"To protect and restore the Florida coastal and Indian River Lagoon ecosystems
through education, research and community stewardship."

McGee’s Experience Lends Guiding Hand To Project H2O

May 25th, 2017 | Category: Central Florida News, MDC News, Project H2O

by Lisa D. Mickey

Kelli McGee

Kelli McGee

Kelli McGee brings an extensive and diverse skill set to her role as the coordinator of Project H2O. The Virginia native manages Project H2O alongside a variety of other nonprofits under the umbrella of her consulting firm, Natua Strategies.

McGee earned a double major in biology and psychology at the University of Virginia, and left home for the Florida Keys to study the cognitive aspect of marine mammal research at the Dolphin Research Center. Her dolphin research partner’s name was Natua, which means “of the sea.”

As a research associate, McGee also served on a marine mammal stranding team and helped perform necropsies on hundreds of species of stranded mammals, including Atlantic bottlenose dolphin and short-finned pilot whales.

“I spent way too much time pulling plastic trash bags out of their intestinal systems,” said McGee. “That when I decided to attend law school and go into ocean advocacy.”

McGee earned a law degree in 1997 from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and worked as a water-quality lobbyist for five years on Capitol Hill. She helped write federal law, penning the Beaches and Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act), signed into law in 2000. The BEACH Act required the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop criteria to test, monitor and inform public users of possible poor water quality in coastal recreation areas.

To get the act signed into law, McGee worked “across the aisle with both Democrats and Republicans” through the National Governors Association, focusing on “the business aspect, as well as the health and human welfare aspect” of water quality throughout the nation.

McGee eventually went to work for actor Ted Danson’s American Oceans Campaign, which later partnered with Oceana, a nonprofit ocean advocacy organization. Danson founded the nonprofit when he took his children to the beach one day in Southern California only to find it closed due to poor water quality. She relocated to Southern California to become director of the nonprofit’s west coast operations.

But McGee was lured back to Volusia County in 2002, where she spent summers as a child with her family. She worked for Volusia County for 14 years with roles as Natural Resources Director, Planning and Development Services Director, and Growth and Resource Management Director, eventually founding her firm, which strategically assists nonprofits and philanthropic organizations. The Marine Discovery Center’s Project H2O became one of her clients this year following the departure of Mallory Brooks, who served as Project H2O’s first coordinator in 2016.

McGee recently sat down with the Marine Discovery Center’s Lisa D. Mickey for this question-and-answer interview. Here’s what she had to say about Project H2O:

Q: Talk about Project H2O in its second year and where it is right now.
McGee: Project H2O is a collaboration of many organizations, institutions and colleges that come together to unify and capitalize on the partnership and strengths of the different organizations to promote healthy habitats through outreach. In our second year, the emphasis has been on integrating technology into the Project H2O program and creating the Protect Our Lagoon Academy. While Project H2O continues to do the things it was founded on — which is promoting clean water and promoting research by our partner universities, such as the University of Central Florida, Stetson University, Bethune-Cookman University and Daytona State College, as well as Volusia County water quality monitoring — it also is continuing the outreach efforts of the Marine Discovery Center, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Save the Manatee Club and all of the partners. The collaboration of all of these organizations puts it together and breathes life into it.

Q: Is the focus largely in Volusia County?
McGee: Yes, it’s largely Volusia County right now. It is funded this year through the Indian River Lagoon Council, which is a part of the National Estuary Program. They fund projects throughout the entire Indian River Lagoon. The Marine Discovery Center is the recipient of a grant through the IRL Council, which is funding the second year of Project H2O. There are similar programs throughout the IRL offering funding at other centers.

Q: Explain the relationship between the Marine Discovery Center and Project H20?
McGee: The Marine Discovery Center is a partner with others in Project H20, but it has taken on the responsibility of housing the program under its umbrella. While there are multiple members on the steering committee from the different agencies and organizations, MDC is in the leadership role of managing and fulfilling the grant requirements of Project H20.

Q: What has Project H2O been able to accomplish so far in our community?
McGee: When you bring together so many diverse organizations, you are able to tap into the strengths of each organization. The resources of all the organizations together can also help with the weaknesses of each organization. It becomes an effective way to promote water quality. We are maintaining the research and outreach that has been happening in Volusia County for many years, but we provide a forum for these agencies to come together, share ideas and share resources.

There has also been the actual outreach and the measurable results of water quality improvements. Through the Protect Our Lagoon Academy, we had 25 students who came to the Marine Discovery Center for six weeks and learned about the water quality of the IRL and the efforts local governments are taking to clean up the water. We looked at the water quality trends and we looked at the ways that we could actually help improve the water quality. Because of that, Project H2O partners were able to come and teach different courses during the academy and share with the students their strengths and their needs. These academy graduates – now called “Lagoon Ambassadors” – have committed to working on improving water quality in the lagoon. Many of them have already spent hundreds of hours working in outreach events and community meetings. Others have spent hundreds of hours organizing restoration projects.

