Safe Water for Walton County…and Beyond

Safe Water for Walton’s 2019 board. From left—third-generation boat captain Hunter Ray of Freeport; community leader Beth Jackson of Freeport; Destin attorney Steve Hall; and business investor Kelly Layman of Santa Rosa Beach. The group has several Okaloosa County residents serving on the board and advisory councils, and is interested in hearing from others.
Photo by Jacqueline Ward Images.

By Nikki Hedrick


“We don’t get another chance at water supply. You either get it right or you get it wrong,” says Kelly Layman, one of the executive board members of Safe Water for Walton.


Don’t let the name fool you. This organization has its eyes on issues bigger than any single county. Safe Water for Walton is a 501(c)(4) advocacy and education organization with membership stretching across the Panhandle of Florida.


It’s easy to reminisce about the way things were, but it takes special people to work towards goals that protect what we have.


I often joke that I’m an old-timer. I mean this less in relation to my age, and more how I’m one of the lucky that grew up here. Over my lifetime, I’ve seen this area transform as throngs of people have planted their toes in the sand and decided to call it home.


Once and a while, I’m fortunate enough to have a conversation with someone who thoroughly has my old-timer status beat. One such person is Randy Wise, a founding Advisory Council member of Safe Water for Walton. He can trace his family’s roots to a late-1800s homestead in what is now Okaloosa County.


“In the early-to-mid-70s, I was teaching school and a good friend of mine was a legal assistant,” he says. “He’d gone to college and had a finance degree, and some lawyers hired him. Both of us kind of grew up together, and we wanted to get into the construction business. I quit teaching, and he quit doing his lawyer stuff and we went into the building business.


“We actually did remodeling for a while, and then his brother—a doctor in Fort Walton—bought a piece of property just east of Seagrove. And so he came to me and said, ‘Hey Randy, I want to go do this with my brother.’ And I said, ‘Well, I want to get started in Bluewater Bay because it was about to kick off.’ And so we kind of separated, went our own ways.”


Wise is referencing is Cassine Gardens, the subdivision I grew up in. And it’s wholly possible that if Cassine Gardens didn’t exist, my parents would have stayed out of state, and I wouldn’t be writing this article.


That’s how it works for us old-timers. There are so few of us that we quickly play six degrees connecting the people and defining moments of our lives.


Much like the old-timer network, our counties are connected via a very important watershed. “It covers six different counties, and Walton and Okaloosa are at the bottom of that funnel,” says Layman. “We are dependent on the water supply north of us that comes down from Alabama and travels through the four other counties in the watershed. So besides Okaloosa and Walton, that’s Jackson, Holmes and Washington and a little slice of Bay.”


This is further connected through rivers, bays, and the underground sources that feed our natural springs. Safe Water for Walton aims to create a positive movement that will help us circumvent water issues that have unfortunately become a way of life for many parts of Florida.


One way they have already made an impact is through the national program Operation Medicine Cabinet. It’s a free collection event of all pharmaceuticals that might otherwise find their way down the drain and back into the water supply. Wastewater treatment facilities aren’t designed to screen for many medications, so educating and preventing their entry into the water supply is an important task.


The origins of Safe Water for Walton took shape when locals noticed a state permit for a deep injection well for leachate was proposed in Jackson County. That is at the top of our area’s watershed and has the potential for affecting everything below it. Leachate is essentially the technical term for the liquid that drains or “leaches” from a landfill. This stuff makes Hexxus from Ferngully look tame.


“So people will hear all deep injection wells are bad—that’s not true,” says Layman. “We use deep injection wells for a whole variety of things in Florida. But a deep injection well at the top of a watershed providing drinking water for six counties and the landfill leachate…that liquid is full of carcinogens, known carcinogens.”


For now, the Safe Water for Walton members have been able to keep the proposed leachate well off the table through education and resolutions in many counties.


What do you and I do? Layman encourages us to become members of Safe Water for Walton for a one-time individual fee of $50. I encourage you to have more conversations about the health of our water supply. Talk to everyone from your neighbor to your elected officials, because we need to protect this finite resource. This isn’t a political issue, but one about quality of life—for us and the nature that makes our little corner of the world unique.


This fall, Safe Water for Walton and Grayton Beer Company pair up for a celebration of two years of positive movement. The event will include music and a silent auction, with a portion of the proceeds going to The Red Bar Employees Fund.


“It’s building a movement, it’s not a one-issue fight,” says Layman. “Folks who came to us concerned—rightly so—about a specific permit that was a very big threat to the watershed, now they’re very excited that we’re hitting our stride and expanding and doing proactive things for the community.”


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