Sponsored By:

Mary Szafraniec

Water For Fighting
Water For Fighting
Mary Szafraniec

In this episode, Brett gets to talk with Mary Szafraniec, a Florida scientist with a remarkable personal story.  They talk about her grandparents’ survival in Nazi work camps during World War II and her parents’ eventual escape from communism in Europe to arrive in the United States, ready to start a new life; how a chance meeting at a music festival changed her career path toward environmental issues and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection; how she moved into the Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) program at the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the importance of mentorship there; how her time in government created value in the private sector; and of course, her new role at Resource Environmental Solutions (RES) and how she strives to do good by creating accountability in her work and measuring long-term outcomes for Florida’s natural systems.

To check out the things Mary and her colleagues at RES are doing to restore and protect water quality and habitat all over the U.S., visit their website here: res.us

To find out what Mary can do to help you and your community, email her at this address: mszafraniec@res.us

While Mary is batting cleanup for Season 2 of Water for Fighting, there’s a connect between her work partners and the first guest of this season, Steve Hawley.  In Steve’s book, Cracked, he discusses the restoration of the Klamath River out west.  To see what RES is doing to bring life back to that natural treasure, go here: https://res.us/home/restoring-at-scale/klamath-river-restoration/ and here: https://res.us/news/res-swiftwater-films-release-restoring-balance/

To learn more about Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) planning and implementation are going at Mary’s old stomping grounds at the Southwest Florida Water Management District, go here: https://www.swfwmd.state.fl.us/projects/swim 

Please support our sponsors, RES and Sea & Shoreline.

Sea & Shoreline is a Florida-based aquatic restoration firm that is on a mission to restore Florida’s water bodies and to protect our coastline communities against severe storms.  You can check out their projects at www.seaandshoreline.com

RES is a national leader in ecological and hydrological restoration, offering nature-based solutions with guaranteed performance through innovative delivery options. Discover more about their work and commitment to Florida and its environmental challenges by visiting www.res.us

Our theme song is “Doing Work For Free”, by Bo Spring Band (Apple Music) (Spotify) (Pandora)



Welcome to Water for Fighting where we discuss the past, present, and future of water in Florida with the people who make it happen. I’m your host, Brett Cyphers. This week’s discussion is brought to you by Sea and Shoreline. Sea and Shoreline is a Florida-based aquatic restoration firm that’s on a mission to restore Florida’s water bodies and to protect our coastline communities against severe storms. You can check out their projects at seainshoreline.com. All right, I’m really anxious to get into this week’s conversation with my friend and one of my favorite scientists working today, Dr. Mary Szafraniec Mary is a veteran of state government and private practice throughout the state of Florida, including at one of my old stomping grounds, the Southwest Florida Water Management District.(…) She’s now the director of water quality initiatives at Resource and Environmental Solutions.(…) She also has an incredible life story that really captures the imagination. So let’s get right to it. Mary, thanks so much for being on the show today. Thanks so much for having me. I’m very excited to talk to you today. Yeah, I apologize if I sound sniffly throughout. That’s a warning to other folks as well, but these things happen. So you were born in Chicago, but your life story begins much earlier and across the world in Poland, doesn’t it? Yes, it does. It actually did with my parents actually coming from Poland and my grandparents being in concentration camps, essentially in work camps.(…) There was a lot that went on during that time in the 40s and World War II that actually brought about the whole story of myself and my family.(…) Yeah, were your grandparents Polish? I mean, I know the camp was in Poland, but were they Polish?(…) Yeah, my parents and grandparents all from Poland, they all came from there. My grandparents actually were taken to a concentration camp. It was a work camp in Linz, Austria, and they were there for five years. And that’s actually where my grandparents have met during the war.(…) Incredible.(…) Talk about them personally. I guess maybe the thing that I want to know most is, did they ever talk about how they rebuilt their lives after the war? Because I think your parents met during that time. But I want to hear a little bit about them first and in those circumstances, if you don’t mind.(…) Oh, sure. No. And I think it’s actually interesting. The time while they were in the camp is quite interesting because they always talk about the men being the breadwinners back then. But in effect, my grandmother was the “breadwinner” because she was bringing kind of smuggling food over to my grandfather after they had met. If he was kind of trapped in an area that he wasn’t able to get out. So he was working in an area like more of a machine type shop. She was actually kind of a farmer. So she was a growing the wheat, making the food for the Nazi. And then she actually would smuggle some and take it to him because they had met in the camp, actually. So I think it’s absolutely amazing that children were created in the camps. And somehow my namesake, my aunt Marisha, which is how you say my name is Polish, who I’m named after, she was conceived right after the war ended. So something went on during the camp. There’s some way that people were still able to do that. But my grandparents actually, after they were released from the camp after five years, they went back to Poland. And they sort of had a makeshift wedding near the Krakow town. So very large town in Poland, beautiful, if anyone definitely should go see it. But he kind of built a shack style house with a dirt floor that he had built with his own hands, essentially, basically no tools, just kind of built this thing and started their lives there with my aunt. And then my mom was born about two years after that. So this is 1947, two years after the war had ended. In total, they had about six kids. And my grandfather just started their lives in total disruption, you know, everything’s recently been bombed. And he became a postman and started delivering mail on a bicycle in a small village near the big city. And then my grandmother just started farming a few hectares in the area and was tending to all the livestock, pigs, cows and what not. And I think they had some chickens and things. But yeah, so she was the breadwinner. And essentially, my grandfather was the postman. So they just started this life. And they moved to another town in Poland on the west side and kind of had a bigger house there. So everything started to move along. However, communism got set in place. And that’s sort of where my family, my parents derived from that part of the time frame.(…) Yeah, talk a bit about that as well. You had a funny story, Yusa, I think you told me about how your father came to be really interested in your mom in those days. Can you talk about that? Yeah, so my parents, this is in the mid 60s, right? And in Poland, it’s full communism time, there was one theater within about a hundred mile area. And it happened to be in the town that my dad lived in, where my mom was working as a telecommunication specialist. So she was at the movie theater by herself, just standing in line very far back in line to the point where she wasn’t going to get in. And my dad being a little bit of a macho man walked up to her, essentially picked her up and said, I can get you a ticket. So he got her a movie ticket. And it was basically from there, you know, he was kind of showing off his motorcycle and all the things. So she saw that he was someone that she would be interested in. And they started dating. But they both came from farming families, my dad had a really large farm. And my mom basically came from a small farming family. So they kind of started helping each other with doing the farming. But yeah, that was pretty funny word. My dad just came in kind of swooped in, knight shining armor, got her into the movie. And then story goes on from there. Do they remember what movie it was? I don’t know. I don’t know. I’d have to ask my mom. I don’t know the movie.


