project stop, but something that goes on for a long time.
And so two that stick in my mind is number one, our response to the harmful algal blooms. So there was a gap in monitoring. We filled that gap and we made a decision that we were going to fund both University of Florida and Harbor Branch Oceanographic down at Florida Atlantic University to do harmful algal bloom monitoring every year. And that is an anchor point for tracking what’s going on in the Indian River Lagoon. And so for me, that’s transformational. We’re filling an immediate need in a gap, but the fact that we were able to respond quickly, I think is one of the hallmarks.
And of all these really important projects and all that money, a project that often gets forgotten because it wasn’t a lot of money. But during COVID, our board of directors and our management conference and our staff said, “We’re going to have people at risk because of this COVID crisis.” And we funded internships that were bridge interns, and we did it not taking months and months to figure out what we were going to do, single meeting with our board of directors. We move money from one place to another, set up internships and helped individuals bridge that COVID pandemic when they were out of work. And so for me, that was almost indicative of how an NEP works best.
You’re not bureaucratic, you’re responsive, you’re helping your community, you’re helping individuals in your community and helping the Lagoon. And we had some great product out of that very short bridge timeline. So those are two that stick in my mind, along with dozens of storm water and wastewater and septic to sewer and oysters and clams. We’re like a Noah’s Ark of different kinds of projects.
And I want to share just one thing. Terri Breeden, who is somebody we work with in Brevard County told me a quote this week that she heard at a conference. And the quote is this, and it’s very apropos for us here in the east coast of Florida. She said, “It’s not rocket science. It’s much harder.”
Jessy Wales: Oh, I like that. Put that on a T-shirt.
Duane DeFreese: Yeah, I really liked it too.
Jessy Wales: So we talked a little bit about the NEP and our wonderful partners that we have. So can you guys tell me how the IRLNEP differs from other nonprofit organizations, universities, citizen groups, state agencies in the area? Because I feel like we’re all trying to accomplish the same goal, and we’re all doing it in a very similar but also a slightly different way. So how do we differ from them?
Duane DeFreese: I’ll be really brief on that. I think when you think about how do you convene, how do you enhance communication, how do you build a coalition that lasts, like our management conference. There are little bits and pieces within our conference structure that’s research we advocate, but we advocate for good science and science-based decision making. We advocate for being responsible stewards of the Lagoon, but we are not a typical nonprofit. We’re not an environmental advocacy group. We are not just doing scientific research, although we have supported it, we’re a little bit different. And the one thing that I think makes us totally unique among the many, many players in our watershed is that we are Lagoon-wide. We’re representing seven counties, 38 incorporated cities, and these 91 stakeholders that are agencies, nonprofits, for-profit industry, we have the big umbrella. And that is very different than I think the individual groups that fit within our stakeholder affinity groups.
Jennifer DiMaio: So I guess how I would answer that too is how the NEP is different, but also the NEP strengths, like the IRL strengths. And a lot of that has to do with Duane.
So the IRLNEP has this innate ability to focus on the future. And I see that obviously we talked about 2015 and the reorganization, but the ability of the NEP as a whole, of the management conference, to look into the future and to see the vision of what they need. So the IRLNEP ultimately made the decision to transform its management conference to be what? To be a more responsive to the changing Lagoon. It saw the Lagoon changing. It saw the need to secure more funding sources. So the created a whole other network to go out there to get more businesses to invest in the IRLNEP, the enhancement of the Lagoon wide communication, the coordination, and getting the cooperation among the stakeholders. There were certain partners that are at the table now that were not at the table in 2015 when Duane started. And so he brought those partners to the table. And Jessy, he brought you to the table and the other, what is your official title again? It’s the-
Jessy Wales: Community Engagement Coordinator. And I’m specifically for the Northern Region.
Jennifer DiMaio: Right. So to have a deeper reach into the watersheds, into those areas where, because it was just the two of you guys in 2015.
Duane DeFreese: Yeah, we were lean and mean for a long time.
