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RiverWatch re-energizes after Lake O discharge

By Staff | Apr 20, 2016

The latest Lake Okeechobee discharge event has had many effects up and down the coastline, as well as throughout the Caloosahatchee River water basin and estuary.

Jobs, environment, tourism and just the way of living in Southwest Florida has seen the ill effects of what the discharges brought.

Especially with the murky waters invading the estuaries and the usual pristine, clean water of the Gulf coming at the height of the busy season, exposure of the discharges was at an all-time high.

Now with the dark water receding along with the lessening of the discharges from Lake Okeechobee, it’s not time to sweep this last event under the rug and wait for the next time it happens.

Several groups in the area are going to make sure to keep this latest event at the forefront of the publics’ and politicians’ minds and one of those is the resurrected Caloosahatchee Riverwatch group, through the Caloosahatchee River Citizens Association.

Formed and incorporated in 1995 as a watchdog organization for helping keep clean water in the Caloosahatchee River, the group was sort of re-energized with the latest Lake ‘O’ discharges and what it brought to the area.

“We were feeling the exact same issues in 1995 than we are having now, it’s just now, it’s much worse,” said River Watch secretary, John Capece. “We were kicking around the idea of ramping up our efforts since 2007 and now we are ready.”

Riverwatch is a Waterkeeper Alliance affiliate, which brings credibility to the group and set its goals and objectives, which they carry the message through gatherings and informational events.

The group consists of a mixture of retired and active professionals from a wide range of fields from biology to law.

“We are all concerned citizens,” Capece said. “We have professionals who hammer out the scientific proof, such as John Cassani (FGCU professor and Southwest Florida Watershed Council President) and James Evans (Sanibel’s Director of Natural Resources). But we are more of a citizens who want to raise awareness, more than anything.”

The goals and objectives of Riverwatch include:

  • To strive to improve the River from its source to its mouth, including its impacts on riparian and estuarine systems, wildlife habitat, and marine life.
  • To promote public education concerning the historical significance, present condition, and future of the River and its watershed.
  • To increase public awareness of the importance of the River to our quality of life.
  • To study the effect of domestic, commercial, and agricultural uses of the River’s resources.
  • To monitor and work to improve the River’s water quality, quantity, and flow characteristics.
  • To observe and participate in the activities of public bodies responsible for the management of the River and its watershed.

The Riverwatch group also received a big boost to bring their presence on the river and the estuaries with the addition of a boat, which will allow members to travel up and down the river to spread their message to river property owners.

Relatively speaking, Riverwatch is a smaller organization and has a budget of about $10,000 a year.

“But we traditionally have had a disproportionate impact because our people, including our Riverwatch specialists, are all volunteers and bring lots of expertise, experience and time to the organization and its projects,” Capece said. “Unlike most Waterkeeper areas, our region already has many environmental organizations focused on water issues. Therefore the Riverwatch proposal included a Waterkeeper Council in which all the various groups could help fund and oversee the Waterkeeper program.

“So far the other groups have not felt like they could participate, but we remain hopeful.”

With water quality at the forefront now, Riverwatch vice president Gene Gibson hopes that momentum stays alive and the group can grow.

“We want to talk with the people who are out on the water,” Gibson said. “People such as the fishing charter captains, who know what’s going out on the water, along with the Captains for Clean Water group.”

Issues such as transparency in the water, which is affected by the murky water from the Caloosahatchee Basin runoff and discharges from Lake Okeechobee, are important talking points.

“There was a study done by the Florida Realtors Association and it was found out that $1 billion was lost in property value for every foot of lost clarity in the water,” Gibson said. “And that’s before the economic impact on tourism and the fisheries.”

Riverwatch’s goal is to be the voice of the river, meaning spreading information about the negative effects being felt.

Environmental legal actions are also a tool the group can use to help the river.

“The WaterKeeper Alliance does the litigation and they have 270 organizations in 70 different countries,” Capece said.

Working with such conservation organizations as the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation is another way to provide evidence to back up the group’s message.

Overall, the Riverwatch action plan includes four basic tools of being the Caloosahatchee’s keeper.

The first is regulatory. Riverwatch will ensure regulations are adequate for the vision of a quality river and estuarine system and see that they are being enforced.

The Waterkeeper Affiliate Director will coordinate with Lee County Mosquito Control, Lee County Natural Resources, Lee County Utilities and the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation in monitoring the quality of the river and estuarine system.

When adverse conditions like toxic algal blooms are in evidence, the Waterkeeper Affiliate will notify the public agencies in charge and pursue a course of action for alleviation of any negative conditions.

The second is to ensure that issues of the river are identified, and where public remediation is needed, a reliable and interactive budget is created and maintained for a program of remediation.

Advocacy is the third point and that entails keeping public agencies informed of the needs of the Caloosahatchee and the estuary.

The “bully pulpit” is the fourth tool and that is to maintain and expand public knowledge of the river and the estuary, and how important it is to the areas economy and future.

The bi-annual event Riverwatch holds is “Billy’s Clean-up”, which also acts as a membership drive.

To learn more about the Caloosahatchee Riverwatch group or to join or donate, visit their website at .