I’m sure it’s something in Poland. Yeah, probably Polish. I doubt it’s an American movie.(…) So your parents eventually get married and you have an older brother, right? And he was born, was he born in Poland? Yes, he was born in Poland in the late 60s. He had passed about four or five years ago. But he was born there and in Poland during that time frame. And then they ended up kind of living there. I think he was about five years old or so before they decided that they wanted to move on and leave there because of the political climate, which is not conducive to for them to raise him in that area. So they were ready to leave and ended up leaving to go to Denmark and Copenhagen through a travel visa, sort of like an escape route, first phase of the escape route for when they left Poland to go there. It was one of those things where it’s like a real defection or is this like escape in the middle of the night kind of situation? Yeah, it was a defection. Essentially, I mean, they had a travel visa to go visit for two weeks in Copenhagen because my mom had an aunt that lived there. So they said, we’re going to be back. And then once they weren’t back, people started coming after them. So they ended up leaving there. And then there’s a pretty crazy story that happened after that for them to move to Germany to leave to go to Germany. So there’s quite a bit of events that went through for them to be able to go there. Yeah, it sounds like this one was fascinating cloak and dagger stories from the old days. How long had they been in Denmark before realizing that they’re going to have to take off? I think you mentioned before, like the KGB was even involved. Yeah, they had, you know, so basically the communist government, soon as somebody is essentially defecting or not returning upon the time frame that they’re supposed to with their visas, they start to go after them and search for them. And then they would have probably ended up in jail. But they I think they were there for less than a few months. Like it was like a couple months. My dad had gotten a job working, kind of handing out flyers and things like that. And they my mom and brother were just essentially hiding in my aunt’s house. And at some point, she felt very uncomfortable with the situation and told them that they had to leave or would cause her issues. They ended up leaving after a couple months being there. And again, my father being a very good negotiator, and really good at kind of getting getting what he needs done, he actually got some papers for them. So this is all not real papers. It’s kind of stuff you see in the movies where there was some other Polish people that lived in Denmark. And this guy, he met this guy, and he gave him some papers for my mom and dad only. And they couldn’t get it from my brother, unfortunately. So my brother was still really young. He’s only five years old. And what they ended up having to do was take my brother and shove him underneath the front bench of a truck of these trucker guys that were offering to drive them over across the border from Denmark to Germany. So my dad had one foot apparently on my brother’s chest, the other foot on his leg, and squeezing him as they’re speaking to the security officers that were evaluating all the papers and wanting them to get out to like check the truck and they didn’t thankfully, but they made it across the border safely. But it was, it sounds like a very traumatic experience, my brother, and just super intense and dangerous. So they made it through though. They got to Germany, which is amazing, to freedom essentially. Yeah, it’s incredible. I mean, were all those worries gone when they made to Germany? I mean, there were parts of Germany, obviously, in those days where it was not safe. I don’t think the worries were gone. I think they’re full intent from the very beginning was to get to America. These other places were just like pastures. They wanted to they knew they had to make some different challenging stops. So Germany was another stop. However, Germany really did. They had a really good life there. He was trained as a German auto mechanic while they were there for five years. They almost received their citizenship. But at that point, they realized they’d made a decision. Do we stay in Germany? Or do we go to America? And they said, America’s a place. So they ended up packing up and leaving within five years. My dad, he was working and fully paid well and everything. And they had a house and everything. And my mom was a checkout girl in a grocery store called Super Spy Thousand, which means 2000 in German. So they had a good life. And my brother was in school and everything. So they just said, America’s a place. And my dad says, let’s pack up tips and suitcases. And they went to Chicago. Yeah, I guess the the training part that comes into play later on when your dad’s looking for for work, you know, going to third, completely new country and this one across the Atlantic. Him being an auto mechanic helped you and your mom start their new life in the US, didn’t it? Yes, very much so. I mean, especially in Chicago when they came, he learned German engineering. So basically the fancy cars, Porsche’s, and all the BMW’s. And they needed people for that. So luckily in Chicago, there’s a very large population of Poles. Basically, at the time, I think they said there was more Pollocks there than in Warsaw. So lots of Polish people, they were able to kind of integrate really easily and get work right away. People, they started their lives there. And I was born about a year after they moved to America in the mid to late 70s. But yeah, I think that that part of their story is nice because they actually were able to root in a community, you know, that was similar to theirs, not speaking English is was very difficult still, but it was a lot easier than if they had come to like straight to Florida or, you know, another state. Right. But that’s what happened after, right? So what, what takes you from, you know, such a large Polish community in the US, but you grew up on opposite coasts, you grew up in California and Florida, right? Well, how did that happen, first of all? Well, we, so we were in Chicago until about, I was six years old, I think, when we moved. And at that time, I think they also had some questioning entities that were appearing at the house, and they wanted to move on a little bit. So there was still issues with the whole collection and the asylum and all of that stuff. So without being a citizen right away, it is, it was difficult for a lot of families, they had to keep kind of moving along. But I was six years old, as far as I remember, when we left Chicago area, we’re in the suburbs, I just remember being really cold there. And I didn’t really speak English at all. And I just was hanging out my friends that were Polish, you know, my friends, parents, and their kids that were Polish. I think we did a road trip or something, and my parents saw California, and then that was it. That’s where they wanted to go. Because they just really wanted to get away from the cold and everything that could have, that I don’t know the details on as far as the legality of staying there. But I was an American citizen. So since I was born here, I was able to kind of root them a little bit more. But I do know that they ended up just realizing they want to be outside because Poland was very similar to Chicago area, as far as like the climate and everything. I think they were just ready for a completely new place. And to start a life for the family in an area that’s absolutely gorgeous. So that’s where I was in California for about 12 years, actually. Yeah, we’re in California was all in one spot. Santa Barbara. So it was there the majority of the time. We did bop around a little bit in the vicinity of Santa Barbara. But yeah, basically, they’re absolutely gorgeous water on your western side mountains on the Pacific Ocean and then the Sierra Nevadas. So lots of just beautiful areas to be around. And I think that’s where I started to really fall in love with water, because I’d seen the Great Lakes when I was in the Chicago area as a small child. And then as a starting to grow up and realizing like, this is amazing. I just loved all the beautiful natural areas around. Yeah, talk about yourself a little bit as as a kid, because I know you said you you moved to Florida when you’re I think like 12. Is that right? 