Jennifer DiMaio: Yes.
Duane DeFreese: And with some strategic reason that we felt like we didn’t want to start expanding staff until we actually knew what the skill sets and also the culture of the staff team we wanted to build. And so we did. We were probably one of the smallest staff NEPs in the nation.
Jennifer DiMaio: You were. You were the smallest.
Duane DeFreese: And thanks to Kathy and Dan and that early startup team, we still got the job done, but we were really leaning heavily on our partners to help expand the capability.
And Jennifer, I’m going to jump in on the question of what makes us unique. I think this relationship, so if you think about what the authorization for the United States Environmental Protection Agency, which is really our national focus on protecting the environment, whether it’s water quality or air quality or habitat, that we translate that federal focus and deliver it at the local and state level. But we come to the table with that authority. So we have federal authority for the Indian River Lagoon, even though we’re not regulatory. And there is nobody in the mix who has that broad authority to bring all the players together. And I think it’s an opportunity, it’s a responsibility. And sometimes for me, it’s just a scary thought that how much we have to pay attention to that community of conservation and restoration practitioners and make sure that nobody’s left behind, but that we’re doing the good work. I mean, I worry about that and think about it every day, making sure that this team that we’ve built both within the structure of the program, but also our partners, that everybody is getting enhanced along the way. Everybody’s getting support and we’re doing it together.
Jessy Wales: No question. We are bigger together than we would be as separate entities. I agree. And I definitely think that by working together, we’re going to be able to accomplish those goals that we have in our Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan. We call the CCMP. Now, we’ve mentioned it a couple of times in this conversation. So our CCMP looks ahead to 2025, and we’ve been using it as a guidebook or guidelines for some of our priority projects. We were able to create the vital wheel sign, come up with critical priorities for where we want to start sending our money.
So Duane and Jennifer, what’s your hope for 2025 as we look forward? How do you think that we’ll be able to get there in accomplishing some of these goals? And do you think that there’s any one critical priority goal that sticks out that you’re the most worried about or most excited about? And how will the CCMP help with that?
Jennifer, you want to jump in first on that one? I’m going to put it on you.
Jennifer DiMaio: That is a loaded question. That was like a lot. Jessy, you crave a lot into that question.
Jessy Wales: We’re running out of time.
Jennifer DiMaio: I know. Okay, so my hope for 2030 and how do we get there? I want to see more recognition for the IRLNEP. So when you’re driving over the Causeway Bridges and it’ll say, welcome to Indian River Lagoon County, or Welcome to this county. I almost want to see welcome to the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program boundary or something. So when I’m on the plane going down to attend one of the committee meetings, sometimes I’ll get asked like, “Oh, are you going home? Are you going to work?” It’s like, “Oh, I’m going down for a meeting.” “Where are you going?” And then we’ll start to chat, and then I’ll find out that they live on the Lagoon or they’ll live… And like, “Oh, do you know about the National ES Steward program?” “No.” I want that answer to change. I want that to be like, “Yes. I do know about the National Estuary Program.”
We have the license plates, which is amazing. I see the merch popping up, which is awesome, the hats and the T-shirts. And I know that we have some stickers and different businesses and stuff. And then we’ve talked about this in some of our joint EPA NEP meetings. And literally we talk about how the NEP, especially in NEP, like the Indian River Lagoon is everywhere. They’re in septic to sewer, they are in trash-free waters, they are in seagrasses, they’re in the fertilizer ordinances or they’re in this. So they’re literally as you wake up in the morning to when you go to bed at night. And so I want that to be in people’s minds. The Indian River Lagoon NEP is with you as a homeowner, as a business owner, in your schools, every single step of the way, they are your best friend. They are right beside you.
I was doing a presentation, a 101 presentation for EPA, and it was something like an estimated 102 estuaries in the United States. And EPA is only designated 28 of those as being nationally significant or accepted into EPA’s National Estuary Program. And Indian River Lagoon is one of those 28. So out of 102, there’s only 28 of these. And the Indian River Lagoon is I think one of the largest ones. I mean, there is long. It’s big. And so I want-
Jessy Wales: 156 miles long.
