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Calusa Waterkeeper marks 25 years of protecting, restoring Caloosahatchee and waters

By Staff | Jun 16, 2020

CAT CHASE MEDIA Calusa Waterkeeper Executive Director K.C. Schulberg and Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani.

Although Calusa Waterkeeper is celebrating its silver anniversary, the organization has a long way to go to fulfill its mission of protecting and restoring the Caloosahatchee River from Lake Okeechobee to the coastal waterways.

Calusa Waterkeeper Executive Director KC Schulberg said they really want to pay their respects to the founders, who in 1995 got the idea to create an organization to restore and look after the Caloosahatchee. He extended a special thanks to John Capece, Rae Ann Wessel, Marti and Wayne Daltry, and Mary Rawl, the five early pioneers of the organization who are still around today.

“They did amazing work. I’m kind of humbled by the work that they did and lay the groundwork for all of this,” he said. “It wasn’t quite as popular as it was today.”

Twenty-five years ago in the spring of 1995, the Caloosahatchee River Citizens Association (CRCA) began. Although the organization changed its name to Calusa Waterkeeper in 2016, the mission remained the same.

Capece said a group of people came together in 1994 as a result of a community forum organized by the News-Press about the ongoing issues of the Caloosahatchee, which at the time was already quite severe. CRCA started River Ride, a bike ride fundraiser and awareness builder, which ran for 18 years from 1996 to 2014.

In 2004, Wessel and Capece secured a $500,000 Oxbow Restoration grant from the South Florida Water Management District while serving as CRCA directors. Two years later, CRCA was successful in getting the Caloosahatchee listed as one of the country’s 10 most endangered rivers by the American Rivers organization, resulting in much needed national attention to the impaired waterway.

CRCA became an affiliate member of the international Waterkeeper Alliance in 2015 and a full member the following year in 2016, when it changed its name to Calusa Waterkeeper. John Cassani was also its first waterkeeper that same year.

Capece said when they became a member of the international Waterkeeper Alliance, they joined an organization with 350 members across the United States and other countries. He said they had considered converting to the alliance in the ’90s, but became serious in 2010.

Capece said an important aspect of waterkeeper is to try to get to the source of the problem.

Schulberg said one of the first things Cassani did when he became the waterkeeper was start the Calusa Waterkeeper Ranger Program, which trains citizen scientists.

“We have had about five ranger education academies. It’s basically six to eight hours of training on basic science, hydrology and a little bit of advocacy and some of our standards,” he said. “They start pitching in and it has been amazing. The Waterkeeper rangers amplify our ability to test the water.”

After the rangers go through certification training, they go out to do water sampling and bring it back to Cassani for laboratory testing.

“They really shoulder a lot of burden. They do it all as volunteers,” Schulberg said. “They show up at town halls and meetings and are our eyes and ears and speak in a very informed, moving way of what the water means to them.”

There are 84 rangers, with some being more involved than others.

“It’s an amazing body of volunteers. We are just in awe of the rangers and the contribution of time, energy and thoughtfulness,” he said.

In July 2018, Calusa Waterkeeper hired Schulberg as the executive director, gathering more steam for the organization. It has emerged as the leading authority on harmful algal blooms and public health over the last two years and has produced a documentary called “Troubled Waters.”

Capece said once they brought on Cassani, a biologist who understands the fresh water and marines, and Schulberg, an incredible organizer and perfect teammate for Cassani, he began focusing his attention on inland fresh water and is now serving as the Kissimmee waterkeeper.

In 2019, Calusa Waterkeeper created a Continuing Medical Education course to train Lee Health doctors and nurses on public health consequences of harmful algal blooms.

Over the last two years, Calusa Waterkeeper, as well as coalition partners, has filed two lawsuits. The first naming federal agencies and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee and the other petitioning the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to set minimum water quality standards for Florida, so that cyanotoxins would be officially recognized as contaminants. Cassani also served as an expert witness, and several of the Calusa Waterkeeper rangers were petitioners for a third lawsuit to block the removal of the Chiquita Lock.

The Calusa Waterkeeper is providing a 16-page 25th anniversary magazine, which was ready on June 15, to share the history of the organization.

