In 2016, enough was enough for Captains Daniel Andrews and Chris Wittman, long-time fishing guides. Both were weary of water management practices, especially large discharges from Lake Okeechobee, adversely impacting the estuaries that recreational and commercial fishermen depend on. From their frustrations and a desire to restore and protect water resources in Southwest Florida came Captains for Clean Water, a nonprofit grassroots organization headquartered in Fort Myers.
Andrews, a Lee County native, co-founder of the organization with Wittman, has long been aware of regional water quality concerns, but he describes 2013 as an especially disturbing year.
“There was a major water crisis [in Lee County] due to massive discharges from Lake O, which produced huge seagrass and oyster die-offs,” relates Andrews. “I found ways to work around it … but seeing the aftermath, seeing all the estuaries and the death was pretty heartbreaking. After the 2013 discharges, some of my favorite fishing areas were decimated and weren’t even beginning to recover by January 2016, when the next crisis started.”
Andrews explains there are various reasons Lake O discharges are harmful to downstream estuaries, but two are critical. First, massive amounts of freshwater flowing into the estuaries dramatically drops the salinity of the water. The second problem is the high turbidity that Lake O flows create. Brown, cloudy water forms a barrier impeding sunlight penetration, denying seagrasses the ability to photosynthesize. No sugar for plants is a death sentence. And, as with most things ecological, there’s a trickle-down effect because seagrasses sustain incredible amounts of sea life—and sequester large amounts of carbon.
Lake O discharges impact Collier County, too. “The amount of nutrients in Lake O discharges exacerbates red tide,” Andrews relates. “There’s an impact that’s felt in Collier County because of southward water currents.”
Long-time Naples resident Ellin Goetz, who serves as vice chair for The Everglades Foundation’s board of directors and president at Goetz+Stropes Landscape Architects, agrees: “The red tide issue affects the entire county, and I would argue is directly related to waterflows coming out of the Caloosahatchee [from Lake O]. … Too much pollution is coming from there, and we need to get that right.”
Although Captains for Clean Water focuses on policy-related matters, most recently Senate Bill 2508, its chief objectives are education and creating awareness.
“Most of what we do is education and outreach … working with people so that they have a better understanding of how the estuaries relate to them and the economy,” says Andrews. “When an important policy matter comes up, we have no choice. There are decisions that are made at the local, state, and federal levels that affect our water.”
Restoring the Picayune Strand
Constructed on a promise of becoming the largest subdivision in the nation, Southern Golden Gate Estates has had a complicated history. The land was initially logged for cypress trees in the 1940s and 1950s. Soon after, Gulf American Land Corporation (GALC)—at the time one of the largest land sales companies in the United States—purchased this area, eventually selling about 170,000 square acres to some 40,000 buyers, promising a paradisiac city that, in reality, was underwater throughout the rainy season. Buyers often purchased sight unseen or after only viewing the land from an airplane—during the dry season.
To move water off the land and make home lots habitable, GALC constructed more than 300 miles of roads and 170 miles of flood-control canals. The dream of the subdivision never materialized, and what was left behind was a hydrologic disaster.
“Roads are dams; they inherently alter the hydrology. Having canals and draining of the wetlands [also] alters the hydrology. It changes the landscape, and it changes how wildlife uses the land,” says Meredith Budd, regional policy director for the Florida Wildlife Federation.
The first step in remedying the problems involved land reacquisition from thousands of landowners. Funds from the state’s Conservation and Recreation Lands program provided initial support, and in 1998, the federal government allocated $25 million to the state to secure remaining parcels. Today, this reclaimed area is known as Picayune Strand State Forest.
The Picayune Strand Restoration Project, now nearly complete, seeks to restore this area’s natural hydrology, including improved waterflow to Collier-Seminole State Park, Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, and Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Removing crumbling roads, plugging canals, and building pump stations that restore the natural flow of water are all essential to the project, with humans and wildlife both benefiting. Habitats will be restored for plants and animals, and a recharged aquifer will aid in protecting water supplies and mitigating saltwater intrusion.
“Last year, I had the honor of turning on the Faka Union Pump Station, and I’m excited to tell you that we’re actually getting there,” says Charlette Roman, South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) governing board member and retired U.S. Army colonel.
A Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan project, the restoration of Picayune Strand has been championed by several stakeholder groups and government agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and SFWMD, a regional governmental organization that oversees water resources from Orlando to the Keys.
“We’re seeing a tremendous positive ecological response already, and we haven’t completed all of it yet,” explains Roman. “I meet with the Corps regularly … and we’re looking at maybe 2023 for the project to be finished and fully operational.”
