The Calusa Waterkeeper
Jack Green, Executive Director of the newly authorized Calusa Waterkeeper chapter of the WATERKEEPER Alliance, calls John Cassani, the new Calusa Waterkeeper, “The Man!” John puts it more succinctly – “I’m an SOB!”
While the name and mission are new, the organization morphed from the Caloosahatchee River Citizens Association, also known as Riverwatch, that advocated and educated surrounding communities about the economic, environmental and recreational value of the Caloosahatchee River watershed for the past 21 years. Riverwatch transformed into the Calusa Waterkeeper on December 19, 2016.
John as the Calusa Waterkeeper is a fulltime advocate for the Caloosahatchee River and its tributaries, as well as the estuary system from Charlotte Harbor to Estero Bay, by protecting and restoring water quality through community action and enforcement. He works on water-related issues from Lake Okeechobee west through the Caloosahatchee Watershed, to the coastal estuaries and nearshore waters.
Jack feels the major change from Riverwalk to the Calusa Waterkeeper is that “we were a grassroots organization that promoted advocacy to the general population and government when water quality affected the watershed, but now we can put actual ‘fins in the water’ as ‘first responders.’ We have a hotline at 239-444-8584 to report a pollution incident and we will check out and monitor the problem, whether by car or foot or boat, to take samples if necessary through a science-based approach, with volunteer Rangers assisting John.”
“When was the last time you had an environmental issue and actually called someone who came out in a timely way,” offers John, “rather than being frustrated because your message is logged on a computer without anyone personally monitoring the situation? In March 2016, we had a major algae bloom in the Caloosahatchee River that you could see through observations that extended for 5 or 6 miles, but the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) took one reading in a clear area and declared the river healthy. I am not being totally critical of those folks because they operate under a slashed budget, but that reality makes local monitoring even more crucial.” “We fill the void left by government,” agrees Jack.
“People ask me if Riverwatch was around for 21 years and the water is worse, why do we need the Calusa Waterkeeper,” says John. “I remind them there were a lot of environmental accomplishments during the past two decades, but unfortunately our enemies became stronger than ever financially and politically over that same time, so to change the game we became a WATERKEEPER Alliance member to step up to the current challenges. My goal is to create a movement that will enable a small army of volunteer Rangers to cover 1,000 square miles of water and that is a tremendous undertaking. A current limitation is money, as it takes dollars to fight litigation.”
John is a proponent of Florida Senate President Joe Negron’s plan to purchase property in the Everglades Agricultural Area to move water south from Lake Okeechobee into the historic River of Grass: “I understand that people are frustrated and they want answers and solutions now, and a lot of folks feel the Negron proposal provides that. I think, however, that we need water storage both to the north and south of the lake, with east and west not so crucial, as Florida is a narrow peninsula without much east and west! I am personally in favor of Negron plan, but it will be an uphill battle, as corporate agricultural lobbyists overwhelm the current political system.”
He has mixed views as well on the C-43 reservoir, currently under construction to store Lake Okeechobee water for dry years. “This is not black and white,” explains John. “We need storage to feed the estuary, but there is no water quality component, so it is becoming a case of quantity over quality.”
To become a WATERKEEPER Alliance member, it took three years to meet their stringent standards. “There are 13 water quality priorities each chapter must adhere to, including having a paid fulltime waterkeeper,” explains Jack. “John will concentrate on advocacy, representing us at public hearings, working with attorneys, and being the first responder, whereas I focus solely on fundraising.” “I work well with Jack,” emphasizes John, “and when your resources person works alongside your advocacy person, that makes life a lot easier! We will never get back to predevelopment times, but if we can get local communities to adhere to and enforce basic regulations, that would be huge!”
No Simple Answers
Jack finds no simple answers to Fort Myers Beach water issues such as stormwater or potential testing, saying “the physical reality is we live on a beach that is little more than an overdeveloped sand spit! We survived with minimal stormwater based on swales and natural features until now, but the Estero Boulevard renovation changes everything with outfalls to carry stormwater from the road to the Back Bay. I applaud Interim Town Manager Jim Steele’s proposal to cut the cost from over $30 million to $20 million, using swales and natural features wherever possible. Our community is dependent on water, so we should clean up our own backyard before demanding that others clean up theirs.”
Neither gentleman finds good news in the new Federal administration policies, with its emphasis on economy over environment. “The word from Washington is the better the economy, the better the environment, but that usually works to the opposite degree,” John says. “Recent Executive Orders make the DEP toothless, especially concerning headwaters and wetlands that are the kidneys of the national upstream water system.”
WATERKEEPER Alliance is a global movement uniting over 300 Waterkeeper organizations around the world to focus on issues that affect our waterways, from pollution to climate change; for more information see www.waterkeeper.org and go to www.CalusaWaterkeeper.org for the Calusa Waterkeeper, and contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org. “Our mission is to fight for clean water that is drinkable, swimmable, and fishable,” concludes Jack. “If that is your fight, too, then join us!”