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Finding Solutions to Southwest Florida's Water-Quality Issue

How two local groups are mobilizing the public to fight for clean water.



Below photo by Jim Freeman

Daniel Andrews flips his cap backward to prevent the Gulf winds from spiriting it away as Chris Wittman steers the fishing boat near Sanibel Island. The weather conditions are idyllic: sunshine, blue skies, spare clouds. The problem is the water, the fishing guides-turned-advocates agreed.

One side of San Carlos Bay was murky brown, the other side aquamarine. Andrews, 27, is the executive director for the Lee County nonprofit newcomer, Captains for Clean Water. Wittman, 41, is its program director.

The contrast reminds Andrews of when, days earlier, he had been out there gathering images of the brown water to share with their more than 15,000 Instagram followers. “It was like you just deleted everyone off the beach,” Andrews notes. “Everyone was on the green side.”

With caps and fishing shirts, they do not look the part of typical gad-flies. But the pair is among the chorus of Southwest Florida businesspeople and residents clamoring for change as yet another toxic algal bloom slimed the Caloosahatchee River. This summer’s environmental disaster highlighted decades of water mismanagement and flimsy political will to resolve notorious problems with pollutants and Lake Okeechobee water flows. Questions linger about the harm these blooms deliver to the Sunshine State’s economy and public health.

But it’s certainly not good for either.

  •  In 2016, harmful algal blooms drove away half of would-be Florida tourists, according to a Black Hills State University and University of Florida’s Tourism 
Crisis Management Initiative study. 
  • That summer and this summer, the governor declared a state of emergency for several counties, including Lee.
  • Harmful algal blooms are estimated to cost the United States at least $50 million a year, with public health at about $20 million or about 42 percent of the bill, according to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. 

  • A 2015 Florida Realtors report concluded pollution in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie river systems negatively impacted home values after examining sales and water data from 2010 through 2013. 

Captains for Clean Water represents Floridians tired of witnessing the destruction of waterways they love and depend upon. The Lee County nonprofit Calusa Waterkeeper is another. These groups are fed up with talk. They’re fired up to mobilize the public toward tangible solutions. “These are front-and-center issues now,” says John Cassani, of the Waterkeeper. “If you drink water and breathe air, you’re an environmentalist. Or you should be.” 
 

CAPTAINS FOR CLEAN WATER

“Wow, this is toast.” Andrews (left) scans Fisherman Key close to the Punta Rassa Boat Ramp near the Sanibel Causeway in early June. He calls Wittman (right) to the bow and they reminisce about better days. The spot used to be thick with live oysters and sea grasses. 
“At low tide, you could hear them crackling and popping,” Andrews recalls, wistfully. There was thick turtle grass, rather than the patchy shoal grass there now. Schools of red fish populated the water, making it a haven for anglers.

“You can’t make a saltwater fishery fresh,” says Wittman, pointing to the environmental havoc that occurs when state agencies deem Lake O too full and send excess water gushing down the Caloosahatchee and into the Gulf. “What can be destroyed in a matter of six months could take a decade to come back.”

These freshwater releases prompted the creation of Captains for Clean Water. Fishing guides couldn’t keep bait alive in the freshwater taking over estuaries. The water stunk. “It was a waste of time to go out and fish,” says Andrews, a Fort Myers-area guide before co-founding Captains.

The group formed after a February 2016 meeting in south Fort Myers lured hundreds of people—mostly fishing guides, commercial fishermen and anglers—shortly after the call was put out on Facebook, Andrews says.

Early on, some guides still wanted them to stay mum about water quality problems. Now, they count those guides among their thousands of supporters and nearly 100,000 social media followers. “Honestly, the whole fishing industry should have been doing this 20 years ago,” Andrews says, “but I think it just took it getting so bad.”

More than 400 fishing captains, business leaders and residents attended the Captains’ annual March gala, where they reported raising more than $200,000. Their assets sat at about $63,000 in 2016, according to charity database GuideStar, which relies on IRS records. They’re seeking to expend their national reach.

Recently, Captains joined the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which seeks to guarantee “all Americans quality places” to fish and hunt.

Board members listed on Captains’ website include anglers and lawyers and Sanibel City Councilman Chauncey Goss. Andrews and Wittman say they hope to diversify their board in expertise and reach into Florida’s east coast and the Keys.