12, 13, 14, somewhere in there? 14. I was almost 14. Okay.(…) Oh, so good. So a good long while that you spent in California. So that’s a good spot to hit then. Yeah, you like the kid, you must have loved the outdoors.(…) You know, the way you describe it, how could you avoid it? Talk about that. Yeah, I was I loved water from super early age, like I mentioned, you know, when I was swimming in the lakes in Chicago, and then when I moved to California, I was like, this is amazing. Look at this ocean. I could just be out here every single day. So we were outside all day, every day, anytime that we could during the summers, and especially on the weekends, I went probably to the beach every weekend and hiking every weekend. So just dependent on the weather and everything that was going on and who was going where. I’d say that I’m definitely an outdoorsy person. I was then my parents, sort of my dad, essentially, he always wanted to be outside. So we were constantly camping and hiking and doing all the fun things outside that sort of drew me into swimming and whatnot. So I kind of became a jock, like a nerdy jock. I did obviously love school and I was reading books every minute, possibly read a student learn how to read English. That was my favorite thing. So I started to read and was at the library constantly. If I wasn’t at the library, I was in the pool or the ocean. How long did the competitive swimming stick with you? All the way through school? Yeah, all the way through high school because I went to University of South Florida at Tampa for college. So I didn’t really go in. There wasn’t like a competitive swimming program there. And at that point, I was basically focusing on academia. And so you said you moved to Florida when you were almost 15 years old. That’s a tough age to pick up a move. Why did your parents move across the country at that point? My brother had bought a house that he wanted to renovate. And this is actually a year of Hurricane Andrew.(…) And they moved, I was already in Florida for vacation to spend with my brother. And they said, you just go ahead and stay there. So he had bought the house as a very large home. And my dad is very handy. So they decided to move to Florida to help him. Plus, California was very difficult for an immigrant family. Very expensive to live in Santa Barbara. Basically like living in down in Beverly Hills cost-wise, it was just a little bit unattainable for them. So they thought it was time to try something different. And we moved to Florida at that time. It was very difficult transitioning for me, for sure. Because it’s South Florida versus Southern California are two completely different areas. But I adapted.(…) I mean, it’s gotta be different culture as well, I assume.(…) Absolutely. It was so different. It was a struggle. I had some periods of time where I was very much missing my friends and everything. So I had been there basically, I feel like I grew up in California. And then now having to start my life as a junior in high school in Florida was tough. So for context, where in Florida did y’all end up? That was in Hollywood, Florida. So Southern Florida, which is between Fort Lauderdale and Miami. What was your outlook like at that point? Beyond being obviously a little homesick for California. Did you stick with the swimming? Did you stick with the reading? Oh, yeah, I was definitely a swimmer still. The nice thing about in California, I was a small fish in a big pond. And it kind of reversed when I came to Florida. So I was one of the bigger fish in the smaller pond, there weren’t as many people doing like being competitive swimmers. And there weren’t as many swim teams and there weren’t as many highly competitive people there. So I did pretty well. It was fun. I enjoyed it. I got right into it swam in a US team, essentially, not not like I want to get well, not like that, just the regular age group stuff, and started going to swim meets and meeting a lot of people, made a lot of friends that way. And a lot of us were very nerdy jocks. We swam whenever we could. And then we were studying the rest of the time. When y’all moved there, it was, was it just before or during or after Hurricane Andrew? So I was here physically. I got to Florida July of 92. And the hurricane happened in August of 92. My parents were still in California packing up a big U-Haul. So I was with my brother, and we were in Hollywood. It was supposed to hit Hollywood. And then he sent me down to basically south of Miami area with his girlfriend, which her family didn’t speak English. So I was in the house with them. They were thinking that I was safe, but it actually had turned and hit that exact area, Miami lakes, and Hialeah. Yeah. So that was a lot of fun because I couldn’t, I only luckily she spoke English, but I was just in this house with total strangers by myself at age 14. No parents, my brother stayed back with the house trying to take care of it, but it was, it was a very tragic kind of intense situation. I don’t ever want to go through again. My very first hurricane and the most powerful one I’ve ever endured that was basically directed. Yeah. One most powerful lover. I was actually in the National Guard at the time. I remember doing everything from guarding water to delivering diapers and formula to some of those stranded places. It’s, there had to have been a huge shock to the system. You just showed up from one of the most beautiful places in the country. You have this intensely powerful hurricane land. How did you feel after that? Where you’re like, I want to go home. Well, at that point it was weeks. I’d say at least a week I was stuck down there because we couldn’t go back and forth yet. My brother, I couldn’t even communicate. So I was literally just trapped in this family’s home and we walked outside and everything. I mean, there was just things flipped over. There was just screens all missing and pieces of house missing and stuff everywhere on the roads. I just remember thinking this is Armageddon. What happened? I’d gone through two earthquakes in California that were minor for me because of the location that I was in. It was nothing like that. Like this was just unbelievable destruction that I’d never seen anything like before. And I actually was really worried for my brother thinking it was just that here, what could have happened? We didn’t have any communication. We didn’t know. And especially since the radio was on a language I didn’t understand. I didn’t know it was happening the whole entire time. So it was crazy. I was shocked and I think I was in shock for a while. I told my parents I didn’t want to stay in Florida because I thought goodness, this could happen again. But they came in and brought everything and all the tools and my dad kind of helped my brother rebuild the home that they had already started renovating essentially. But yeah, definitely a lot of work had to happen after that. And that whole region was just really hurt bad that it was really sad actually.(…) Well, let’s get forward to a little happier time I am trusting. So you chose to study pre-med entering college. What influences your parents have on that? Talk about the decision to do that biology, that pre-med. Yeah, I definitely, I thought I wanted to be a pediatrician because since I was a kid I wanted to have fun games like Atari’s and different fun things to do in the doctor’s office lobby while you’re waiting.(…) And on the flip side of that, I know my parents wanted me to have the best life possible. So they did kind of push a little bit as immigrant parents typically do, where they’re pushing you toward like a doctor lawyer, higher status type job. So I just kind of followed that path to sort of appease them. I did love science. I knew I wanted to do something that was relevant to science and things like that. So and wanting to help people was a big thing for me as well. So I was ready to kind of do something that was impactful and I sort of stayed in that path through the entire time I was in college, essentially from a bachelor’s degree.