Keeping It Real
Across Florida, there are 15 localized groups that form Waterkeepers Florida, a nonprofit that seeks to protect and restore water resources for more than 45,000 square miles of watershed. Collier County Waterkeeper, a nonprofit organization affiliated with Waterkeepers Florida, is directed by Waterkeeper K.C. Schulberg.
“Water quality is degrading; it’s not improving … we’ve got to start fixing this. There’s a lot of people doing wonderful work, but the headwinds are tough,” Schulberg says. “Climate change and so many people coming to Florida stress the environment and our infrastructure.”
A neighbor to the north, Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani echoes Schulberg regarding development’s effects on water quality: “Since 2018, Lee and Collier counties have the first and third highest rates of population increase respectively and the highest rates of increase in water quality impairment among the nine-county region of Southwest Florida. Additionally, Lee and Collier counties lead the state in applications that impact wetlands.”
The solutions are not simple, fast, or easy. However, to help address water-related problems, Collier County Waterkeeper has elected to focus on five main issues:
Climate change, resulting in sea-level rise, saltwater intrusion, flooding, storm surge, and storm intensification, to name some of the many identified impacts
Wetland preservation and restoration, including responsible growth management practices that protect against the negative effects of over-development
Harmful algal blooms (HABs), such as blue-green algae and red tide, which can create serious health problems for people, plants, and animals
Stormwater runoff, which is amplified by the increasing development of impervious surfaces (such as parking lots and roads, which shunt polluted runoff into local waterbodies)
Preserving coral reefs, endangered from warming waters, ocean acidification, and pollutants
Not all, but many of the area’s water problems stem from high nutrient loads, particularly nitrates, phosphates, and carbon. Too many nutrients cause environmental imbalances and fuel habitat-destroying blue-green algae and naturally occurring red tide. The source of these excess nutrient loads is complex. Fertilizer runoff from Lake O discharges play a factor due to southward-flowing waters in the gulf. However, there are more localized root causes as well, especially at the start of our wet season, when runoff contaminated with pollutants from lawns, septic systems, and other urban sources bleeds into natural waterflows.
“As the rainy season starts, what happens is a toilet flush,” explains Schulberg. “With those first rains, we’ll see a spike of nutrients coming into the water, and since our ground is basically sand, water [moves] more effectively into the watershed than other places in the country.”
There are no easy fixes to control these nutrient loads, but there are ways to help, even on an individual level. Schulberg recommends 10- to 15-foot setbacks for those with waterfront properties. Landscaping with Florida-friendly plants that don’t require fertilizer or avoiding fertilizer altogether—especially during the wet season—is environmentally beneficial, too.
According to Schulberg, “It’s all about reducing nutrients at their source.”
Education is Key
Founded in 1993, The Everglades Foundation is a prominent nonprofit organization providing solutions aimed at protecting and restoring the Everglades, which provides the daily drinking water supply for some nine million people and billions of dollars to Florida’s economy. The foundation harnesses science-driven research and advocacy to effect positive change. However, problems can’t be solved if they go unacknowledged or misunderstood.
“It’s so hard to get people aware,” says Goetz, vice chair for The Everglades Foundation’s board of directors. “Constant outreach and engagement is key,” she adds, to getting people to understand why they should be concerned about hydrology issues and the health of the Everglades.
The Everglades Foundation has developed a sophisticated literacy program, including Everglades literacy teacher trainings; free lessons and materials for teachers who attend designated educational trainings; a free, online K-12 teacher toolkit containing 36 comprehensive Everglades lesson plans that align with Next Generation Sunshine State Standards; and more. The goal is to teach the next generation of leaders and inspire future environmental stewards.
“We’ve trained 312 teachers across 52 schools in Collier County, and we received a grant in November 2021 from the Collier Community Foundation to expand STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] programs in Collier County,” says Tate Vangellow, Everglades Literacy Program coordinator for Southwest Florida at The Everglades Foundation. “I’m excited about these initiatives and the goal of training 80 new teachers in Collier County within the next year.”
Interdisciplinary and age-appropriate, the lessons are customizable to classrooms. There are three lessons per grade level, organized around Everglades-related themes. For example, Kindergarten students learn about the animals of the Everglades through a safari-based theme, while the eighth-grade curriculum focuses on human impacts. Secondary educational programs are circumscribed by themes of human impact, watersheds, and water use in society.
“Water is the lifeblood of the Everglades,” says Vangellow. “We teach that to students at a young age and get them to imagine it’s like the blood in their bodies; anything [they] can do to protect that resource is important.”