A ‘Game-Changer’

Clay Henderson stands in a meeting, listening

The Stetson Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience has received seed money to help with its next stage of growth, almost literally.

On Feb. 14, Clay Henderson, executive director of the water institute, was handed a $1.3 million check – the result of a lawsuit between two environmental groups, Environment Florida and the Sierra Club, and Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., the second-largest chicken producer in the world. The lawsuit stemmed from the discharge of pollutants into the Suwannee River from a poultry processing plant in Live Oak, Florida.

Clay Henderson stands in a meeting, listening
Clay Henderson is executive director of the Stetson Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience.

As an independent third party, Stetson was selected to create a Sustainable Farming Fund and help farmers reduce the pollution draining into area rivers and springs. The fund, to be administered by the water institute, will provide grants to farmers based on proposals.

The environmental groups were looking for “a credible, reputable, expert entity” that could lead such an effort, according to John Rumpler, director of Environment America’s Clean Water Program.

“All too often, agriculture is a major source of water pollution. That’s why we are so excited that Stetson’s Sustainable Farming Fund will help Florida farmers reduce pollution draining into our rivers and even groundwater,” Rumpler said.

The two environmental groups hope Stetson’s program will serve as a model for agribusiness to reduce its pollution in other areas of Florida, as well.

“This was an innovative step to establish a sustainable farming fund, the purpose of which is to incentivize farmers to do water-quality improvements for the Suwannee River,” said Henderson, who emphasized Stetson’s neutral position on the lawsuit by adding “we don’t have opinions on who is right and who is wrong.”

“Our role, and the strength of the institute as we’ve always thought, is that we’re conveners, that we can bring together different parties to get to a better result.”

The first tangible effect from the institute’s new dollars is the arrival in February of Shelley Gentile as the full-time program manager. Actually, it’s a “welcome back.” From 2005 to 2008, Gentile worked on the DeLand campus in a variety of roles, including head of the Cross Cultural Center.

At present, with the help of Gentile, Henderson is busy meeting with officials from the Florida Department of Agriculture, Suwannee River Water Management District and federal agencies, among others.

pretty scenic shot of river and riverbank
About 246 miles long, the Suwannee River is the second largest river in Florida, after the 310-mile St. Johns River. Photo: Suwannee River Water Management District

“I’m interested in trying to fund novel approaches that will provide good results for improving water quality,” Henderson said.

In addition, Henderson is “listening to farmers who are trying to do the right thing.”

“We have a new generation of farmers who are very interested in sustainable practices. These are young people who went to college, majored in environmental science and now they’re running a farm in north Florida or south Georgia. And they’ve got ideas. We are going to try to learn what some of those are,” Henderson explained.

New technologies, for example, could include the use of lasers in sprinkler systems to more effectively spread water, as well as the innovative use of buffers that provide natural filtering between a farming operation and the Suwannee River, which measures approximately 246 miles long.

Henderson’s fact-finding will continue for the next three months. He expects to receive the initial request for proposals from farmers by mid-June.

Eventually, he adds, students and faculty at Stetson will be part of the efforts. “What I’m hoping is that this will provide an opportunity for our students and other faculty to be able to measure the actual water-quality improvements,” Henderson said.

Henderson calls Stetson’s involvement in the creation of the Sustainable Farming Fund a “game-changer.”

“This is an incredible opportunity for the institute to move the needle, to work with farmers, to work with policy makers to actually do things to improve water quality,” he said.

“This could very well be a model for doing these kinds of projects across the country. We’re a neutral third party; we are using dollars that are the result of an enforcement action to do on-the-ground restoration and conservation. And that makes a huge difference. This isn’t just policy; it isn’t rules and regulations. It is innovative on-the-ground work. And if we learn really good things from this, it’s the kind of knowledge that you can transfer across the country.”

-Michael Candelaria