Amy Bennett Williams
| Fort Myers News-Press
Research scientists are studying tape grass in the Caloosahatchee River
SCCF Research Scientist Rick Bartleson talks about the research happening on tape grass in the Caloosahatchee River on Wednesday, June 17, 2020.
Amanda Inscore, AINSCORE@NEWS-PRESS.COM
Calf deep in chilly Pine Island Sound, scientist Eric Milbrandt and politician Ken Russell strode toward a jagged clump of shells, looking for signs of life.
They found them – sort of.
What was once a thriving oyster reef, popping and clicking with scores of busily filtering mollusks, had been reduced by about a third.
After years of assaults in the form of pollution from local runoff and freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee, many of the region’s oysters have gone the way of its once-lush seagrass beds.
“You can see how many dead animals there are,” said Milbrandt, crunching over mostly vacated shells. “There are a few live ones. But when you look around, you see a lot of ones that are dead and open.”
In hopes of sparking a cross-state collaboration, Russell, a Miami commissioner and board member of the Everglades Trust, has been on a quest to learn about this region’s water challenges. To that end, he enlisted the nonprofit Captains for Clean Water to host a cruise of the lower Caloosahatchee and its estuary, where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico, so he could see the region’s water quality firsthand.
The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s research vessel, the Norma Campbell, was part of the four-boat flotilla. Joining in were SCCF staff, Sanibel and Everglades Trust officials and area reporters.
The east-meets-west cruise traced the Caloosahatchee to Cape Coral, then out past Sanibel and Captiva to Pine Island Sound, with stops along the way to point out the devastation caused by polluted water: few birds, muddy tides, decimated fish.
Once upon a time, when Lake Okeechobee rose, it would spill over its southern bank and flow in a shallow sheet to the Everglades, but humans walled it off, connecting the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and permanently tying it into the Gulf and Atlantic. The two canalized rivers now act as giant drain pipes when the lake gets so full it threatens the surrounding area.
How can releases from Lake Okeechobee help and hurt Caloosahatchee?
Lake releases can both help and hurt the Caloosahatchee.
In the dry season, they help maintain the proper fresh and saltwater balance in the river’s tidal portion, but too much water too often can blow out the estuary, as Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani characterizes it, shading sea grass, killing creatures that can’t get out of its way and fertilizing harmful algae blooms of cyanobacteria and red tide.
Russell made a similar inspection tour of the St. Lucie last month. Like the Caloosahatchee, that river gets blasted with discharges from Lake O, but unlike the Caloosahatchee, which needs some of the lake’s fresh water when the rains taper off, St. Lucie advocates never welcome lake water.
Milbrandt, who directs the SCCF’s marine lab, explained to Russell that though the oysters can survive in freshwater for a time, eventually too much lake water dooms them.
But neither man has given up hope. If Russell gets his way, his Wednesday morning voyage will forge connections to help improve the waters throughout south Florida,
Changing water flow could help aquifer Miami depends on for drinking water
Russell is concerned about the ever-saltier Biscayne aquifer Miami depends on for drinking water. If the lake water could flow to the Everglades, instead of east and west, it could replenish that aquifer, rather than damaging coastal estuaries, he said.
“The whole reason I’m learning about this – and why Miami could and should be interested in the waters of the Caloosahatchee River – is that … even though we care about the water for different reasons, I think we have the same goal,” Russell said. “We could be working together to advocate for that Lake O water to head south instead of out to the west to the Caloosahatchee and east to the St. Lucie,” he said. “So the goal is to build relationships and help however we can.”
Following the trip, Russell headed to Fort Myers to meet with Mayor Kevin Anderson and Lee County Commission Chair Kevin Ruane. Sanibel Vice Mayor Holly Smith applauds his connection-making.
“To have someone reach out from somewhere like Miami and say, ‘We’ve all got a concern, but how do we work together to make that concern heard?’ is a great start and I believe it’s going to continue from here,” Smith said. “There have been so many disconnects.
“It’s easy to look at your one community and see what you need, but in terms of our state water … if we all work together and have a little give and take, the end goal is protecting our waterways.”
The word of the day was “synergy,” though “holistic” came in a close second, as the group brainstormed about how to benefit the entire lower part of the state.
‘Rewriting Florida history’ by making changes hap
The sooner the better, says Bob Brooks, who’s volunteered for Captains for Clean Water ever since he and his wife of nearly 49 years moved from the Jersey shore to Sanibel.
After they built their dream home, they watched in dismay as the gorgeous turquoise water that lured them in the first place turned poop brown (though the word Brooks uses isn’t poop) after a heavy bout of lake discharges.
“When my granddaughter asks me, ‘When this happened, why didn’t you do something about it?’ I don’t want to be the guy who looks at her and doesn’t have an answer.
“I want to be able to say to her, ‘Ophelia, I did everything I could about it,’ and that’s why I’m with these guys” – he gestures toward Captain Chris Wittman’s boat.
“These guys are rewriting Florida history with what they’ve changed and what they’ve accomplished in the past five years.”