(…) All right, let’s pause for a moment to talk about my friends at Sea and Shoreline. As we in Florida wonder what the future holds when we face the storm season ahead, Sea and Shoreline is working to protect our coastline communities against severe storms by installing a variety of green and gray infrastructure solutions to make our cities and counties more resilient. These solutions include seagrass restoration, mangroves, oyster reefs, riprap, oyster breakwaters, and something called a WOD, which stands for wave attenuation device.(…) By installing their patented WODs, Sea and Shoreline can help protect our communities against sea level rise and storm surges by diffusing wave energy, stopping shoreline erosion, and even rebuilding shorelines through sand accretion.(…) To learn more about how Sea and Shoreline can protect your community, visit seaandshoreline.com. All right, let’s get back to the conversation.(…) You even took a few jobs. I think you told me before that you actually, I don’t know if it was like during the summers or while you were in school, actually took some jobs that were kind of leading toward practicing medicine. When did that change for you to something that’s quite a bit different, right?(…) Yeah, so I actually each summer I was working in different hospitals and medical clinics, depending on where I was living, and like in high school and then during college. And I just kept doing these sort of side jobs. I work in the HIV blood clinic where I kind of ran samples there, just anything that relevant to the medical field that I could do to sort of feel out whether or not I liked it or not. So I did take some of those jobs. And then when I was actually done with college, sort of getting ready to prepare to take the test and everything to start either doing medical degree type work or a physician’s assistant, which is kind of similar to that. So I was like, okay, where am I going to apply? What am I going to do? So(…) in the meantime, I had went to a music festival over in Live Oak, which is essentially a bluegrass festival that you camp at and whatnot. And I met a whole new bunch of people there, a lot of fun people. And one of the women that I met was actually an environmental engineer that worked at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.(…) So her and I started talking and I told her I was struggling and not really sure why what I wanted to do, she could tell that I wasn’t into the whole medical thing. So told her I don’t like being trapped inside. This isn’t really my thing. But I feel like I have to go through it. She’s like, well, why don’t you try the environmental field? And I looked at her like she had three heads. I didn’t even know what that was. What do you mean? What is this? What is this thing? I don’t even know what this is. So at my at university South Florida, there really wasn’t like an environmental engineering program. There’s a civil one. And they didn’t really have like an environmental science and policy program yet. That was that’s showing my age, obviously. But basically, they had studied that much after I graduated. Biology was the only option. And most people were premed and if they were anything. So I talked to her a little bit more. And she said, I just got promoted, why don’t you apply for this position? And there’s two others available. So I applied for all of them. And I basically got two of them was offered two jobs. One was biologist, one was a chemist with the state of Florida in Tampa. This is a super similar track to your previous guest, Julie SP, because we took the biologist position like she did, and essentially went down the same track as looking at doing a lot of different types of aquatic biology type work, water quality collection, biological sampling for stream streams assessments, lake assessments. I did all the taxonomic identifications of the macro invertebrates that show water is clean or not vegetation. So basically just started my career similarly to Julie and think it’s a really good place to start, to be honest, when when I didn’t have any experience. And I didn’t learn any of that during my training under my bachelor program, I kind of learned genetics and all of the animal physiology and things like that. But I didn’t have any kind of background in environmental fields. I had to essentially learn that from the fresh go, you know, essentially at the DEP. So I was very thankful for that. Yeah, I mean, I think that speaks well of the department in that regard, they could take someone who’s obviously bright, who knows some of the basics, but doesn’t know how to do this job and to be able to teach you how to get there. I think that sounds pretty cool to me, actually. Oh, yeah, it was amazing. I had there are people there that were probably 15, 20 years into their careers that I was able to learn from. And the fact that I was able to get paid to be on a boat, and get in the water and be in the water all the time, even if there was gators around, it wasn’t a big deal to me, I just was super excited to be outside constantly. What year did you end up? I’m trying not to age you all the way through this, but it just comes, it comes with the territory with these.(…) You end up at SWFWMD, which is I think we overlap like a bare bit, I was out in Bartow, though. When did you go to SWFWMD? So I went to SWFWMD in 2006, I had gotten a job offer, and to be something a little bit out of my comfort zone, because here at DEP, I was essentially a sampler, I was doing monitoring, I had learned analyses, I started learning about how to take that data and interpret it. I wasn’t managing anything, I was just sort of doing the work, like collecting the samples, doing the analysis and understanding where the issues were, doing a lot of the total maximum daily load work. I was there in the infancy of that, essentially, when the TMDLs are being developed, and then the basin management act like I was there when they were being developed, really cutting my teeth on water quality at that time heavily. So when I got the job at SWFWMD to be a project manager, it was for the surface water improvement and management program. So SWIM, the SWIM program, and they, I knew, I absolutely wanted to do water quality restoration. I started to realize, okay, I get how to figure out where the issues are, but now I need to understand and learn how to fix them, and you know, how to address the water quality problems that we’re having everywhere, not only in the region that I was in. So I felt like it was a natural progression. I had a bunch of opportunities to, my other options were to go into permitting, in different types of permitting jobs at SWFWMD, I know. I had like three or four, but this was the one that I just felt like was the perfect track for me, and I needed to take that step to go into restoration.(…) Nice. And tell me a little bit about the timeline. Was it while you’re at DEP or SWFWMD that you got a master’s degree in something that is very much not biology, right? Yeah. So that was actually pretty funny. So I was new at SWFWMD as a project manager, and basically the first task I had was to review engineering plans for a constructed treatment wetland project that I had no idea what that even was. And I never had seen a set of plans in my entire life. And I was expected to learn how to understand that and review those and then actually monitor the construction. So doing the construction inspections of this massive three million dollar project. And I was just feeling completely out of my comfort zone. And at that time I realized, and of course I had a mentor, I had training, but it just when somebody says, “Hey Mary, here you go. You’re going to start doing this. And even though you’ve never done this in your entire life.” So I had realized that I probably should learn some engineering to know what I’m doing and why I’m even being involved in this and how I can just make sure that I’m looking at it from the right perspective. Because my science background at the time just didn’t seem to cut it. I realized at that moment, so that was a year after I got to SwiftMUD, I immediately enrolled in the Environmental Engineering Sciences Master’s program at University of Florida, which is incredible. And it was great because I could do some of it online and some of it was in person. And I took some courses at USF and transferred them in as well. So I just started working on engineering and learning everything I could about it. It took me about three years to complete while I was working full time at SwiftMUD actually. It was tough. It was not an easy thing to do, to be honest. I wouldn’t recommend it, but I managed to get through. But I will say I did get to learn everything I was wanting. So I was yearning how do you do design and treatment, well, and design and all these things. So then I knew how to actually evaluate and review plans and how to know whether or not the consulting firms that are submitting products and deliverables to me, I knew how to actually review them and help them sort of improve them if they needed to. Nice.