Jennifer DiMaio: 156 miles long. And so I want the people that live in the Indian River Lagoon watershed to understand and to recognize just how special they are and how important they are to be a part of the One Lagoon. And I want them to feel that.
And I think that I’d said this before about how the IRL differs a little bit from the NEP network, and I think that has a lot to do with Duane and the staff and just how lucky they are to have these county commissioners and how lucky they are to have this staff. As much as people love the Lagoon, I know people love and admire Duane and his staff. And so I see that they also want to do not only good for the Lagoon, but also good for the program. And so I know and I see that transcending and multiplying, and so I know it’s a culture change and I know it will happen. So I am excited for the future. And I feel like Duane’s like the grandfather of the IRLNEP. It’s like this Generation’s Grandfather-
Jessy Wales: I would agree.
Jennifer DiMaio: Of the Indian River Lagoon.
Jessy Wales: I definitely agree. Yeah.
Duane DeFreese: So you guys are calling me old, huh?
Jennifer DiMaio: No, no.
Jessy Wales: How about the Godfather? We’ll call you the Godfather instead.
Duane DeFreese: Well, actually, Jennifer’s comment transitions to me answering that question because I’m old and my perspective on the Lagoon goes back to 1978, but actually my first eyes on the Lagoon, I couldn’t have been much more than six years old. And I remember coming down here with my family and running down Route one and smelling the citrus groves, and we fished on both the ocean side and the Indian River Lagoon when I was a little kid.
And so for me, what I want to see, so think about the CCMP as a 10-year document that we update and we will be updating in 2025, I’m really proud to say that the priorities we set back in 2015, I think we’ve met every single one of them as we go to 2025 on the targeted stuff, on some of the bigger issues like septic to sewer conversion and storm order improvements and restoring water quality. That’s going to take years, probably decades. It took decades to get us into this challenge point and to see what happened from 2011, the first superbloom to the loss of seagrasses and then starving manatees.
So for me, my high game is 2025. We set some really bold bars for achievement for the next five years coming up. Keep doing the good work we’re doing. But Jennifer is right, part of what we need to do better is communicate the value of what we do to our citizens and our elected officials. Because what we do impacts not just Indian, River, Lagoon water quality, but it impacts all of the assets that this water body delivers to all of the people who live in our watershed. It’s economic, but it’s also the quality of life. People come to Florida to fish, to go to the beach.
What I would call the high bars of success aren’t how many pounds of nitrogen it is for us as scientists, its is the water safe to swim? Are the fish and the shellfish and the crabs safe to eat? Can I go out and boat and see all of those living resources that once we may have taken for granted, but now that we’ve seen them under such stress, we know how quick you can lose a healthy estuary to an unhealthy estuary?
So as we move forward over the next few years, it’s going to be build on success, find where the gaps are, and start filling the gaps and continually tell everybody in our community that their investment on water quality and habitat restoration, that it matters, that it matters to our quality of life. It is who we are. And it’s the the liquid thread that ties all those cities and all those counties, not only today, but all the way back to our history. So we have a rich history, a rich diversity, and we’re protecting a system that could disappear before our very eyes without that resolve and without that responsibility and without that investment. So it’s a challenge, but it’s a huge opportunity.
Jessy Wales: Yeah. So Duane, with that being said, do you think that there are any public misunderstandings about the IRLNEP that we could clear up on this podcast?
Duane DeFreese: I’m sure there are. I just came back from a field trip and probably 50, 60 people there, and I heard comments that just simply weren’t accurate. And some folks who are pretty well experienced on the Lagoon. So the challenge we have is that this is not a simple estuary system. Probably one of the most complex in the nation. And what the general public often is confused with and including our scientists, is the concept of space and time, the spatial and temporal scale.
