News Press

November 14, 2010

Is it time for riverkeepers?

Opinion by Wayne Daltry

It is said, "If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach him to fish, and along the Caloosahatchee, he will starve."

We have a river and estuarine system that a century ago bred vast schools of fish, hosted broad lush seagrass beds, and was a place where the manatee found abundant food and freshwater. We have made it a desolate scoured and silted bottom, reduced breeding to remnant niche breeding areas, and made the manatee emigrate to feed.

The greatest disarray has occurred since the passage of the Clean Water Act, four decades ago. In our arrogance, we believed the river could take a little abuse and recover. Sadly, the abuse hasn't been little and it has been virtually nonstop, with the most recent decade starving the river of freshwater in the dry season, and flooding it with dirty water in wet season. Even when furious lobbying and water managers' better angels gave us the occasional appropriate water balance, the water quality still promoted algae blooms.

Yet, the start of the new millennium perhaps also kicked us out of our arrogance, when the damage became too great, lasted too long, and hurt too many of us. We looked into our mirror and saw what we didn't want to see, and decided there needed to be change. And, with an occasional backslide or pocket of delayed understanding, we have. We also asked the communities to our east to understand, and change with us. To a degree, there has been improvements but also egregious resentment to our efforts to reverse the status quo. Progress has not been what is needed, as South Florida Water Management District's failure to act on Nov. 10 demonstrates.

So here we are after 40 years. There is no funded program for remedy, despite much talk. There is no record of vigorous remedy of water quality violations, despite the impact on endangered species, human water supply, and the river-dependent economies. Laws exist, but planning, funding, and enforcement fail.

Has the time come for us to change our approach? Should we pursue through the courts that which we have not gotten from the other branches of government?

Elsewhere in the country there are "riverkeepers" or "waterkeepers," part of an alliance established to use public opinion and the courts to ensure the Clean Water Act is implemented. The primary requirement of the riverkeeper is to be on the designated river, reporting violations to enforcement agencies, and litigating if the enforcement agencies fail in their responsibility. Such entities have a great deal of unpopularity ... and a great deal of popularity, since they exist through fundraising.

These water minutemen have a contemporary history akin to earlier efforts in this area, when the unarmed Audubon Rangers protected surviving birds from plume hunters. The courts were the tool in use then, and are the tool underused now. Is it time now for a river ranger or riverkeeper to pursue equitable and just treatment of this irreplaceable part of our identity?

If "The first duty of society is justice," our past efforts have not achieved that justice for our resource. Now the time or past time we muster our energy and resources to establish this advocate. If we aren't the riverkeepers ... who is?

Wayne Daltry, FAICP, is the retired former director of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, and of the Lee County Smart Growth Initiative. He is the current president of Audubon of SW Florida, and is on the board of directors of Riverwatch and the Responsible Growth Management Coalition.