(…) And you’re a big fan of mentorships and is part because you had such a good one at SwiftMUD? You talked about that a little bit already with me. Yeah. So I will say I have to tell Janie Hagberg, she is currently the chief engineer at SwiftMUD at the moment. At the time when I first started a very, very green non-engineer, just a scientist, she took me under her wing and really trained me. And she was the most amazing mentor I’ve ever had. She’s really the reason I went back to school for engineering because I wanted to be like her. And I just her ability to manage things and nothing ever seemed to phase her. Even when we had some pretty big issues arise during some of the project construction, she was handling everything with grace. And I was like, that’s who I want to be. That’s what I want to do. I want to be able to be an incredible engineer. So she’s amazing. We still collaborate from time to time on different projects. And it’s great to have her in my, she kind of was there to help me grow. Talk about your relationship also in the SWIM program at SwiftMUD. One of my absolute favorite people there. Now Jeanette Silverman, but back then the last name was Seacrest. Yeah. So Jeanette actually hired me at the district. She gave me the path forward to get down to restoration.(…) And so she was an amazing manager and she saw a kind of potential and saw that I can actually do things outside of my comfort zone. And she helped me achieve things that I would never have done actually. Pushed me pretty hard and gave me lots of great projects to work on and kind of let me do what I wanted to do. At the time, the SWIM program was heavily embedded on habitat restoration. They had some incredible scientists, Brent Henningsen and a couple others, Chris Kaufman and Stephanie Powers, all these people that just have been doing this. They’re really good at it and they do a lot of habitat related stuff. And I had noticed that there was a lack of water quality focused restoration.(…) And so sort of pushing that a little bit harder. So Jeanette really let me explore that and let me move our program and expand it into that to really focus on water quality restoration as well. Jeanette is obviously great, but she also ended up being the one that encouraged you to get your PhD, didn’t she? Yes, she definitely did. She was a big driver and that was a life-changing decision for me. She knew I had high aspirations in terms of wanting to learn all I could about what was causing water quality issues and the best way of addressing them. And she had a knack for the power of suggestion where she basically told me if I wanted to be the expert and then I needed a PhD in that. And I’m not saying that everybody needs a PhD, but for myself, to what I wanted to get to where I could actually lead the development of projects, she sort of just coached me into that and really had a lot of faith and supported me into it. So I decided to go after it. I’m really glad I did. It almost sounds like your approach is that you and I talked before and you said, “I hate not knowing.” Is that kind of the idea behind starting something, expanding, continuing, expanding on that and so on and so forth? Is that an app description of your approach to your career at that point? I would say so. I mean, I am definitely, I would say I’m curious to a fault. We’re deep down. I’m a researcher at heart. I don’t like leaving rocks unturned. I want to make sure that I’ve evaluated everything that I can before I move forward, especially when I’m proposing something that’s a little bit new and innovative, that it’s only been potentially applied in a research forum type thing. So it is, that’s difficult because you want to make sure that it works before you do propose it to a client essentially.(…) So I would say that just because something’s already been done, it doesn’t mean it’s been done correctly. And it’s not been, I’ll be all. And we definitely are able to improve upon our scientific understanding and the way that we actually approach the solution. So I feel like that’s been something, that’s a track for me. So I basically have seen things that are proposed and then attempted and they may not work at that moment the way that they were actually implemented, but if we modify something there and we monitor and look at it from the, you know, kind of a technical manner and see if it can work somewhere else, that there’s always an opportunity, I feel like, to really improve the way that something’s been proposed and actually implemented. Yeah, I guess maybe I chose an inartful way of describing it. It seems like with all of the different angles at which you’ve found yourself either studying in the university level or on the job, there’s almost nothing that you don’t have some expertise in or ability to know the different angles on a project, even things that are maybe not necessarily in your normal wheelhouse, right? Well, I appreciate that. This is very, very kind of you to say, I feel like if I don’t know something, I’m going to figure it out. I’ve been asked, I think a lot of it has to do with the three letters after my name. People expect me to know what spider is crawling on the wall because I’m a PhD. They think I know every single plant out there and all these things. I’m like, I don’t know what that is, but sometimes there’s things that I feel like it’s my duty to figure it out. And if it’s related to water quality or anything, ecological engineering style, I’m going to go out there. I’m going to read a paper. I’m going to find some, I just, I enjoy and I’m very resourceful. So I’d like to find out what it is. Before I say, I don’t know what this is. I’ll say, I’ll figure it out. If I can’t, I’ll let you know. But I’m not going to just stand there and say, I don’t know. I mean, normally I don’t think I do. Well, eventually you leave the district and the private sector. Why did you leave the district? When you are in a government entity or two of them, and I’ve made a lot of contacts all over the Southwest district in Florida. So I’ve made a lot of relationships at this point. And now if you pair a PhD to that with a technical ability, I’m now someone that a lot of people were recruiting. So I was immediately recorded as soon as my degree was in hand. I had a bunch of companies that were coming after me. And that was actually, I felt really good because I appreciated being finally recognized and respected as someone in the field that has a technical capability. And that I didn’t have that earlier on. And I kind of at that point realized I just need to try this out. And Jeanette maybe pushed me a little bit. She said, you should do this. You’ll be a great consultant. I was like, okay, well, let me see if I can put my teeth on this and see if I can actually cut it in consulting. Because I knew I was going from a 40 hour work week to potentially 60, 80, get this becomes, it’s a whole nother life. The reason I was primed for that was because I just finished working full time and getting a master’s and a PhD. So I was used to working 60, 80 hour week. Okay, this next transition, next step, next phase. And the main reason to be honest, I love working for the government. I think it’s incredibly important. We have to have smart technical people that work in the government. But for me, I was ready to actually implement the projects and to develop and conceptualize. So when I was at the government, I just had to take a project deliverable that a consultant gave me, I look at it review say, okay, I think this looks good. And then we move on. And then the next one comes in, I don’t get to actually develop