In this episode, Brett sits down with the Northwest Florida Water Management District’s executive director – Lyle Seigler. They discuss Hurricane Michael recovery; springs restoration and protection efforts; the district’s relationship to the regulated community; and what happened to change a town in Walton County from the county seat to a trivia question.
To see tools used by the Northwest Florida Water Management District to track Hurricane Michael damage and recovery go here. https://nwfwater.com/water-resources/hurricane-michael/
To learn more about the district’s spring restoration and preservation efforts, head here. https://nwfwater.com/water-resources/springs/
To reach out to Lyle directly, email him at: Lyle.Seigler@nwfwater.com
Welcome to Water For Fighting, where we discuss the past, present, and future of Water and Florida with the people who make it happen. I’m your host, Brett Cypher. I spent over 20 years working with and getting to know the people who made Water Their Life’s Work. And I created this podcast to allow you, the listener to get to know them as well. Before we get to today’s special guest, I want to give a shout out to podcast reviewers Erigon349 and Elizabeth Alia. Erigon, thanks for listening. I’ll keep working hard to bring good people and their wealth of experience to you. So stay tuned. And to Elizabeth, those folks out west are lucky to have such a brilliant attorney and professor and a learned from, but we miss you back so come see us soon. Now I wonder the conversation. I think you’re going to like today’s guest, Laugh Seaguller. Laugh is currently the executive director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District, but he also happens to be my dear friend. He’s a native of Walt County in the Panhandle, with his family being from the county’s original county seat, a place called Uchiana. He’s the son of a lifelong fishing game warden, and he’s dedicated his life to the entire career to public service and roles such as County Administrator for Walton County. However, he spent most of his career with the Florida Department of Transportation. Laal, what a unique pleasure it is to have a conversation with you today. Welcome my brother. It’s a pleasure to be with you, Brett. Thank you for the opportunity. Laal, do you say that you grew up in Uchiana or Diffuniax Pranks? Uchiana. Uchiana it is. We’ll hold true to the original settlement and the county seat. British Presbyterians and they settled there. Uchianna was the county seat beginning in 1845 and that was the year that Florida received at Statehood. Up until 1885 when the courthouse burned and it probably comes as no surprise to you being in Walden County, it was an act of arson. The county seat then moved to the Funiac Springs. My grandmother’s maiden name was McClean. And in 1847 he served as president of the Florida Senate. I love people hearing stories about these places in Florida. They probably don’t know much about everyone. I think that at least that lives in North Florida knows Diffini X Springs, but I bet they don’t. But you and Brad Drake are the only folks that I know of that talk about Uchiana and it being the original county seat outside of here. Brad Drake and now representative Shane Abbotna, That’s right. Well I mentioned in the introduction you’re the son of a fishing game officer right? Absolutely dad served 32 years with what was then the Florida Game and Fish Commission. He was also a Colonel in the Army National Guard right? Very much so he was very much the Colonel, love and discipline came hand in hand with dad. That’s what I was going to ask you. Tell me a little bit about your dad and growing up with officer, an army officer, and what that led to you in terms of your connection to the natural world around you as well. Well, what that looked like day to day there at home, he was very much accustomed to being in charge. So when he came through the door, Mother would always remind him that the orders stop here. And so he coined Mother as the Pentagon, and obviously I agreed. So whether we were working around homebreath in the field, hunting, or the way we were or occasionally on the water, that is still not only a passion for the natural world, but also a deep-seated commitment. And I’ll say an obligation to be a good steward of what God has entrusted us with. So out in public, I finally recall instances where someone would ask Dad about pond management or ask him about the river condition. And I would give close attention to every detail because I could envision myself being just like daddy. Back in that day with the Game and Fish Commission, when Dad started in 1967, you actually worked both sides of the agency, a law enforcement and fisheries management. So, with that being said, Dad was truly my hero and I’ll never be the godly example that he demonstrated in each step of my parents smile in the way I conduct myself both partially and professionally. Was part of that growing up with him and seeing him as that example. Was that did he instill that interest in water in the environment as well? Or was it more of a I want to be like the kernel? And so I better pay close attention. You said you were paying close attention. Was that the reason why or independently I mean, you had no choice, but you live outside here. Yes, to both, Brett. We’re so blessed with the resources that we have here in the Panhandle. And so I had a passion for everything outdoors from an early age, but also as you stated, I saw the success of the kernel of Dad. And obviously I wanted to be just like Dad. And so because of that, because of that example, service has really been an integral part of your life. Was that something that your parents encouraged in you or did that sink in? And I know I’m asking to similar questions, but they’re distinct in the way of you’re interested in the natural world and the other part is you’re interested in public service because you’ve been in public