The Captains’ founding statement offers a solution to the problem: “We must take action now on the only viable long-term solution available—restoring the natural flow by purchasing land to treat and convey Lake Okeechobee water south.”

Sending water south is the broad aim behind several federal and state projects. One of the Captains’ first legislative wins came after lobbying in Tallahassee for Florida Senate Bill 10, signed by the governor in May 2017. It supports the construction of a deep-water reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee in the Everglades Agricultural Area with the goal of reducing freshwater discharges to the rivers.

“Leaders in both houses said anglers and business owners made the difference,” Andrews says.

After the SB 10 victory, the group set its sights on securing federal funding for the reservoir. In April, about 20 Captains for Clean Water guides and anglers headed to Washington, D.C., to push for support and funds for the reservoir project.

They’re also lobbying for the Central Everglades Project, connected restoration projects to increase freshwater flows south, and more bridging for Tamiami Trail, Andrews says. The road inhibits southern water flow into the Everglades. Some portions of the road have been lifted.

“Captains are able to influence public policy because we’ve seen the destruction firsthand on a daily basis and are passionate about fixing it,” Andrews says.

What’s more, the guides are connected. Their wealthy, powerful fishing clients have ties to policymakers and influencers. Captains are also closely shored to Florida’s multi-billion dollar fishing industry.

“Leading brands such as YETI, Orvis, SeaDek, Costa Sunglasses, Hell’s Bay Boatworks, Mustad Hooks, Simms and many other companies quickly jumped on board to make the case for what’s at stake to our economy,” Andrews says.

Andrews notes his group is working with federal lawmakers from every state to rally support for the Everglades. They count Congressman Brian Mast on Florida’s east coast and Congressman Francis Rooney in Southwest Florida as allies.

“The Captains for Clean Water are important grassroots advocates in a broad and inclusive coalition that is committed to cleaning our water and restoring our Everglades,” Rooney wrote in an email to Gulfshore Business. “Their voice provides the unique perspective of those whose very livelihood depends on our waterways.”

Former Lee County commissioner and current environmental consultant Ray Judah lauded the group’s ability to develop a political voice, raise money and collaborate with the fishing industry. Judah has been working on solutions to the Lake Okeechobee discharges for about two decades. His hope is that Captains for Clean Water delve deeply into the details to meaningfully impact change. “You need to get into the weeds.”

While the Captains may be newcomers to the advocacy game, the guides reared on these waters share a deep-felt desire to protect them. Their legislative goals may feel lofty, but their main goal is concrete. “Our number one goal is providing science-based information to educate the public on lasting solutions to our water crisis,” Andrews says.

This summer, the group did so by regularly sharing social media updates and representing the passionate voices of anglers in media coverage. Fishing guides hold a different kind of sway than environmentalists. Save my job is message that resonates, particularly with lawmakers, says Andrews. “When you do engage a group of unlikely advocates, it does go a long way.” 


SLIME FIGHTER: John Cassani, the Calusa Waterkeeper, gathers samples to test for toxins in algae 
that bloomed in the Caloosahatchee River. 
Courtesy Calusa Waterkeeper

CALUSA WATERKEEPER ​

John Cassani sighs as he spots a man fishing in the Caloosahatchee River in Alva. The man’s pole is dipped in guacamole-green algae. Technically, the name for this floating mass is “cyanobacteria.” This late June morning Cassani is collecting samples from the river to find out if the bloom is toxic.

Florida does not have a specific agency tasked with monitoring harmful freshwater algal blooms. Cassani would like the state to rein-state a task force that was defunded. In the meantime, this small nonprofit is picking up some of the slack.

“One of the substances that cyanobacteria produces is linked to neurodegenerative diseases. Alzheimer’s disease. ALS,” says Cassani, shaking his head with dismay as he considers the angler. “Yeah, it’s bad stuff. The hideous thing is that it bioaccumulates in the food chain. So if a big fish eats a little fish, it brings that burden with it. That’s been studied and it’s in the Caloosahatchee food chain.”

There’s a host of health problems with harmful algal blooms. The algae alone can make you sick if swallowed. If toxic, it’s obviously worse. The toxins have been linked to liver damage. And while a 2017 USGS review of data could not confirm a causal link between toxin exposure and severe neurological diseases, research has indicated otherwise in animals, Cassani notes. “Knowing this, would you risk exposure to it?” he asks. “We need to expedite the public health risk understanding.”