anything. So at that point in my life, I was ready to lead and I wanted to create teams, I wanted to develop staff, I wanted to become in a senior level professional, sort of understand a lot more about everything and wanted to actually see if I could do this consulting gig where it is definitely a lot faster paced. And a lot is involved. So you’re not only doing your job, you’re doing many, many different levels of work. So I had to basically do business development, project management of a lot of 30 plus projects, sometimes developing staff, and then, you know, continuing to grow the whole entire product lines or whatnot, or whatever we were working on at the time. So it was difficult, but I absolutely enjoyed it because I kind of do fuel on a lot more activity and enjoy kind of a fast paced environment. That experience that you developed at DEP in the district had to have made you more dangerous in terms of, you know, what folks are looking for, in terms of how do I implement this project, you know, the angles from the other side of the table in terms of what they want, right? Oh, absolutely. That was so helpful for me. Yeah, whenever I would talk to clients, so essentially, the client, the people that were my cooperators when I was at SWFWMD,(…) which were cooperative projects, funded projects, those immediately became my clients, because we had projects that I was able to assist with, because I already knew what their issues were, I already knew what they needed. And we’ve been working on that for eight years. So at that point, I was like, let’s start doing work together. And that was very helpful, because then they really trusted me into kind of leading them down different paths. So I had a couple very progressive clients that were previous cooperators and stakeholders where we just jumped right in and were able to move forward with doing some really cool projects, actually. You do that for eight years in one spot right out. You end up joining Res, a name that ought to be really familiar to listeners, Resource Environmental Solutions. What drew you to Res away from a place that you’d been for eight years?(…) Well, I think everything did line up pretty well, where I learned the assessment part in the government, and then I was able to apply solutions that weren’t really done on a regular basis at the company that I was with before that. And then Res just really had this outstanding program where I felt like I was ready to apply what I learned at the other places at a grander scale. So instead of doing these smaller 50 to 100 acre projects, which do, you know, they’re important, they have to happen. And most of those are limited to working on public lands. I just knew that we had to do something bigger with the way that we’re developing and have developed already the lands for urban and agricultural use and everything that still has to maintain and continue. We need a new structure. We need a structure that allows for larger projects and they have to be regionalized. And on the scale of hundreds to thousands of acres, not just smaller ones.(…) And you can’t do that on a public piece of land. Typically, some of them, yes, there’s some in the northern part of Florida that still exists. But then you look at urbanized areas like Pinellas County, Sarasota, Manatee, down in South Florida, there’s not a lot of space left, but there are in terms of public lands, but there are private lands that can still be utilized and brought into a project. So I was really excited when I met with Res to be able to do these larger regionalized projects where we can actually move the needle on improving water quality. Because a lot of these projects have been done for habitat restoration or ecological restoration, which is important, but they’re not focused and designed for water quality restoration. So the turnkey approach that Res can actually deliver through a public-private partnership, that is, in my opinion, the way to achieve those kind of really lofty goals of meeting TMDLs and all the BMAP allocations and basically the amount of nutrient load that needs to be removed from a water body through these types of larger type projects. Yeah, I think that’s what it’s a thing that probably people miss. If you’re not dealing with everglades level projects or nearby geographically, I don’t think a lot of folks get the lift that’s necessary for the nutrient reduction to meet these water quality goals. Therein lies bigger projects that you get involved in, but there’s an actual difference, like in Res’s approach to that environmental restoration as well. I would say it’s in the engineering, but I think it’s almost in the not engineering or not over engineering. Is that right? Well, I think that the approach is different because the company is different. They’re not a consulting firm. They have consulting capabilities, but they’re basically what is so different and unique is that they’re a fully integrated operating company. They’re capable of financing and bringing money and investments and invest stores to do big projects and that are fully dedicated to doing environmental restoration.(…) So, Res in my opinion is completely advancing all these different techniques and project approaches. That is what they call alternative delivery. So, that’s the soup to nuts turnkey project approach that I kind of mentioned already. You can incorporate land acquisition into that as well. They also are able to, which is incredibly unique in my opinion, to provide that financial assurance to really support a project and the performance metrics. We all know that there’s been projects out there that we know were designed on a perception and on a perceived modeled approach, but not a lot of people and agencies and companies and all the basically project providers are not able to demonstrate that this project outcome is actually doing what we all said it was going to do. So, how many of those have you heard of? I don’t really, that’s where I wanted to be. I wanted to be with somebody that says, if I’m telling you this is going to reduce X pounds of nutrients or pollutants of any kind and I’m just modeling it and then never proving it, how do I know that’s actually going to happen? And normally it isn’t. Unfortunately, the fact of the reality is the majority of the projects are not actually achieving those outcomes and that’s why I came to Res. I want to show, I want to prove that we’re doing it and that we are demonstrating that actual project outcome and proving it with performance metrics that are actually part of the actual project. So, the way that we do that is that we’re able to institute that Florida statute, if anyone’s interested 255.065.(…) Florida’s incredibly lucky to have it because I also work outside of Florida in the Midwest and California and other states and different Carolinas. They don’t have that type of a public-private partnership statute that allows private and public to work together to do massive projects in a partnership. That’s how Res. is able to basically own and restore massive amounts. I’m hundreds of thousands of acres of restoration of floodplains for wetlands, hydrologic functions. They’re providing regional water quality improvements and conserving lands at the same time. It’s quite incredible. In Florida alone, I think Res. owns like 6,000 acres that they’re restoring. Huge amounts of property. We’re an owner, we’re a stakeholder, we’re a steward in land. The reason we’re able to do that is because we can do a full delivery project by acquiring the land in the place that the project needs to happen and not really where the public land is available, maybe not going to provide us the best outcome.(…) That also requires a lot of the technical needs such as the assessment analysis, modeling, design permitting, all of that. We also provide the maintenance operation and monitoring after we do the construction. We’re like a full package thing, which I think is quite unique. Then we’re backing everything with financial surety, which doesn’t exist really. There’s a few other people that can do that. You named a handful of things that don’t exist, Mary. I’ve been on that proverbial other side of the table where you know this thing that you’re supposed to get. You have a project you’re going to do. You pay engineers to design and construct the thing that you believe that you need.