Ft Myers Beach Observer

January 18, 2017


Pollution “first responders”

A local chapter of a global water quality organization will keep its eyes on water pollution.

By Jessica Salmond




Local rivers, streams and water bodies have new guardians.

The Calusa Waterkeeper will monitor water quality from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf, covering any waterway that is part of the Caloosahatchee rivershed, the Pine Island Sound, Charlotte Harbor and Estero Bay.

And who is covering this vast spread of water?

Local ecologist John Cassani, former Fort Myers Beach public works director Jack Green, and a host of volunteer "rangers."

"Our goal is to respond, document, identify, source and test for pollution," Green said. "We will be testing the water more regularly to see what's there."

The Calusa Waterkeeper is a chapter of the international organization, the Waterkeeper Alliance. Previously, the Calusa chapter was called the Caloosahatchee RiverWatch and was an affiliate of the global alliance but not officially a chapter. The Alliance started as a grass-roots effort to advocate for water quality standards in the Hudson Bay and was officially founded in 1999. Now there are more than 300 Alliance organizations around the world, with the mission to make local waters "drinkable, fishable and swimmable."

Cassani has a degree in biology and worked as a resource manager for local governments in southwest Florida. He is the designated waterkeeper for the organization and is qualified to execute water sampling. In turn he will train up to 11 rangers, who will volunteer both their time and water vessels to help monitor local waterways.

The Waterkeeper will also respond to calls about potential polluted bodies, Green said. A concerned citizen can call the group and it will investigate within its legal boundaries - although it will use litigation when necessary, he said.

"We're testing for health reasons," Green said. Cyanobacteria will be one of their main targets following the Lake Okeechobee algal blooms in 2016. "It isn't regularly tested for, and it's expensive to test."

The group is avoiding repetition with other agencies and environmental organizations in terms of both testing and awareness-building.

"Everyone has a niche. We're going beyond education and advocacy, and if we have to litigate we will," he said. "Protesting has its benefits, but our niche is our science."

Green and Cassani spoke at the Jan. 11 Marine Resources Task Force meeting about their new organization and its mission. Since the town is also looking into water testing, Cassani and Green sought to make their efforts known as well.

"We're not trying to be aggressive, but see what are your priorities and how does that dovetail with us?" Cassani said. "It could be cost-effective to work together."

Green is acting as the organization's executive director, working on the administrative side and soliciting donations. Both he and Cassani are paid for their time - and the Waterkeeper Alliance organization expects its leaders to focus on the local chapter full time - but are seeking donations to help compensate volunteers. They've already received several generous donations: Tom Torgerson gave the Waterkeeper a 14-foot rigid inflatable boat and another donor gave the organization two sets of water testing equipment. Green is helping to organization a kick-off event in February to raise awareness for the group's efforts.

Green was the director at the town until 2010. He's been taking some time off the last few years and dabbling around, he said, but got more and more involved in water quality over the years. His job now will be asking for money, something he said he hates to do, but he said it's a good cause.

"Unfortunately our state administration and government's actions speak louder than words," he said. "We're at a point when non-government forces are forcing the government to do its job."