Cassani, 65, became the Waterkeeper, after retiring as deputy director of the Lee County Hyacinth Control District, where he worked 36 years. He holds the title of Waterkeeper, though it also the name of the group.

Calusa Waterkeeper began as the Caloosahatchee River Citizens Association, or Riverwatch, in 1995. Riverwatch leaders had long considered joining the national Waterkeeper Alliance to tap into its vast advocacy network and branding, says John Capece, a board director and founding Riverwatch member.

“It is a strong brand that brings us immediate local and state name recognition beyond what we had as Caloosahatchee Riverwatch,” says Capece, noting they collaborate with the 10 other Waterkeepers in Florida on state issues.

They became an official Waterkeeper member in 2016. Cassani, a biologist by training, has been involved with Riverwatch since the early days and is known as a tireless advocate. “John is a true scientist, and that’s a real plus,” Judah says. “He understands the bigger picture, but, politically, it’s very difficult.”

Capece, a Florida native, has a background in agricultural engineering. The board includes, among others, a retired lawyer, a finance director, an agriculturist, and local husband and wife environmental dynamos Wayne and Marti Daltry, former group presidents who have recently returned as board directors.

Capece was humble about the group’s victories. “That is a question for others to answer since victories are more an external perception.”

Fair enough. Here are a few recent examples of when agencies fell short and the Waterkeeper stepped up.

In April, the group pressed the Fort Myers City Council and Lee County Commissioners to put up cautionary signage at Billie’s Creek in Fort Myers where enterococci bacteria has consistently exceeded safe standards, according to The News-Press. During the summer algal bloom, Cassani pushed for the closure of a swimming beach at the W.P. Franklin Lock South Recreation Area along the Caloosahatchee. The beach was cordoned off shortly after Cassani reached out to leaders.

The Calusa Waterkeeper’s mission is a hefty one: to protect and preserve the Caloosahatchee River from Lake Okeechobee to the coastal waters. But the group aims to grow its budget to its ambitions. It operated with assets of about $55,000 in 2016, GuideStar’s IRS records show.

A recent addition to offer that boost is K.C. Schulberg, a Naples filmmaker hired in July as the executive director. Schulberg aims to double the budget within a year and construct a larger platform to increase their advocacy reach.

“The legislators, city, state, local, federal are ultimately responsible for the problem that we have through lack of action,” says Schulberg. “We need to get the local citizenry to hold them responsible.”

More money could mean more testing, when agencies are slow to respond. They sample during crises like blooms and fish kills and monthly throughout the county for entercocci bacteria as well. Schulberg, who organized large social justice events in Collier County, also hopes to grow the number of volunteers monitoring water quality.

A large part of Cassani’s work is sampling. He pulls on plastic gloves this morning, attaches a bottle to a rod and stands onshore as he dips the bottle into the slime-coated water. He repeats this at four more river locations near Alva and LaBelle.

This particular morning, Cassani worries not only about the angler fishing in the slime but also the people who will flock to the water to fish, swim and Jet Ski. He was right to worry. A few days after his late June sampling, results show toxins far exceeding safe recreational thresholds. He informs the public through media contacts and the Waterkeeper’s large social media following. His warnings came before the Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced their results.

Throughout the summer, Cassani was a near-constant voice in the media cautioning of the toxic bloom’s health risks. He called for better public signage.

“Why take a chance? Why not give the people the benefit of the doubt? I think the reason is that community business people and real estate people do not want to see a water contamination sign in their community.”

Certainly it has been a hectic few months for the Calusa Waterkeeper and the Captains. But this summer’s outrage over the green mess has also provided fuel for the battles related to their larger demand: clean water. 

***

HEALTH GUIDELINES

  •  Do not swim in blue-green algae blooms.
  •  If you come into contact with the bloom, wash with soap and water.
  •  People sensitive to the algae or smells might develop a rash or respiratory irritation.
  •  Do not eat fish caught near or in blooms.
  •  Untreated water from the blooms should not be used for irrigation.
  •  Do not allow pets to swim in the blooms or drink water near the blooms.
  •  If pets go in the water near a bloom, rinse them before letting them lick their fur.
  •  If the blue-green bloom is toxic, as it was this summer, high levels of the toxins can affect the gastrointestinal tract, liver, nervous system and skin.

—Source: Florida Department of Health 

FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT: 

CALUSA WATERKEEPER 

calusawaterkeeper.org

CAPTAINS FOR CLEAN WATER 

captainsforcleanwater.org 

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