Following his exit from the Commissioner’s seat in 2012, his efforts on behalf of Florida’s environment did not wane, as he joined with the Florida Coastal & Ocean Coalition, an alliance of organizations who seek to promote actions on a variety of environmental issues on the local, state, and federal level.
“It was approximately 6 months after my exodus from the county commission when the Florida Coastal & Ocean Coalition gave me a call,” Judah said. After several interviews with the group, he was brought on board as the Coalition Coordinator. “It’s a coalition of a number of environmental organizations, and has demonstrated its resiliency and its flexibility over the years in the change and makeup of its group, but the goal has always remained the same: preserve and protect the coastal and marine resources in the state of Florida.”
The Coalition currently stands at five members, combining the efforts of the Sea Turtle Conservancy, the 1000 Friends of Florida, the Surfrider Foundation, Oceana, and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
“I’m very fortunate,” Judah said. “These are well established and very reputable organizations, with some of them internationally known. The others are well recognized throughout the state. Because of their professionalism, they have designated representatives from each organization that serves on the coalition.”
“Having represented a coastal community for so many years, he was well versed in the issues,” said Jennifer Hecker of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. Her group has been with the Coalition since 2010. “He was able to hit the ground running when it comes to representing us.”
Judah’s job is to coordinate the bimonthly meetings with these groups, where they discuss the issues of both environmental and legislative importance, as well as organize support for marine related issues throughout the state. The Coalition also gives Judah direction to implement the directives they come up with.
“These directives can incorporate water policy, language we submit to the (Florida) Legislature during session, and our position on pending legislation,” Judah said. “They also felt strongly on having me write commentaries on issues pertaining to coastal marine resources, as well as the educational component of our work.”
A lot of Judah’s time is spent on public speaking to groups such as the League of Women’s Voters, colleges such as FGCU and Florida SouthWestern State, and other community organizations, keeping them up to date on water issues. He and the Coalition also dedicate their efforts to support local communities in passing of resolutions against things such as seismic air-gun blasting, used by oil and gas companies to find oil deposits below the ocean floor, which creates havoc for sea life who depend on sonar for communication and survival. They’ve also gave their support for recent fracking bans enacted by local communities such as Bonita Springs.
“We’ve been advocating for responsible resource extraction that doesn’t adversely impact critical marine resources,” Hecker said. “We’ve also recently supported legislation that was introduced by Congressman Curt Clawson (R-FL, 19th District) to ban the importation of the invasive lionfish, which would decimate our local native marine life.”
“It’s a mission that involves lobbying on behalf of water resources, and reaching out to the community,” Judah said.
Since taking up the position, Judah has found his plate full with issues that he also presided over in his 24 years as Lee County Commissioner. Issues centering on Lake Okeechobee fresh water releases and their effect on estuaries like the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers are still paramount to him.
“Seventy percent of our fisheries are dependent on these estuaries,” Judah said. “It’s more than an environmental impact, it’s an economic impact, and we continue to sustain exceedingly damaging discharges from Lake Okeechobee.”
Judah had criticism for local and state elected officials and regulatory agencies in regard to their handling of these issues. “They’re clearly not focused on the meaningful solutions to manage Lake Okeechobee as a healthy, living ecosystem.”
Due to this, Judah stated that the main mission of the coalition “is to peel away what has turned out to be a campaign of deception and diversion initiated by the sugar industry, Governor (Rick) Scott, and several key legislators. They profess to recognize the importance of better managing Lake Okeechobee and restoring the Everglades, but their position is really one of expediency for the sugar industry, and not one for resolving the harm that has been occurring to the ecosystem of south Florida.”
Some cited examples of what the Coalition has been working on in order to bring clarity to both the public and legislators include a harder look at the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which he says is “predicated on faulty data.”
“The South Florida Water Management District, in creating a water management model, wanted to develop a certain number of projects to restore the Everglades,” Judah said. “However, they relied on a period of record from 1965 to 1995, to determine how much treatment and storage will be necessary to manage Lake Okeechobee. If you look at the Atlantic multi-decadal oscillation model, it’s clear that that period of record was historically the driest years on record in the state of Florida.”
This causes a big problem: lack of storage for water resulting from increasingly wet rainy seasons. This leads to increased water releases into the estuaries as the Army Corps of Engineers have to protect the integrity of the Herbert Hoover dike.
“The Coalition, through commentaries, public speaking engagements, partnerships with other environmental groups like the Audubon of Florida, continually try to educate the elected officials that more needs to be done if we are going to restore the Everglades and address the proper rate, timing, and flow of water from the lake that should nurture our estuaries as opposed to damaging them,” Judah said. “The push to use Amendment One money to purchase land south of the lake was vitally important to provide the necessary storage, treatment, and conveyance of water to the Everglades. The Coalition is positioning ourselves for the next legislative session to again reiterate the importance of using this money to buy this land and restore the flow way.”
“We’ve weighed in on Amendment One, and finding better use for those funds next year to preserve coastal and marine resources,” Hecker said. “This includes advancing water quality initiatives. We directly lobby legislators for the protection of these critical resources. We’re preparing for next session at this point, identifying our priorities and preparing to convey those to lawmakers.”
The Coalition also recognizes the importance of getting the public on board with these issues, and have collaborated with the Lee County League of Women’s Voters and FGCU to host Sea Level Rise Summit this past May, which allowed over 200 visitors to listen to many experts on that issue, which is affecting coastal communities all around southern Florida.
“Here on the west coast, we don’t seem to be as concerned (about sea level rise), but we should be,” Judah said. “It not only effects well fields and infrastructure, but our coastal beaches, and that’s our first line of defense to protect all of the real estate here in South Florida.”
Getting the public up to speed on issues ranging from sea level rise to the water health of the estuaries is of growing importance for the Coalition, as Judah sees politicians increasingly falling under the influence of big donors in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
“The special interests groups that are out there, who are not concerned about our land and water resources, have managed to have a greater impact on statewide and local elections,” Judah said.
Countering this effect will require something in which the Coalition can’t get involved, with people “needing to become more engaged if they’re going to thrive in a democracy. That means not only registering to vote, but getting out there and voting and encouraging friends and neighbors to realize the importance of being informed of who is in office and running for office.”
The Coalition has, however, found their interests aligned with many citizen groups. A recent one was with the Tea Party, who found their goals aligned with the Coalition in the recent push towards getting a Florida constitutional amendment for Solar Choice on the ballot in 2016. The amendment would give people the opportunity to use independent solar providers to sell energy to businesses. As of right now, Florida citizens are prohibited from buying electricity from anyone who isn’t a utility.
“They’re supporting the Solar Choice initiative because they realize the utilities have a monopoly on the sun as an energy source,” Judah said. “They want to open it up to a free market, as does the Coalition.”
“We’ve certainly been a strong presence in Tallahassee, and very effective in advancing the protection of our coastal and ocean resources in South Florida,” Hecker said. “It’s been a wonderful experience for (the Conservancy of Southwest Florida) to participate in the Coalition, and under the leadership of Judah, we’ve really been able to advance the Coalition’s mission.”
by Trent Townsend