service for 30 years now, right? Absolutely. The Christian service values and foundation that both mom and dad Demonstrated they were very much godly parents and so that that level of service that expectation that was that was where that stemmed Often described the job of county administrator city manager as the worst jobs in government Sometimes I get a quiet nod and sometimes I just get a laugh from some you spent as the Walton County Administrator. I assume that you can attest to the fact that it is not the best job in government. Yes, Brett, you’ll probably get both a laugh and a nod from it when we talk about the County Administrator role. So I will substitute worst job with most challenging because politics and personalities and preferences and at times overwhelming. However, that role was a very fulfilling job as well. We were able to see immediate positive impacts in the lives of those that we served and loved. And so would that be and said whether it was health, welfare or safety, it was fulfilling to see those projects come to fruition. out your public service career. A lot of times it seems that folks get into public service and often you don’t get to see the end product. You’re governing but it doesn’t feel like you’re doing something tangible. So that must be a good feeling. I know it has been for me and the times when I got to enjoy roles that actually produce something tangible. County Administration to DOT to DEP to the water management district is it seems like all of those lend themselves to that that kind of tangible end product. Each of those positions of service lend to that and when we see the lives of those once again that we live around that we are related to and the folks that we love. When we see those lives impacted in a positive way and we can see those projects in place. That is a blessing. I want to get to the ones because you and I, obviously you and I have shared history at the Water Management District and quite a bit of it. I’ll get to that in a little bit, but I want to pause because I don’t know the one place where I don’t know much about what you did was when you went to DEP and that was in the Panama City office. West Florida office for DEP during that exact same time. What did your role entail out of the Panama City office there? When you and I met around Christmas of 2016 my current role was administrator for both Panama City and Tallahassee for DEP Northwest District. Sean Hamilton served as the Northwest Secretary Hamilton and so my focus was the regulated community and compliance but also heavy on the outreach side. I remember a specific conversation that Sean and I had and he requested that I look at strengthening existing relationships repairing broken relationships and creating new relationships within the Panhandle. When I met you and it was first we had a conversation on the phone that I recall. And then you came in and I think I knew within, you were having lunch, you were having Christmas lunch that day. And I came in and you and I sit there in the office and had a brief conversation. Yeah. And you said, hey, let’s move on. I think I knew within 45 seconds of talking to you that we needed to work together So that was probably one of the easiest decisions that are made. You’ve been a blessing to me, Brent. Let’s move from DEP. And now you’ve agreed to come to work at the district. You’re hired as the director of the Division of Regulatory Services. Quickly move you to Chief of Staff, because I can’t live without you. And now, the executive director. I don’t know the answer to this question. But share with our listeners what your general management philosophy has been because that’s why I like to begin with. Brett, you and I have worked together and we agree upon that leadership style and that is that of a servant leader. And when I say that, what comes to mind is active listening and awareness and commitment to growth and community building, all on a solid foundation of integrity and respect I am committed to demonstrating genuine love, care and concern to one of the most appreciable assets we have and that’s our team members. That’s the men and women out there each day doing the job. And you have what about 110, right? Are we still a little right around there? Yes, we have around 110 folks to manage the 16 counties. And I’m committed to them. I’m committed to the resource. They are by far the brightest and the best. I’ve said that many times. myself with the best of the best. And courage and faith are my core values, as you well know. Being clear is kind. I subscribe to addressing whatever the issue is directly. However doing so in a courteous and respectful and professional way. I’ve said before, I saw front in a strong back and that helps you to deal with the difficult issues, whatever in uncomfortable situations and conversations with focus. Let’s talk about that a bit. It’s one of the reasons why I think that folks in Northwest for are lucky to have you and that you’re lucky to have those 110 folks because you have a place that’s unique that you have 110 folks pulling in the same direction that care about the same thing. You have a phenomenal board but some people believe that government’s relationship to the regulated community part of what you have to do is still has a pretty significant regulatory function. But a lot of people believe that that relationship should be by its very nature adversarial. Why do you disagree with that? You explain who you are and I think that’s pretty clear. But how do you see your relationship with your responsibility to the law but also to service? and solutions stem from positive relationships. And yes, we’re going to hold true to the integrity, to the intent of the rule, but we’re also going to invest in the lives of those that we serve, and we’re going to be solution oriented. Let’s move forward to a bit to some of the most difficult moments that we had together at the Water Management