Once a month or so, The Island Sand Paper asks a community leader 6 Questions. This edition features John Cassani, who is in his first year as the Calusa Waterkeeper.
Q1: You have one of the coolest titles around! What exactly does it mean to be the Calusa Waterkeeper?
“I represent The Waterkeeper Alliance that is a regional watchdog for water issues all over the country and world, with the well-deserved reputation for standing up for and empowering our local communities in environmental issues, including litigation if it comes to that.
We work with volunteers who in turn become ambassadors for the program. I receive a lot of inquiries from the local media, so they now recognize us as a legitimate resource for environmental information, and that is just some of what I do.”
Q2: What is The Waterkeeper Alliance?
“It is an international organization with over 300 Waterkeeper member groups, unified as one, to fight for drinkable, fishable and swimmable water, with roughly 10 of those in the State of Florida. The Waterkeeper Alliance is the largest and fastest-growing water advocacy organization in the world, and we have a pretty neat history that has a blue-collar background, where commercial and recreational fisherman rallied together to basically say they will not tolerate water pollution in our lives and livelihoods. These groups organized on the grassroots level roughly 20 years ago to great success in compliance against polluters, especially in the Hudson River Valley region, including victories not only in court but in the court of public opinion, with Robert F. Kennedy, Junior, being a chief proponent.”
Q3: What is the Number One environmental issue facing Southwest Florida today?
“I think the Number One issue is water resource policy, as there is a fair amount of discrepancy in how local agencies and the State legislature implements policy. Quite frankly, there is a bias in policy that favors certain special interest groups, as these are armed with the resources necessary to achieve their goals. Because of this, I dare say that the overall aquatic resources of our region have diminished greatly over the past 10 to 15 years, and I say that with certainty because of the verifiable impairment data concerning our waterways that is rampant over the last decade or so.
“That is why I say the water resource policy is Number One, because it is the basis of our economy and our culture and our way of life, and I do not just mean for consumption, though that is essential, but for our quality of life. We have a tourism-based economy that promotes our water resources in all of our regional advertising and that illustrates its importance to the success of this area.
“Your question asked what is the Number One environmental issue in Southwest Florida, but the truth is that everything is so interconnected together that we need to think of our region as South Florida, as in our ecosystem, if you impact anything south of Kissimmee, you impact something else either upstream or downstream, yet all of these communities have their own policy issues that often competes with ours. Some are excellent at lobbying and more successful in attaining their objectives, and they aren’t always the good guys, so that is why I say water policy is just so important.”
Q4: Are you encouraged by any recent developments, such as the State approving Senate Bill 10 for the reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee?
“I am encouraged, as this is an excellent start to what could ultimately be an important component to the water quality for South Florida, particularly for the Everglades and Florida Bay, but I have seen many of these proposals over the years, especially these State and Federal partnerships, and they falter after the initial optimism, so there are still many unanswered questions.
“The big gain obviously is a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area that would finally move water south again, as it did historically, to provide high-quality water to the Everglades and Florida Bay, but I guess the real answer is that only time will tell! Unfortunately, we just don’t have a lot of time left right now, due to other, bigger issues, particularly with sea level rise and how that will affect South Florida.”
Q5: What can you tell us about the recent outbreak of brown water following Hurricane Irma?
“It is certainly not as bad as outbreaks in the recent past, but it is not natural either, because at least 50% of what we received in releases would historically flow south, but changes to the flow of the system produced constraints, and we experience the negative outcome of those constraints, in a staggering manifestation of a poorly-planned and poorly-designed water conveyance system.
“The impact on the aquatic ecosystem has yet to be determined, but it will be substantial in terms of another lost year for oysters and many fish such as the spotted sea trout. These ecosystems are resilient to some degree, but today these are no longer isolated incidents, but they occur year after year after year, and the cumulative impacts of these changes to our ecosystem over time makes me realize it may no longer be possible to recover, as that now is a definite possibility. Just in the last ten years we had historic droughts and historic high flows, and these wild swings create a tremendous impact that produces a cascade of negative changes to the coastal ecosystem and plant communities, and fundamentally changes how the ecosystem works.
“The third wheel is population growth, as we are into another huge population boom in Florida, so that together with the engineered flows and extreme environmental events is really a triple whammy on our natural systems, and I fear we might be past the point where we can restore our environment in the face of these continued negative changes that are occurring right now.”
Q6: What is the best part about being the Calusa Waterkeeper?
“Despite some of my answers, there are a lot of good parts! I work on the cutting edge of trying to save these imperiled aquatic ecosystems, and that makes me feel so good. It is not like we are coming in totally late to the environmental scene, but in fact have been involved in these issues for a long time, and we built up some historical knowledge that enables us to be as effective as we can be.
“The other part of that is that The Waterkeeper Alliance as an organization has such power and is so well-thought of that it tends to open some doors that a local like myself might not be able to get through, and that only benefits our region. I may only be one individual Waterkeeper, but I am part of an excellent organization, so it is very gratifying to be a part of such a noble network of water resource advocates. I hope I live up to their reputation and become another member who is known for being able to make a positive difference.”