In region of natural beauty and harmful algae blooms, FGCU celebrates new water school

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

It was three years in the making, but FGCU's dream of a top-notch water school has come true.

And there's plenty of room to grow. 

A couple hundred of Southwest Florida's most dedicated water ambassadors met last Friday at Florida Gulf Coast University to celebrate the ribbon cutting for the university's much-anticipated Water School. 

"We wanted to create a program on campus that took advantage of as broad a base of expertise as we possibly could," FGCU President Mike Martin said. "We wanted a multi-disciplinary exercise because we knew as a regional comprehensive (effort) it would be very difficult to have a single discipline ever distinguish us.

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Florida Gulf Coast University president Mike Martin speaks to about 200 people gathered at the Water School for a ribbon cutting ceremony.

"But we believe by assembling disciplines and faculty from those disciplines we could move the needle," he continued. 

The 114,000-square-foot, four-story structure is the largest building on campus, coming in at a price tag of $58 million. 

Eventually, there will be about 1,250 students in total, working in 50 laboratories. Although there are different disciplines within the program, the entire Water School just recently reached 600 students.

Chauncey Goss, chair of the South Florida Water Management District, said Friday was a great day for the entire Sunshine State.

"FGCU's commitment to the Water School is exactly what we need to help inform and improve what I would call the sometimes rocky marriage of policy and science," Goss said. "Policymakers need actionable science and scientists need an understanding of what is useful for policymakers, and frankly to be aware of the political shackles that often bound policymakers." 

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Southwest Florida is full of beautiful beaches and water bodies, but it also is frequently hit with red tide and blue-green algae blooms.

Water School executive director Greg Tolley said: "Water defines Southwest Florida, from our beaches and barrier islands to our rivers and wetlands, our community is centered around the bountiful natural spaces and economies that depend on clean water." 

Tolley said the morning celebration was a milestone for the university. 

"Today's a big day for FGCU, for our students and this community as well," Tolley said. "This day also represents a tremendous outpouring of support from our community." 

The Water School itself was launched three years ago, Tolley said. 

"We want to take advantage of the unique laboratory in which we live and we want to continue to educate the next generations of those who will continue to solve the problems and we wanted to do it in a way that we (would gain) national and internationally recognition, and that gave rise to this program," Martin said. 

Classrooms will seat around 72 students, and then there are laboratories, computer rooms, faculty offices and space for public meetings. 

Each story has a different ecological atmosphere, from the sandy-colored walls of the first floor to the open-ocean blues of the top floor. 

Tolley has said the that next steps will be to develop a doctorate program in coastal watershed science and policy, which he said will be ready for applicants in 2024 or 2025. 

Martin, who will soon step down as university president, said this is just one of many reasons to celebrate the water quality work that is ongoing at FGCU. 

"This is just one of those milestones along the way that we get to celebrate but we also want to celebrate regularly the good things that are happening," Martin said. 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.