Volusia County has had a robust water-sampling program for 20 years, so they have a huge database. It’s very scientific and follows all of the required protocols and all of their information is uploaded into the state’s water-quality database. Bethune-Cookman University has created G.I.S. layers to identify where water samples are being taken and what’s occurring in different locations. For 2017, how do we take that information and these technology layers and translate them into something that’s usable for the public and the policy makers? That’s the direction we want to go. We want to take our use of technology used in Project H2O beyond a website and Facebook page and take it to the next level.

Q: It seems the Protect the Lagoon objective is moving deeper into actual practice.
McGee: It’s going into practice on many levels. Our Lagoon Ambassadors are now educated. They can speak fluently in a deep and understanding way, not just to the general public, but also to city commissions. They are already attending local city council meetings.

Q: Was the Protect Our Lagoon Academy a part of the grant program for Project H20?
McGee: Yes, it was a deliverable aspect of the grant.

Q: It sounds like the new knowledge these local citizens have attained through the Ambassadors program has helped them speak up on behalf of the community in a way that hasn’t been done before.
McGee: We’re tapping into new voices. These are informed citizens and many of these academy Ambassadors are retired professionals. We have several with doctoral degrees, business people, professional educators and fishermen, but everyone came into the program as a student. They are raising their voices to save the lagoon and it’s really exciting.

Q: What is Project H2O’s next big step?
McGee: We need to continue our outreach efforts and I think there’s a great opportunity this summer to link with other likeminded organizations to help promote water quality. We’re also hoping to hold additional Protect Our Lagoon Academies. Several of the students have even expressed an interest in having a master’s class in the next phase of the academy. They’re inspired now and want to keep going.

As a community, we have to think strategically in terms of water quality and we have to get the local governments to commit to these programs. Volusia County has taken a leadership role and they have a water-quality plan, but it will cost millions of dollars. In many cases, funding is drying up — specifically federal funding — so it’s going to be really important for cities to join the county. Brevard County just passed a county sales tax and all of that money is being dedicated to water quality. Volusia County could do something similar.

Q: Can we do things on a local level without being polarized or political?
McGee: Yes! The only way we’re going to be able to protect the lagoon and improve water quality is by working together in a nonpartisan way at the local level. Regardless of whatever is happening in Washington, D.C., or Tallahassee – the good news is, there is a great opportunity for leadership at the local level. Nobody wants dirty water. It shouldn’t be viewed as business vs. environment, or economic vs. environment.

For sustainability, you have to have a solid economic engine, a healthy environment and a healthy population. It’s very natural to do this in a non-regulatory way. You can get local companies involved, such as Costa and Boston Whaler. Everybody wants clean water. On the local level, there’s not going to be regulations on industries to the extent where they’re not going to be able to thrive in their own business. This community loves local economic development projects and we have a wonderful, solid base of companies and business owners who are truly engaged. They care because they live here and their families live here. People like to fish and be on the water. Whether you’re a scientist or sustenance fisher, there’s a need for clean water and it’s actually something that I think can unify us. The phrase is overused, but we need to “think globally, act locally.”

Q: How can Project H20 still work if federal grant monies are cut or eliminated?
McGee: Each local jurisdiction has allocated funding for water quality. As resources diminish, you don’t want three or four jurisdictions going after the same money. You want to have a strategic plan. For example, this year, Oak Hill is requesting $1.5 million for septic-to-sewer connections. By working together, we discovered that Volusia County actually had a competing bill, so it was withdrawn. We’re already seeing the local jurisdictions coming together in that way, which is important. Federal dollars may go away, but there will still be some state money. Coordinating those efforts is going to be really important.

Q: And if the septic tanks are disconnected, that could also improve water quality in the lagoon, right?
McGee: Yes. There are about 3,000 septic tanks within the watershed of the Mosquito Lagoon. The county is conducting a study to determine pollution sources into the Mosquito Lagoon and the Indian River Lagoon. There are many homes with septic tanks on canals immediately adjacent to the Mosquito Lagoon and Indian River Lagoon. That’s where we’re trying to use the money, to get those septic systems to join mainline sewer. If we can remove septic tanks, the nitrogen and phosphorus – which septic systems don’t filter out – won’t be going into the waterways and creating algal blooms and associated fish kills.

Q: Why did you want to get involved with Project H2O?
McGee: I was working for Volusia County when Project H2O was born. Because the oceans have always held my heart and water quality has always been my interest, I was really excited to hear that MDC, local universities and other organizations were trying to come together. I actually contributed to the first grant request creating Project H2O. The timing was perfect for me to be able to take this on as a project.

Q: What do you think you bring to Project H20 to make it more effective?
McGee: It’s about knowing the players, the partners, and knowing the resources they have, and knowing their strengths and weaknesses. I’m able to help them identify the critical needs and to make sure the foundation is strong so we can grow this sustainably and thoughtfully. A big part of my job is creating an adapted management plan with Project H20. I bring those skills to the table here to try to help Project H20 get on a path of sustainability so we’re not always chasing that next grant.

Q: What have you learned about this community through Project H20?
McGee: I’ve been a part of this community for quite a while, but what I have found specifically as part of Project H20, is the commitment the community has toward its resources. There’s a real tie the people have to the waterways and to the economy of the area. It’s been really great to see how people work together.