And I’m going to use a real life example. So two weeks ago, we had a harmful algal bloom that is creating the really cool bioluminescence that we see at night that the tourist kayakers, they love going out. When that bloom started to collapse, we had a fish kill and our community reacted aggressively. And the reaction is the lagoons dying. The Lagoon is dead. Here’s another example of nobody doing the right thing for the Lagoon. Well, fast-forward less than 10 days, and that same area that had really poor water quality and dead fish along the Lagoon in southern Brevard in Sebastian, the water clarity today and for the last week has been like gin clear.
And so I think in general, what I would tell all of our listeners, it’s like the stock market. Don’t try to react to what’s happening just today. We’re in this for the long game, and we’re going to see good days and bad days, good seasons and bad seasons. The really good news that I feel right now with a 43-year perspective is that I see improvement and that improvement has been over the last two years, but we’re seeing some rebound in seagrasses. We’ve seen improvement in water clarity and water quality. But most influential to how I feel, which is very optimistic, is that our citizens have taken on the challenge and are willing to support the Lagoon, willing to make investments through discretionary sales tax or through donations to our great nonprofit organizations. That’s what it’s going to take, the misunderstanding is that the day you go out pick up litter, doesn’t matter, or the $1 you sent to one of our nonprofits like Marine Discovery Center or Brevard Zoo or Florida Oceanographic, that somehow that dollar doesn’t matter. Trust me, every single moment that you donate, every single dollar that you invest, every single person you talk to and say, “Hey, this is important to me and my family, my kids, and my grandkids.” That’s the challenge, but it’s also the opportunity.
Jessy Wales: Yeah. Well, thank you guys. Thank you both so much for coming out today, Duane and Jennifer, it was an absolute honor to chat with you about the Lagoon to learn more about the NEP and the EPA.
Do you have any last comments that you’d like to send off to our listeners before we end for today?
Jennifer DiMaio: No, just thank you guys so much for having me. It was an honor to be here and to talk to both of you guys and to be on the same podcast with Dr. DeFreese just blows my mind. So thank you so much for having me, and it’s always great. I’m honored to be a part of your team and thank you so much for all the work that you guys do to carry out EPAs mission. And yeah, I always say it, thanks for making us look good.
Duane DeFreese: Well, we love working with the EPA. We see ourselves as part of the EPA family.
Jennifer DiMaio: Absolutely. Thank you.
Duane DeFreese: And really appreciate your individual professionalism and support. I love the fact we’ve got this tight working relationship in an estuary that was one of the most challenged in the nation at multiple levels. And it’s going to take a concerted effort to get there.
And the other thing I want to say is if people are listening and they haven’t been outside while we’re not in fall yet, it is a beautiful day. So get out on the water, experience the Indian River Lagoon, do it safely. And if you have questions, call us. If you have concerns, call us or email us. Go to our website. You can get ahold of us, any of us directly. We are here to serve you the citizens and the public who live here around the lagoons. And we’re proud to do so. So thank you all.
Jessy Wales: And as I’m sure everyone could hear, we are all very passionate about the Lagoon and our jobs.
And to our listeners, thank you so much for listening to this episode of One Lagoon, One Voice. My name is Jessy Wales, Community Engagement Coordinator for the IRLNEP. If you enjoy these discussions about the IRL, please like and subscribe to this podcast wherever you get your podcasts. And if you’d like to learn more about the IRLNEP, how you can get involved in volunteer opportunities, tips and tricks for living Lagoon friendly, or how to support Lagoon restoration by purchasing some of our awesome merchandise, please visit us at onelagoon.org.
And don’t forget, we do have a newly redesigned IRL license plate. The license plate has helped to raise about $8 million for Lagoon restoration projects since its inception, and it has a gorgeous new snook on it. And if you’d like to stay informed about Lagoon news and upcoming events, follow us on Facebook and Instagram all @onelagoon, or you can go ahead and subscribe to our newsletter.
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