District, and that you are still dealing with, in the moment. Let’s go back in time October 10th, 2018 Hurricane Michael comes and slams dead smack into the panhandle. It leveled everything in its path, tens of thousands of acres of district-owned and district managed property. I was driving through there, you and I were just talking before, we started recording about Camping last weekend. Pointing out to my daughter at still the the broken matchsticks of of trees strewn throughout this area. That’s always going to be with us, it seems. But tell me about some of the progress you’ve made and recovered the district’s part of these lands in this region. You did it so well in front of few weeks, tell us a little bit about that progress. Brett on October the 10th of 2018, Hurricane Michael impacted 87,130 acres of district land. That’s 41% of our holdings here in the Panhandle. As you stated, the overstory was decimated. The district worked closely with DEP and DEM to analyze the effects on floodplain changes and to identify debris removal for the waterways of the panhandle. During the past fiscal year, the district conducted Hurricane debris cleanup on 1800 acres and I’m talking about an Econphina Creek, Shippoala River, Appalachia-Cola River and we’ve repaired 12 miles of management roads. We’ve conducted just over 12,000 acres of prescribed burning. The district continues to remove hurricane debris from our impacted areas in this current physical year. We’ve cleaned up 1500 acres. The district also plans to, the district also plans to plant at least 550,000 long leaf pine trees on 750 acres during this physical year. prescribed fire to restore habitats to pre-Hurricane conditions. I am thankful to an amazing governor that is committed to and demonstrated what response and recovery looks like. As you and I have agreed upon and discussed many times, we have a passionate group of men and women that are committed to these efforts. Let me sidetrack you a bit from the hurricane itself. It’s a subset that I think a lot of people don’t realize how many trees, whether it’s from Hurricane Michael, but even in general, as part of your restoration strategy at the district, that includes a lot of lay management activities. One of those things includes planning of trees and the district plants about, I think on average, about a million pine trees a year. Is that still correct? That is correct. stone of our 20th million long leaf. Wow. It’s incredible. The things that that’s the small dedicated group can accomplish under these circumstances. But it also speaks to the support that you’ve gotten. You mentioned that from the governor to the secretary to the legislature, someone ever saying no when the district asked for help. And so that’s been huge. Absolutely. Everyone has been very cooperative and moving forward. We plan to finish these recovery efforts a year early. While we’re sitting, it didn’t unplanned, but you and I met in Jackson County administration office and the conference room I’ve sat in many times that you’ve sat in many times meeting with members of the Jackson County Commission, meeting with their extremely talented County Administrator, Willand Daniels. And it’s fitting because I wanted to talk a little bit about Springs Restoration, Springs Protection. It’s been a priority of the district. It’s been a significant priority of the district and it’s boarded for many years going back well over, well over a decade. and those landmark resources like we’ll call it spring, like Jackson Blue here. Here in Jackson County with Jackson Blue, to begin with, we’ve implemented 33 agriculture, BMP projects on over 7,500 irrigated acres. And since 2013, we’ve had 144 projects that’s been implemented with 83 unique producers and of the 144 projects, 138 of them have been completed on 70,000 acres. And that nitrate reduction is estimated to be over 225,000 pounds of total nitrogen. And so that is a success story by far. And that’s a year, right? We’re talking about that. That is annual. That’s right. Serious numbers. Serious numbers. You mentioned color springs, awesome resource. Those nitrate levels and what color springs continue to be near the TMDL of.35 milligrams per liter. 791 home connections to Central sewer have been completed to date and another 1200 home connections to Central sewer is planned We’ve connected 13 homes to advanced septic systems in those low density areas. It’s not serviced by Central sewer and another 107 are planned. We’ve completed 43 home connections to advanced septic systems to date. We’ve got a great partnership with Wacala County you say the word partnership. That was one of the things that I want to ask you. It’s something that I’ve that I’ve relied on in years past, but it seems like the ability to develop genuine partnerships has been one of the keys to real progress that that we’ve had over the years. I believe that’s still the case. You mentioned David Edwards of a color county. There are phenomenal County Administrator that are real partners. Will Andean was the Jackson County Commission working on these projects, the local farmers. Incredible, incredible partners. You have, I think is it, it’s, imagine it’s probably maybe close to, maybe even be more than 90% of every irrigated acre, those kinds of partnerships, these real partnerships with the folks that you’re working with is the key to the actual progress you’re saying in these two significant natural resources, right? I mean, do you agree? With spring’s protection, we see the statistics that we’ve spoken about, all our success stories, absolutely. I want to change our focus for a moment and look at the regulated community. Let’s look at permitting. For over 10 years, our permitting staff, and this is a result, all of what as a result of these partnerships, Brett, has been focused on improving efficiency and customer service. And when I say customer service, talking about pre-application meetings and