“We sort of feel like we have our finger in the dike,” Schulberg said. “I don’t think we are making progress. We are working hard, but the challenges are mounting. We have increasingly warming water, large precipitation events, nutrient loading off the charts, people coming to Florida in droves, sewage and sanitation structures bursting from aging over the years. It’s a challenging time.”

He said they cannot declare victory and they are a long way from achieving their goals.

“It’s going to take some real hard decisions to get Florida to where it remains a really wonderful place to live and a place where they don’t have to worry about their health,” Schulberg said. “It’s going to take some work and pressure and some legislative change.”

He said the good news is that after the algae blooms of 2018, individuals became very sensitized to water issues, which is promising because a lot of people are focused on the issue.

“That’s encouraging, but it really needs to be converted into legislative action,” Schulberg said, which stems from informing the public on the issues and getting them to the poles to elect people to make that change.

Capece said in 1996 he was an assistant professor with the University of Florida and his job was water quality. He said he helped farmers reduce the amount of nutrient pollution coming off their property.

“I remember telling the farmers directly to their faces that if we didn’t immediately clean up our act in 20 years our water would turn green,” Capece said, adding that it came true and every year since there has been severe algae blooms either every year, or every other year, like clockwork.

Capece said what has been accomplished in the environmental movement, when either talking about water or climate change, is that awareness is higher.

“The public is extremely aware of water quality issues and climate change. The tangible progress and action has been extremely limited,” he said.

The focus of the Calusa Waterkeeper is cleaning up the water, so it can be swimmable, fishable and drinkable.

“Water will be the limiting factor that determines what Florida will eventually become with respect to the economy and the environment,” Cassani said in a prepared statement. “Without sustainable planning, future outcomes will likely further segregate winners from losers in terms of access to water for domestic supply and the environment, resulting in major impacts related to tourism, flood control, agriculture and property values. Public health concerns and risk associated with harmful algal blooms and fecal bacteria will become very expensive to solve and likely affect where people choose to live in Florida with enormous influence on the economy.”

Looking forward, the organization continues to stay busy collecting data and sharing information about water quality. On June 10, the Calusa Waterkeeper kicked off a program that will last a couple of years at Billy’s Creek to discover the source of fecal bacteria.

“Bacteria issues are the next frontier for us,” Schulberg said, adding that they want to explore why waterways are contaminated with bacteria. “When the bacteria gets too happy, it’s not too good for human health.”

The organization has been working on Billy’s Creek, a historic creek that runs through North Fort Myers and is adjacent to the Dunbar community, for years. It runs for approximately five miles from headwaters in the Luckett Road Industrial Park to the creek mouth on the Caloosahatchee, near the Beau Rivage and Alta Mar condominiums.

Schulberg said they are intent on improving the condition of Billy’s Creek to help the community. He said, according to their records, the creek has been severely contaminated for at least 10 years.

The project, made possible through funding from the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, will use a stable isotope of nitrogen to differentiate the variable origins of nitrogen in the Billy’s Creek basin. That testing will determine if the nitrogen is from raw domestic sewage, wildlife, septic tanks, treated wastewater or agricultural sources, which will be compared to a concurrent study on the Caloosahatchee.

The second phase, which will take place during September, has a goal of comparing seasonal affects between the tributary and the river at-large. Schulberg said the goal is to try to fix the creek, or at least provide the solutions that hopefully will be adopted by those who can affect the change.

The organization is also looking at holding an event on Oct. 4 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Designation of Estero Bay as an Outstanding Florida Water.

“It’s heartbreaking to see these wonderful bodies of water degrading,” Schulberg said. “People should be able to enjoy them, paddle, fish and swim in them.”

The event will feature a 15-minute movie premier. He said they are determining if they can hold the event in person, or if it needs to be done virtually.

Calusa Waterkeeper is also creating a follow-up movie to “Troubled Waters” this summer, which is tentatively titled “Tainted Waters.” It will feature water quality and public health.

Calusa Palooza, which was postponed in March, has tentatively been set for Dec. 13.

“I am hoping we will be able to have a big happy gathering at Centennial Park,” Schulberg said.

For more information, visit calusawaterkeeper.org.