(…) You don’t know what’s going to happen when it’s done.(…) It doesn’t matter. The folks that you work with are on to the next project. I understand that.(…) That’s what I mean, that you’ve turned it on its head. You’re not just building something, but you’re literally managing that same project for years and years even.(…) Oh my gosh, we have projects that we are committed to maintaining and operating and monitoring to prove that they are still functioning the way we said they were for 25-30 years.(…) Some of these are in the 10-20,000 acres and 600 miles of stream restoration. It’s not just a small little dip in the bucket. We’re managing a lot of area and have the technical staff in-house and also our partners. We have a lot of firms that we work with. We don’t do all this in-house. It’s a team structure. I really appreciate that as well. I think that the monitoring end, the accountability end, is a thing that my mind goes to when you look at the TMDLs throughout the state of Florida. These B-MAPs that are in effect. House Bill 1379 that has just been enacted by the legislature. All of them are pointing at very specific targets. When I think of the position that DEP is in, the water management districts are in, in terms of meeting these goals when they’re supposed to be met,(…) knowing that something works has got to be an enormous relief for them. I know it would be for me. It’s like if I was fixing and I was in charge(…) or being a part of that team, as you describe it, for cleaning what we call a spring and getting it below its total maximum daily load.(…) To know that you’re going to hit a target would have been a great relief to me to know when that was going to take place exactly and not just theoretically. So that’s really cool. We haven’t talked about any specific projects. Give me something that you’re working on right now. Okay, so specifically I’m not really able to tell you that because right now we’re working under the P-3 format, which is the turnkey. It’s basically where we provide an unsolicited proposal. So I can’t specify where and who and whatnot, but I will tell you I’ve got a bunch of stokes in the fire at the moment and they’re ranging from spring, lake and stream restoration all the way to groundwater recharge because some areas in the Suwanee River water management district, even the northwest, we’ve got a long way to go to meet minimum flows and levels, especially the levels in the aquifer.(…) So there’s many varieties of projects. They’re not only water quality, but they all sort of stem from that. There’s also flooding attenuation projects that I’m kind of tying in the water quality as well through constructive treatment wetlands, kind of taking the stream restoration format that’s been done in Florida by several amazing practitioners and furthering that in the larger concept level. So in terms of water quality restoration, right? So a lot of this has been done like in the Chesapeake Bay area already and we’re trying to apply something similar and so that it’s Florida specific and making sure that we’re addressing the issues here and fitting projects into the spaces that we have left. Mostly the projects I’m working on are still in conceptual phase. I’ve only been at REZ for now, I think it’s seven or eight months, but we’re already in conceptual phase. So that’s pretty quick. We’re able to move very quickly because we have the ability to work at risk essentially. And so we’ve already cited projects. I’ve already found the problems, found the locations, put them and provided the conceptual kind of ideas. And now we’re moving into the point where we’re going to provide these proposals that people are looking at and then we can actually move forward with kind of doing the projects. So the funding component is also a big one there, which we’re able to assist with and help different clients get the funding. Since I’m working all over Florida, I’m sort of all over the place. Like I mentioned, I’m also doing stuff in other areas in the United States, trying to apply similar type techniques and whatnot. Some areas aren’t as keen on water quality, but we’re sort of trying to flip the script on that. But there are definitely other areas that are very, very keen on it. So we’re making big strides and definitely these areas, they all need help. And it’s not only urban areas. This is urban, this is remote areas.(…) Every district has something that they were basically touching at this point.(…) How does Florida shape up in terms of its approach to water quality issues, you know, writ large? I know there are other issues mixed in the flooding, resilience sorts of things, but how does it shape up when you’re looking at it compared to those other places? Okay, so I want to commend all of the previous, the people before me that started like the T&D process, the numeric nutrient criteria, BMAPs, because it’s something that’s leading towards improvement in water quality. When you look at other states and examples like California, you would imagine everyone thinks when I talk to them that they’re so far along with water quality. Well, they are in some regards, but they’re not for nutrients. And Florida is super advanced in that regard. And it’s actually helped me quite a bit when I’m working in other areas like the Midwest and California, where people in those regions are actually very focused on flooding attenuation. That’s like the number one issue, and especially Midwest, for example, last weekend, Chicago got several inches of rains that caused major issues there that then led to flooding and then water quality issues. So they’re starting to realize there’s a connection, but the ultimate funding and everything goes to flooding. And I understand that, but there’s definitely other issues and benefits that could be gained from working like a multi benefit structured project. In California, a lot of the entities there are very hyper focused on metals, so selenium and zinc and things like that, because it’s impacting the biota in the bays. However, they’re not looking on all the nutrient issues that are already there. They kind of don’t realize that they’re there yet. So when I was there recently, I was meeting with quite a few people and we’re starting to change that as well. So there’s improvement potential all across the board, even in Florida. But Florida, I think, just like the mid-Atlantic is much more advanced in terms of water quality from a nutrient perspective.(…) So now we’re going to get into your speed round. And so hang on tight, Dr. Szafraniec. Okay. It’s not that bad.(…) What professional accomplishment are you most proud of so far?(…) Oh, that’s a difficult question to answer. I could look at it from many different angles, I guess, but I think honestly, helping to bridge the gender gap in the engineering field, by mentoring women in a field that’s still dominated by mostly men. It was a really tough go 20 years ago, to be recognized and respected as a woman in the environmental engineering field. Hate to say it, but it’s the truth. I think we’ve come a long way, though, and we’ve been able to show a little bit more and there’s a better balance between that. But we need to get to a point where equality shouldn’t just be a thing. We shouldn’t have to continue to pursue it. We should just have it. It should be a basic fact and not just some platform that we’re striving for. But from the technical perspective, I feel like I was able to kind of help advance the field of ecological engineering science so that we can actually get closer to meeting these water quality goals. But we have to look at it from an ecological perspective. There’s a lot of ways to look at engineering and there’s civil and all these other things. But if we can kind of blend the science and the engineering, which I feel now I’m a hybrid engineer. I’m not just a scientist. I’m not an engineer only. I’m an ecological engineer. And I think that is definitely one way if we can sort of adopt that practice a little bit more into the way that we implement projects, then that discipline is really going to help shape the future for water quality restoration. Okay. When it came to your time inside government, is there something you feel that you left undone or something you would have approached differently if you had to do it over again? Yeah, we did touch on this already. I absolutely would have loved to be able to do more performance efficiency monitoring for projects. I think executives cringe at the thought of that because they want to just put things in the ground. Right. And I know you as an EV, I don’t know if you’re in monitoring, but if you had a certain amount of money, you wanted to probably put something in the ground. And then maybe monitor if you had the extra cash on hand later on. However,(…) sometimes if we would have put the monitoring in, we maybe would have been able to preempt some issues down the road. Because I know we’ve spent millions of dollars constructing projects that have a perceived impact, right? And then like I already talked about, are they meeting those goals? We don’t really know because we’re not monitoring them. And we would have learned from our mistakes if we just would have spent some money figuring out if those things actually worked. That’s something I really wish I would have screamed even louder about wanting to monitor more when I was, you know, my younger days.