outreach, and as a result, the permit processing times have been reduced up to 93%. And when I say that, this limits the funds that spent on the agency and increases funds communities for economic development. And to give an example, Brett with our consumptive use permitting the active processing time, the goal is fewer than 27 days, and our team here at the district has an annualized median of three days. And some people think that because of those numbers, the numbers are incredible and they’ve moved in that direction for years, Some people might look at that and assume that that means that you’re cut in corners. That’s not the case, is it? We are by no means cutting corners. We’re keeping with the intent and the integrity of the rule while clearly understanding who we serve. And that’s the taxpayers. That’s the constituents. We’re looking for a solution. Oh, absolutely. I think I used to describe it as you can’t. do this. Those dedicated engineers, environmental scientists, support staff, it’s impossible to do that in those time metrics if they don’t want to. You have to want to and they do. They’re real public servants. As you said, they get up in the morning thinking about serving What do they do that? It’s something else. You’re lucky man. It’s a way that you and I have worded it from the beginning, Brett, but it’s the way they’re hardwired and they are passionate about what they do. Wow. What professional accomplishment are you most proud of at this point? Is there an accomplishment there that you’re most proud of? Is it the service end in terms of regulatory services? elementary or just sound like I’m brushing the question off but it’s the impact that I’ve made in the lives of our Northwest district team and also holding true to the resource that we protect and preserve but it’s not a single event or a title. When I think back on that it’s more of a aha moment and that actually came when I was County Administrator. One evening we were having a public meeting down at Chalktah Beach, west of free port on State Road 20. The girls decided to make their way down with me. When I say girls I’m talking about my wife and and daughters and what was in it for them was probably a meal and for and for Taylor the youngest another trip to build a bear. And so as we as I fielded the questions that that evening and the meeting was loud and long we that we passed out to the public at most of our meetings and the question started with what do you like most about the county? Taylor, then in elementary school, picked up the questionnaire and wrote, only filled in the first two blanks. What do you like most about the county? And she said the administrator, Lyle Seagler, why do you value that about the county? are in this case person and she said because he listens and cares and Brett that was a aha moment so that was that was me stopping and realizing that hey it’s about investing in caring about loving supporting our team well if I’m being honest you’re my favorite part of Walton County as well so are you optimistic about the future of the environment in Florida you know optimistic about the future of the Florida environment. I’m optimistic, Brett, because I know the talent, the heart and the resilience of our people, and I see the commitment to be great stewards. I wholeheartedly believe and support our governor, his policy and his leadership for the environment. So that’s the core of my optimism. What if anything keeps you up at night regarding water and natural systems in Northwest Florida? I give each day my all. So nothing keeps up thanks to chewable melatonin. With that being said, I want to continue to work hard on these partnerships because being relational and being committed is what sets us apart. What advice would you give to young people who are just entering or have interest in entering public service? Was it that? Was it the service? I mean, it’s got to be about that. Well, when it comes to public service, you need to have a clear understanding and awareness of who serve the constituents, the taxpayers first and foremost. And yes, you need to be courteous and respectful and professional like I said before, but you also need to be consistent. You need to be predictable. You need to be reliable and give it your whole heart. Commit without question. Lyle, how can folks reach you if they want to learn more about what you’re up to and how you can help them? Brett, I’m a low tech guy, so my preference would be, you reach me by phone at 850-333. 3, 3, 2, 1, 1, 7. The email is lyall.sigler. SEIGLAR at nwfwater.com. And I’ll put all of those with the exception of your phone number on the episode note, so people can check it out there. There’s also a lot of great interactive things on the website. Thanks to you and your folks over there. at the district to see about Hurricane Recovery, Spring Restoration, all those things. Laugh Seaguller, thanks so much for coming on the show, brother. Thank you, brother, for having me. A huge thank you once again to Laugh Seaguller for being here. You’ve been listening to the Water for Fighting podcast. You can reach me at FLWaterPod at Gmail.com or on Twitter and Instagram at FLWaterPod with your comments and suggestions for who and or what you’d like to know more about. So please be sure to subscribe and leave a 5 star rating and review. Production in this podcast is by Lonely Fox Studios. Thanks to Carl Sorn for making the best of what he had to work with and a David Barfield for the amazing graphics and technical assistance. A very special thank you goes out to Bo’s Spring for the Bo’s Spring Band for giving permission to use his music for the podcast. The song is called Doin Work for Free and you should check out the band live or wherever great music is sold. I’m your host, Brett Siphers. Join me next time for another conversation with someone who has helped shape water policy in the Sunshine State. that, keep your whiskey close and your water closer.