News Press

November 16, 2010

Editorial: A Riverkeeper can help clean up Calooshatchee

Program would help campaign to save river

Lots of people and organizations are fighting to protect and restore the much-abused Caloosahatchee River, but Bill Hammond says something is missing.

"The river needs a human face," says Hammond, a longtime environmental educator and activist in Southwest Florida. He's talking about a person or people who will, among other things, be a highly visible presence on the river, advocating for it with ordinary people not yet part of the campaign to save it.

He wants to see a Riverkeeper or Waterkeeper program for the Caloosahatchee and its basin and estuary. The Riverkeeper program got started on the Hudson River in the 1960s and helped in the remarkable cleanup of that river system. About 200 such programs, including five in Florida, have been organized since then around the world under the Waterkeeper Alliance to fight for protection and restoration of rivers, lakes, bays and other water bodies.

Riverkeeper programs can take different approaches, but they all cruise in vessels emblazoned with the Riverkeeper name, calling attention to environmental problems and offenders, galvanizing grass-roots civic action and using the courts if necessary to enforce environmental law.

Jennifer Hecker is director of Natural Resource Policy at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, which has taken a lead role in the fight for increased minimum freshwater flow for the river to protect it from excess salinity. She says many of the classic roles of a Riverkeeper program are already being filled on the Caloosahatchee, including advocacy with government agencies, gathering of scientific data, public education and the organization of citizen networks. "There has to be a clear added benefit" for a Riverkeeper program to succeed, Hecker says.

Hammond agrees environmental groups active on the Caloosahatchee do a good job on the technical issues, fighting the agencies and working with the informed people already interested in the river. (See boxes.)

But he sees a riverkeeper engaging ordinary people at boat ramps, riverside picnic areas and fishing grounds, as well as tackling the issues and reporting violators. "People see that boat, and they wonder what's going on. They ask questions. They tell the riverkeeper about problems they've seen."