September 10, 2010

Region’s life-sustaining artery is in critical condition

By Amy Bennett Williams


The Caloosahatchee River, the region’s life-sustaining artery, is in critical condition: clogged, contaminated and controversial. From toxic algae blooms to fecal bacteria in its water, the river’s health is under constant assault, despite 15 years of concerted efforts by citizens and scientists alike.

Yet this ancient, altered waterway remains a vital part of Southwest Florida’s identity — and its plumbing.

As it flows 75 miles from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico, past citrus groves and ranchlands, through sleepy hamlets and urban downtowns, the Caloosahatchee carries our pleasure boats and wastewater alike.

The fate of Lee’s $2.6 billion tourism industry as well as commercial and recreational fishing are inextricably bound to the Caloosahatchee.

“A healthy river and estuary help to keep the beaches healthy and visitors returning,” says Kurt Harclerode, operations manager for Lee County’s natural resources division, which monitor’s the county’s water quality.

But as crises have become chronic, that health is anything but certain.

• More than 300 acres of its sea grass killed in 2001 have stayed barren, a devastating loss to the creatures that depend on grass beds for food and shelter: from larval fish to grazing manatees.

• In the last decade, algae have bloomed every year except 2002, sometimes triggering massive fish kills and forcing shutdowns of the Olga Water Treatment plant, which serves 35,000 homes.

• Because of high counts of fecal bacteria in river water over the last decade, the Lee County Public Health Department has warned swimmers repeatedly against using the riverfront beach at the Cape Coral Yacht Club; an advisory issued last month was lifted earlier this week.

Meanwhile, long-simmering anger among its advocates is peaking — especially at the South Florida Water Management District, the agency with the greatest measure of control over the Caloosahatchee’s condition.

“We pay taxes the same as everyone else in the District, but we get just a fraction of the services,’’ says Southwest Florida biologist Rae Ann Wessel. “Instead of equity, they treat the Caloosahatchee like a drainage ditch. The level of frustration is over the top. How many ways can we tell them, ‘We don’t want to be your toilet?’ ”


Residents act

Such troubles are nothing new. In a 1994 report, “River at Risk,” The News-Press dubbed the Caloosahatchee an orphan river. Very little was known about its condition, pointed out environmental educator Bill Hammond, who challenged residents to adopt the river.

The News-Press called a town hall meeting and soon, 20 people banded together to form the Caloosahatchee River Citizens Association, the first non-profit charged with watching over it. Fifteen years later, it’s still on the job. So are several others. What’s more, a variety of agencies and institutions now scrutinize the river.

Some, such as Mote Marine Laboratory, have examined some of its top predators, finding, for example, that the river’s newborn bull sharks carry sewage-borne human contraceptives and antidepressants in their tissues.

Some, such as professor Greg Tolley of FGCU, have learned how manmade changes in salinity can drive its tiniest life forms — baby fish and other creatures — to gather in areas where they become easy pickings for predators.

Others, such as the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, keep constant tabs on water quality with stations posted along the river’s length to learn how pollution, temperature and water flow affect the river.

Yet reams of data don’t necessarily equal action, points out Wessel, the SCCF’s natural resources policy director. In spite of all the scientific scrutiny, she says, “The river is in deep distress.”

Because the causes of the river’s woes are complex, solutions will have to be multifaceted too, but among the improvements advocates would like are:

• More water storage in places such as filter marshes and wetlands. As a bonus, they could offer new habitat and recreation.

• Restoration of the river and its watershed by clearing exotic vegetation and creating wildlife habitat.

• A water reserve area for the Caloosahatchee (this process has already started).

• Statewide stormwater rules for urban and agricultural areas to save freshwater runoff instead of sending it down the river.


Distant bosses

At the root of the controversy is the fact that the Caloosahatchee as we know it was never meant to be, at least geologically.

It shouldn’t be connected to 730-square-mile Lake Okeechobee (which shouldn’t be fenced behind a dike), it shouldn’t be straight and it shouldn’t have its saltwater walled off from its freshwater with manmade contraptions like the Franklin Lock, 33 miles upriver from its mouth.

The agency principally in charge of the river’s reality is the South Florida Water Management District.

The West Palm Beach-based district’s decisions affect 7.5 million people in a 16-county, 18,000-square mile area that includes Lee, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The Caloosahatchee basin is just one part of a larger system with more populous areas.

FGCU’s Tolley calls it “the poster child of management challenges we face (with) competing interests upstream and downstream.”

Or, as longtime river champion Hammond says, “It’s us against them. And there are more of them.”

Relations between the district and its Caloosahatchee constituents are often tense; negotiations sometimes fruitless. The result, Wessel says, is a river that’s slighted and underserved, because its interests are secondary to the east coast and big agriculture. That frustration is evident in two petitions filed earlier this month by Conservancy-backed advocates seeking to change the way the district deals with the Caloosahatchee. District policy on water use is vague, inadequate and “arbitrary or capricious,” leaving the Caloosahatchee without the water it needs, Jennifer Hecker of the Conservancy said.

It’s not lack of will, says Ken Ammon, the district’s deputy executive director; there’s a problem of perception.

“There are funding issues. There are complexity issues. This agency, myself personally and all my staff are moving as quickly as we can. I know this sounds too much like (President) Clinton, but I feel your pain,” Ammon says. “I live on the St. Lucie and I get in my boat and see the dirty water and smell the oysters dying.” The St. Lucie River is subjected to similar, though fewer, water releases from Lake Okeechobee.

Caloosahatchee stakeholders would be better off working with rather than against the district, he says. “We’re going down this path together. We want to restore the Caloosahatchee and the estuary together and we’ll do a better job as partners.”

By way of progress, Ammon points to a set of rules the district’s board advised adopting Thursday that in part call for no freshwater releases at certain times.
“They’ll go a long way toward increasing the health of the river and its estuary,” he says.


Local damage

The river’s troubles don’t all originate across the state. Closer to home are street gutters and sewers that flush directly into its waters, carrying run-off from vast stretches of paved surfaces and acres of fertilized lawns, all of which foul the water, says retired Fort Myers fishing guide-turned environmental advocate Pete Quasius. “It is also time to clean our own backyards and control stormwater run-off from our street and outflows from our sewage treatment plants.”

He’s referring to six state-permitted plants that send effluent into the river once it’s cleaned to meet Department of Environmental Protection standards.
Since 2005, the plants have exceeded their limits four times, according to DEP records: once at North Fort Myers’ Waterway Estates plant and three times at the south Fort Myers plant.

Over the last five Septembers, all six plants pumped an average of 28 million gallons of wastewater into the river a day.

How much is that? Imagine a fleet of 3,100 18-wheeler tanker trucks filled with treated sewage pulling up to the river. One by one, the drivers drop hoses into the water, crank open valves and drain each of their tanks.

The impact of that treated sewage pales in comparison to what washes into the river from the land and the lake. “It’s by far more damaging, overall,” says Jennifer Nelson of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Certainly, conditions could be worse; the Mississippi River had 700 million pounds of toxic waste dumped into it between 1990 to 1994, reports the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.

The river’s health is secondary to its scenic value, says Downing-Frye Realty vice president Mike Hughes.

“Most people who live on the Caloosahatchee like the view, but I seriously doubt many swim in it. Most of those people just swim in their pools.”