Billy's Creek is cleaner thanks to kayak group

By Jennifer Booth Reed


December 7, 2008

Saturday morning dawned along the shore of Billy’s Creek, where nine brightly-colored kayaks awaited their maiden voyage.

The Friends of Billy’s Creek, a band of environmental activists, purchased them with a $9,000 grant from the Claibourne and Ned Foulds Foundation. They are the first kayaks the group owns and they’ll allow more volunteers to sweep the six-mile creek for trash as part of their ongoing effort to clean it up.

But like most efforts with this group, the plans are much more ambitious.

Mary Rawl, the group’s founder and current treasurer, and other volunteers plan to spin a new group off their organization called the Paddle Sports Alliance, an educational wing dedicated to teaching people about water sports and making them accessible to residents, particularly children whose families might not otherwise be able to afford kayak purchases or rentals. Eventually, the group hopes to own a fleet of 20 to 30 boats.

“I would like this to be the cool Huck Finn experience for kids,” said Rawl, saying she envisioned children heading out with boat and fishing pole for a lazy afternoon on the river.

Three years ago when the Friends group got started, the scene was hardly so picturesque.

“We hauled four tons of trash on that first cleanup,” Rawl said.

Tires, toys, derelict boats, buckets, you name it.

“I didn’t even bother with the bottles in the trees,” member Chester Young said of that first trip. There were too many big items to haul. “(Now) you have to travel farther to find less.”

Even so, cleanup volunteers on Saturday — including about 10 members of Edison State College’s new environmental and social awareness club — returned to the boat launch at Rock Lake Resort with plenty of mucky junk.

The Friends group started with the idea of cleaning up the waterway, which begins east of Interstate 75 and runs into the Caloosahatchee River, but the project mushroomed. Together with partners that include the county, Fort Myers and South Florida Water Management District, volunteers have launched an entire restoration and public access project for the 14-square-mile watershed. Rawl estimates about $4 million to $5 million has been committed to the effort.

Many of the creek’s problems, aside from human carelessness, are the result of development and the way it has changed the natural pattern of stormwater drainage.

To compensate, the Friends of Billy’s Creek volunteers and their governmental partners have broken ground on a new filter marsh — a project that will slow the flow of water, allowing more of it to sink into the ground and letting the remainder filter through plants that suck out pollutants.

“It’s like your kidneys,” said Karen Bickford, a group volunteer and principal planner for Lee County.

The volunteers also want to stabilize the creek banks and create swales, grassy troughs along roadways that can help manage water runoff, Bickford said.

The creek has been integrated into the Great Calusa Blueway, a network of paddling trails, and there are plans to create hiking trails along the shore.

And perhaps all the efforts could connect the diverse neighborhoods that lie along its shore, said Forest Michael, a landscape architect and planner who lives in Winter Park but has been involved with projects along the Caloosahatchee.

“Maybe (the creek) can bring these communities together,” he said.