(…) Well, despite some of the old lack of monitoring, are you optimistic about the future of the environment and its natural systems in Florida? I am optimistic. I think I see a lot of these state agencies recently have actually started coming together to make bigger impacts. I’m not going to name them. But before it used to be one state agency only cared about one thing, the other state agency only cared about it. They didn’t really want to talk to each other. And I did quite I thought that was just a little bit silly sometimes, like we could work together and do a lot more together. But I’m still a little reserved, because I know that some of these things are definitely they need to be separated out. But if we could somehow I would be more optimistic, I think if we can somehow move towards a regional type scale for projects that are providing those measurable benefits, because we don’t if we if we start measuring, see if it works, like I mentioned, that we’re not going to do the wash, rinse, repeat over and over again, and still end up with a product, you know, where there’s what somebody would look at and say, that’s dirty water, I can’t see my feet. There’s algae all over me when I’m in the bay, I feel like if we are going to come together with agencies sort of working together, and realizing and not pointing fingers anymore, then then maybe and also, like you mentioned earlier, which is a huge point, having that accountability for these these environmental restoration projects, there’s tons of them going on. And they vary. They’re not just natural systems. They’re like we do at res, everything is very much nature based. However, there’s way slower facilities that need to be updated and all these things, upgrades and whatnot, everything should have some form of a performance criteria so that we can say that what we did actually is working. Yeah. What if anything keeps you up at night regarding Florida’s environment? I think you may have touched on a little bit there. But yeah, I think that resiliency is a huge factor. And I think about that a lot. How do we implement resiliency and making sure that all of our outcomes are resilient and sustainable? That’s always on my mind, because I think back to the days of my earlier career, how I implemented projects that are very localized. So we looked at this small watershed, 200 acres is feeding this area and this this lake. But now I think we have an opportunity to go outside of that and go a little bit bigger. And think about all the things that we can do to improve and think about it from the future perspective, you know, and how things are going to change. So like I mentioned the example in Chicago, I think this area and then places in Florida for sure have the opportunity to not just think of this neighborhood is the issue. We have a bigger watershed that’s always been involved there. And then we also have other resources like groundwater and then things that have already been put in place that we just have to start looking at internally. If we have a lot of different types of stormwater resources that need to be updated, we should start looking at those. I know there’s so many problems that need to be addressed, but it’s like which one do we attack first? You know, can we do them all at the same time somehow? How do we just make sure we’re thinking outside the box, getting everything addressed and not just cover it up with a Band-Aid each time? Because I feel like we’re still in Band-Aid and immediate address mode at the moment, kind of that reactive, but we need to be able to more proactive.(…) What advice would you give young people, maybe a young woman who’s just entering or they’re interested in entering the environmental field, maybe engineering through public service or in the private sector? What would you tell them?(…) Well, you know, that is another tough one because there’s so many things that I would love to tell them, you know, I can talk forever. So I would actually, I would think either a man or woman, you know, just suggesting that they learn how to collaborate and not only internally where they’re at, but also across disciplines. So if a scientist is thinking something, a lot of times you’ll have an engineering scientist kind of not really talking to each other. I think putting those two together is very important. Learning each other’s disciplines to an extent that you can cross training.(…) So when I was mentoring and fostering kind of growth and development with staff, I never just taught them what their discipline was. I wanted to make sure that they knew stuff outside of that.(…) That gives them a lot more perspective to kind of work outside of their little silo. Computer model is only looking at the model that they’re looking at. They don’t even know why there’s a lot, there’s potential for disaster. You know, we have to explain to them, why, why are you learning this? Why are you, why are you looking at this? Why, what else are we going to be able to do here? So I think getting out of that silo mentality is really important. And then flexibility, realizing you’re not the best and the smartest in the room each time. Because some people, you know, they just think this I’m the best, I’m the one, this is, this is the best thing here. And don’t recreate the wheel, just modify it maybe so it doesn’t squeak anymore a little, and then they can improve it each time. So there’s definitely been a lot of work already to date completed. And I always want to build on what others have done. So I think that there’s still a lot of building that has to happen. We have to do it collaboratively. I think there’s some really good nuggets of wisdom in there. And I think that makes it a great place to stop. MarySzafraniec thanks so much for coming on the show. Thank you. Really appreciate it. It was a lot of fun. Well, that’s it for this episode. Thanks for listening to Water for Fighting. This week’s discussion is brought to you by Sea and Shoreline. Don’t forget to check the episode notes to visit their websites and learn more about how they can help you. If you’re enjoying the show, please be sure to subscribe on whatever platform you use. And don’t forget to leave a five star rating and review. You can follow the show on Facebook, LinkedIn,(…) Instagram, probably even Twitter at FL WaterPod. And you can reach me directly at flwaterpod at gmail.com with your comments and suggestions for who and or what you’d like to know more about. Production of this podcast is by Lonely Fox Studios. Thanks to Carl Sworn for making the best of what he had to work with and a Dave Barfield for the amazing graphics and technical assistance. A very special thank you goes out to Bow Spring from the Bow Spring Band for giving permission to use his music for the podcast. The song is called “Doing Work for Free” and you should check out the band live or wherever great music is sold.(…) Join me next time for another amazing conversation with someone who has helped shape water and environmental policy in the Sunshine State. Until then, keep your whiskey close and your water closer.

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