NAPLES — Mike Bauer knew he had made a mark the minute he stepped from the podium.
Speaking to about 250 people at the Gulf of Mexico Alliance meeting in Mobile, Ala., this month, the city of Naples’ natural resources manager proposed that the Alliance create a program to recognize model communities around the Gulf — and name Naples the first one.
Bauer cited the city’s efforts to restore oyster reefs and mangroves on Naples Bay, clean up stormwater lakes and educate residents about water conservation and Florida-friendly landscaping.
“At the break, I couldn’t even get to the bathroom, there were so many people coming up to me,” Bauer reported in an e-mail.
Bauer’s appearance as the kick-off speaker at the Alliance meeting has put Naples in the spotlight of Gulf restoration efforts — again.
The Alliance, a partnership of the five Gulf states and federal agencies to promote regional cooperation to improve the ecological and economic health of the Gulf, grew out of meetings at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve between Naples and Marco Island in 2004.
Since then, Rookery Bay has hosted several follow-up meetings.
At one session, an audience member proposed the Model Community idea as a way to spread the word about Gulf restoration successes, Bauer said.
Local communities have a prominent role to play as a kind of field laboratory where ideas for improving the health of the Gulf can be put into action, said Bryon Griffith, director of the Gulf of Mexico program for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a federal co-leader of the Alliance.
The Model Community concept is under consideration as a way to encourage coastal communities to step up to the front lines, he said.
“When you have leadership like that emerge, you want to do everything you can to get behind it,” Griffith said.
He said Naples stands out as a “leader community” when it comes to fixing its corner of the Gulf.
In the coming fiscal year, Bauer will have less money to keep up the city’s model reputation, according to preliminary budget figures.
The budget presented to the Naples City Council this summer cuts the city’s natural resources budget by $34,000 to about $408,000.
The city’s water quality sampling program and energy savings plan to cut the city’s carbon footprint would get a $13,000 boost to $50,000; operating expenses for projects like lake maintenance and oyster restoration would drop by $14,300.
The water sampling program found hot spots in Naples Bay for copper contamination that prompted the city to ban the use of copper algaecides in the city’s stormwater retention lakes.
Complying with the ban is voluntary for now; the city’s attorneys have recommended not enforcing the ban until the city works out a dispute with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services over the city’s authority to impose the ban.
The city also embarked on a program to build floating vegetation islands in city lakes and plant lake shores with native plants to soak up nutrient pollution that can cause algae blooms and low oxygen levels in Naples Bay.
The floating islands have taken off so well, crews have had to prune them back, and he’s ordering three more, Bauer said.
“They’re working fantastic; they’re unbelievable,” he said.
Further downstream, the city is focusing on bringing mangroves back to the fringes of Naples Bay.
The city has roped off an area along Bayview Park in East Naples for mangroves to grow as part of a project to restore fisheries habitat, Bauer said.
A bigger challenge remains to convince private property owners to replace their seawalls with riprap (large rock) that is more hospitable to mangroves, Bauer said.
“I think it’s a lack of education thing more than anything else,” he said.
Overall, though, Naples citizens already are schooled in environmental awareness, Bauer said.
“I think there’s a lot of interest in the environment by the people in Naples,” he said.