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Captains for Clean Water starts long fight

By Staff | Mar 30, 2016

Kayla Baker of Pine Island holds one of the Captain for Clean Water signs in front of the Sanibel Community House, for the group’s support meeting Tuesday, March 22. BRIAN WIERIMA

The first of what could potential be many future meetings by the Captains for Clean Water group was held Tuesday, March 22, inside the Sanibel Community House and the message related was perfectly clear, unlike the murky water which has plagued the shores of Southwest Florida for the last two months.

“Stop harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee to our estuaries,” said Captain Blake Matherly, who is one of the founders of Captains for Clean Water.

The meeting attracted nearly 200 people ranging from residents to business owners on Sanibel. The message conveyed was also a simple one, said 25-year-old Captain Daniel Andrews.

“This is not a scientific problem, this is a political problem,” Andrews said. “Move the flow south.”

The Lake Okeechobee discharges to the Caloosahatchee River, which eventually drains into the estuaries of Sanibel, started after the abnormally high amount of rainfall which was had over the course of January.

William Kollman helped spread the word on the Captains for Clean Water meeting, which was March 22, inside the Community House. BRIAN WIERIMA

The discharges, along with the runoff from surrounding areas into the Caloosahatchee River watershed, resulted in dark, murky and dirty water down the coast of Southwest Florida. Normally pristine blue during this time of year – which is also the peak season for tourists – the invasion of the brown water has put a damper on economic and environmental expectations.

“Although the fishing is still great around here, fishing charter business is down almost 50-percent,” Andrews said. “No other business has been affected that bad. I’ve seen it firsthand and I am disappointed more hasn’t been done.”

The discharges, which not only darkens the water, but also sends plumes of freshwater through the estuaries, thus disrupting the marine wildlife which depends on a certain level of salinity to survive.

Important seagrass beds have been dying because of the discharges and that alone could affect many different wildlife in the area.

James Evans, who is the Director of Natural Resources of Sanibel, explained to the audience the history of the Caloosahatchee River, which is the freeway of the Lake Okeechobee discharges.

Florida House of Representative (78th District) Heather Fitzenhagen attended the Captains for Clean Water meeting March 22, and put her full support behind the group’s mission of buying land south of Lake Okeechobee for drainage to the Everglades. BRIAN WIERIMA

“Before, the river used to meander its way down to the Gulf through marshes and that slowed the water down and helped it become clear,” Evans said. “But after the Caloosahatchee was dredged to take on the discharges from Lake Okeechobee, it basically turned into a drainage ditch and the water gets here very quickly now.”

The solution, in essence, is simple in words and that’s directing the water flow from Lake Okeechobee where it was supposed to go naturally – South to the Everglades.

But that’s where simplicity ends.

The land south of Lake Okeechobee needs to be purchased and used as water storage and allowed to let the flow of water run to the Everglades.

Amendment 1 was passed by nearly 75-percent of voters to purchase those lands in 2014, with the ballot title saying, “Water and Land Conservation – Dedicates funds to acquire and restore Florida conservation and recreation lands.”

Michael Donovan, the executive director for bullsugar.org, talked with the attendees at the Captains for Clean Water meeting March 22. BRIAN WIERIMA

The Land Acquisition Trust Fund was developed, “to acquire and improve conservation easements, wildlife management areas, wetlands, forests, fish and wildlife habitats, beaches and shores, recreational trails and parks, urban open space, rural landscapes, working farms and ranches, historical and geological sites, lands protecting water and drinking water resources and lands in the Everglades Agricultural Areas and the Everglades Protection Area.

“The fund was designed to manage and restore natural systems and to enhance public access and recreational use of conservation lands.”

That didn’t happen, as the deadline to purchase those acres south of Lake Okeechobee expired.

Now the stage is a political battleground, as the majority of the land is owned by big sugar corporations and they don’t want to sell anymore.

The initiative of the Captains for Clean Water is to educate people about the discharge and flow problem and to start pressuring the politicians to start working on a solution.

Captain Daniel Andrews, who is one of the founders of Captains for Clean Water, speaks about the necessity of addressing the problems of Lake Okeechobee discharges now, not later. BRIAN WIERIMA

One representative who attended the meeting, while lending her support was Republican House of Representative for the 78th District Heather Fitzenhagen.

“I campaigned on clean water, but I was one person,” Fitzenhagen said. “I don’t feel like I’m one person anymore, especially seeing all these people in this room tonight. I want to see a bill sooner rather than later. But it’s a multi-faceted solution, it needs to be a longterm solution and I can’t flip a switch and fix it tomorrow.

“But you heard it here first, I am a proponent of buying land south of Lake Okeechobee.”

Another speaker was Michael Donovan, the executive director of bullsugar.org, an organization dedicated to stopping polluted discharges into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers to help save the Florida Bay.

Their motto is “Clean politics equals clean water.”

“We are here to identify the people who are the problem and then educate them,” Donovan said. “We’ll tell the truth.”

Donovan said Bullsugar.com has identified the “bad people” who have contributed to the clean water problem by representing the big corporations like sugar, fertilizer and agriculture, while ignoring the voice of the people.

“Public enemy No. 1 is Rep. Matt Caldwell in Lehigh Acres,” Donovan said. “He is bringing in all the dirty money from big sugar.”

Donovan also went on to name Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker as another “bad person”.

“Governor Rick Scott, he is the head of the criminal conspiracy, in my opinion,” Donovan said. “We have to pressure him in every which way possible.”

A question from the audience asked about Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane and if he is working for a solution.

“He’s learning, by his own admission, on these issues and he’s our friend in this matter,” Donovan said. “He is listening intently, and I think he is becoming an expert in this. I believe his heart is in the right place. If you live on Sanibel, you should keep in contact with him.”

United States Congressman Curt Clawson also drew praise from Donovan, especially after sponsoring a bill which would have the feds step in and buy land south of Lake Okeechobee, if the state fails to act.

The bill calls for $500 million to purchase land, which could accumulate up to 67,000 acres with current prices.

“That would be a big chunk,” Evans added.

But Donovan was guarded about Clawson’s bill.

“We need to make sure Congressman Clawson is serious about passing this bill,” Donovan said. “Email him, make sure he goes through with it.”

Donovan continued that doing away with sugar subsidies would be an important step in reaching a solution, which in turn would “disrupt their business model” and ultimately land could be cheaper to purchase.

“You’ve been entirely too nice about this, but no more,” Donovan said.

To learn more about the mission of Captains for Clean Water, visit captainsforcleanwater.org/.