Originally published by Bob Moro in the Nautical Mile  Beach Talk Radio on June 1, 2024

There’s no doubt all of Nautical Mile’s readership are concerned about the quality of our waterways here in southwest Florida.

The problems are complex: Unprecedented development to accommodate the more than 1200 people a day who move to Florida. The well-intentioned but flawed creation of Lake Okeechobee, stopping nature’s plan to clean the waters by filtering it through the great “River of Grass” through the Everglades and into Biscayne Bay. Toxic water flowing in from the Kissimmee River basin adding to the inevitable pollution of the trapped Lake O water. Agriculture, Big Sugar, livestock farms, aging septic systems, and nutrient pollution further compromising Lake O. And Florida is flat, with thousands of waterways, most of which find their way to the sea. There’s no place for pollution to hide.

When I started writing about this issue, it was Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani more than anyone else who helped educate me on the many factors contributing to our water quality problems. In 2018, John told me there had been a half dozen major cyanobacteria blooms in our area in the past 15 years. He said it was an increasing trend; and boy was he right about that. So when I heard they brought in Connie Ramos-Williams as their new Executive Director, it caught my attention. My friend Craig Handel, a freelance writer and former News-Press reporter, suggested an interview with his friend Connie “I knew Connie was a go-getter when I worked with her at The News-Press. She took her public relations agency to great heights, and will do the same thing with Calusa Waterkeeper. She’s a wonderful connector and collaborator,” Craig advised.

Connie Ramos-Williams had built an impressive resume before choosing to “retire” and figure out her next challenge. More than two decades of leadership in marketing, media, and non-profits; collecting regional, state and national recognition and awards along the way. Founder, President, and CEO of a leading and highly profitable regional and then national marketing agency, founder and publisher of Parent and Child Magazine, with 50,000 monthly loyal readers, Niche Advertising Director at the News-Press, part of the USA TODAY network, Advisory Board Chair for Blessings in a Backpack of Southwest Florida, scoring a 550% increase in the organization’s reach and community impact. There’s more, much more, but you get the idea. So what brought her to CWK?

“I’m a Florida native, and I always loved crossing the causeway to the Sanibel beaches. It was so calming! But one day in 2017, all I could feel was anguish. The water had turned the color of dark tea. It brought tears. I put my heart and soul into everything I do, and I wanted to help fix the problem, but I couldn’t because of all my businesses at the time. Last August I was retired; taking a break from my career, when I had a telephone conversation with Jim Watkins.” (Jim was an early CWK leader and past president. He had previously hired Connie’s marketing company, so he knew first hand her business and leadership skills.) “He asked me if I’d serve as Executive Director of CWK. I was busy helping with my daughter’s upcoming wedding at the time, but I knew the only thing that could bring me back to work was to help clean up the waters that broke my heart that day. I said ‘Jim, give me a little time,’ and in February, I was ready,” Connie explained.

I asked Jim about that call. “I knew all along that if we could get Connie to agree to become our Executive Director it would be a game changer for CWK. I believe she will have a huge positive impact on CWK’s growth; and in her first couple of years she will oversee a dramatic increase in CWK’s capacity, community outreach and organizational health.”

“Having served on numerous nonprofit boards over the last 40 years, when my wife Ruth and I joined CWK’s board we focused on changing the “social club” atmosphere stemming from the Caloosahatchee River Citizens Association days to a more businesslike approach befitting a modern, functional, professional nonprofit. At the same time we also emphasized improving the organization’s revenue streams to be greater, more diverse and consistent in order to expand the organization’s capacity. Today CWK’s budget is nearly 10 times what it was when we joined,” Jim explained.

Armed with a Science degree, a passion for water conservation and a commitment to community engagement, she will work alongside Waterkeeper Codty Pierce to spearhead the organization’s efforts to safeguard the region’s water resources, promote environmental awareness, and advocate for policies that protect and enhance water quality.

Calusa Waterkeeper Codty Pierce could not be happier with the decision to hire Connie. “Having the privilege of working with Connie, even for such a short time, has already yielded great results for Calusa Waterkeeper. She is a woman of great talent and experience, helping to bridge the knowledge and outreach that is vital to our growth and mission to serve our community. Our home. Connie’s passion for clean water, her family ties to Florida and her passionate belief in the value of our coastal paradise truly fuels her desire for change and increased awareness through hard work. It’s comforting to have this MVP batting on our side; and I sincerely look forward to the wonderful things we can accomplish for our community and CWK,” Codty explained.

I asked Connie to describe some of the services and initiatives CWK provides. “We have a vigorous Ranger Training program, educating volunteers to collect water samples, testing and reporting air and water conditions, and assisting Waterkeeper Codty Pierce. We host Vertical Oyster Garden workshops, teaching waterfront owners how to build water-cleansing juvenile oyster habitats at their docks and seawalls. We host community workshops, and provide advocacy and legal action where necessary. We want our government leaders to keep water quality top of mind when writing new policy, regulations and bills, and planning for new development and conservation land. We are working with the 15 statewide Waterkeepers and other environmental organizations in this effort, to create more sustainable outcomes. We will continue communicating with the media and the public on critical environmental issues, examining the potential health risks of aerosolized cyanobacteria exposure, and with our monthly Fecal Indicator (FIB) testing and reporting.” Connie explained.

And there’s this new initiative: “Codty’s working with Florida Sea Grant on a new pilot program to study sea grass loss. They’re documenting base line data that will help restore this critical ecological asset. Calusa Waterkeeper is poised for significant growth this year and beyond. We are fundraising to expand our laboratory and provide new equipment, We are looking to add to our Ranger system to assist with broader lab research. We just graduated 20 new Rangers, and we’re planning a Fall promotion to increase them further. A lot of people are interested and getting involved. This growth is not optional; it’s intentional and strategic in order to respond to the severity of our water crisis.”

Connie impressed me as a brilliant, passionate, bundle of energy and ideas, with the skills and experience to put them in place. Here’s one of her comments from my notes: “I’ve got a lot of ideas brewing, and it’s going to be a hell of a year.” Who doesn’t love that passion? CWK has found a new leader, and it was a great choice.

There are many ways you can help support Calusa Waterkeeper fight for water quality, public health, and quality of life in Florida. Go to calusawaterkeeper.org to learn more.