Revisiting the Loxahatchee River Restoration Project


During a discussion about the Loxahatchee River Restoration Project at their April 30 workshop, the Board of Commissioners for Palm Beach County, Florida, referenced a report prepared by Gettysburg College students in the Eisenhower Institute’s Environmental Leadership program.

Over the course of the year, these ten students have worked closely with Dr. Howard Ernst, Seiden-Levi Fellow at the Eisenhower Institute, to explore water policy in the United States. After spending the fall semester learning about the policy process and relevant environmental concerns, they traveled to South Florida over spring break to conduct field research on restoration plans for the Loxahatchee River.

EL Trip 2019c

“The Loxahatchee River was an excellent focus area for the team as we were able to gain a comprehensive understanding of the ecological and political challenges pertaining to the river,” said Jenna Thoretz ’21, who is pursuing a dual major in Political Science and Public Policy. “While we began our trip with a good overview of the river and its history, we really looked to our interviews with key stakeholders and practitioners to form our ultimate conclusions regarding the river restoration plan.”

After returning to campus, the cohort drafted a report discussing their insights into the political and ecological context of the project. The current restoration plan, which seeks to ensure sufficient water supply during the dry season and protect the river from runoff during the wet season, has been complicated in recent years by commercial development that has increased demand on the river’s water supply. In their report, the students addressed two primary challenges facing the project: the tension between development and ecological priorities, and the difficulty of competing with similar restoration projects for federal funding.  

“By focusing on such a small geographic region, we were able to dive deep into the political struggles in the region and form meaningful conclusions and policy recommendations for the water management and environmental community in Florida,” Thoretz explained.

EL Symposium 2019b

In place of an engineering-based solution that is dependent on federal funding, the students proposed a solution that emphasized behavior change and local funding. In their conclusion, they acknowledge that “while changing people’s behavior though environmental policies is often more politically difficult than seeking engineering solutions, especially engineering solutions that are paid for with the promise of federal funds, it is our ultimate conclusion that the fate of the river lays in the hands of local policy makers, not engineers and their federal sponsors.”

After presenting their findings to other students, faculty, and staff at the annual Environmental Leadership Symposium, they decided to share their findings with policymakers and stakeholders involved in the restoration project.

“With regard to the specific issue of the Loxahatchee Restoration Plan, I found the Gettysburg Whitepaper one of the best resources I have uncovered throughout my several years in policymaking," wrote Dave Kerner, Vice Mayor of Palm Beach County, in a letter thanking them for their work. "It has help shaped my understanding and view of this important issue in a way that other resources have failed to do.”

You can watch the County Commissioners discuss the Loxahatchee River Restoration Plan on the Palm Beach County website. They discuss the students’ report, the Gettysburg Whitepaper, around 00:31-00:59, and 01:32-1:50.

The opinions expressed in the report represent the consensus of the contributors and do not reflect the views of the stakeholders interviewed, the Eisenhower Institute, or Gettysburg College.