Sanibel Group Tackle Water Issues


After reading an article about water quality in the Sand Paper, the president of the Democratic Club of the Islands, Alison Ward, decided that the people of Sanibel and Captiva should hear from some of their local experts on water quality. Ward invited Rae Ann Wessel, Natural Resource Director for the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF); Dr. J. Bruce Neill, Executive Director of the Sanibel Sea School and Holly Milbrandt, Environmental Biologist for the City of Sanibel, to speak at their monthly meeting last Thursday held at the Sanibel Public Library.

Nearly a hundred people packed one of the library’s community rooms for the meeting, titled ‘What We All Need to Know About Local Consequences of Compromised Water’.

Wessel – who has been recognized over the years with many awards for her conservation efforts – began with her presentation, which gave a quick overview and history of south Florida’s water issues.

“The way Mother Nature designed this peninsula, water enters the Kissimmee River system north of Lake Okeechobee,” she said. “It would take a drop of water 6 to 8 months to reach Lake O, which would spread out during the wet season and contract during the dry. In those days, 99.9% of water went south and only in extreme wet times would it spill over to the west. Today the lake has a dike around it, the Kissimmee was channelized, and in the south we have the legacy given to us from Governor Bonaparte Broward, who ran in the early 1900’s on the promise that he would drain the Everglades.”

“We’ve lost more than half of the lake we once had, and 700,000 acres south of it are now agriculture,” Wessel continued. “We are also influenced by the 800,000 acre Caloosahatchee Watershed – which is itself the size of two Lake Okeechobee’s.”

Rae Ann pointed out that – during the latter weeks of January – all the freshwater coming to the estuary actually came from the watershed, not Lake O.

“The problem is this was our reproductive season – this is when they’re spawning – and to have flows like this causes all of this to be washed out to the Gulf,” she said. “So we’ve lost an entire year of fish production.”

Wessel then talked about what is needed to solve the problem.

“We need to continue building the bridge across the Tamiami Trail – because that’s how you let the water out of the bottom of the system, and the most important thing is to accelerate the EAA Storage planning project south of the lake,” she said. “ Jo-Ellen Darcy, Assistant Secretary of the Army Corps of Engineers, has agreed to do that if Governor Scott agrees.”

For immediate relief, Rae Ann asked for help persuading the Governor to break a lease on state-owned land so it can be used for storage.

“There is a 16,000 acre parcel of land that we lease to sugar farmers which is located right where we anticipate the EAA storage area is going to be once that project is underway,” she said. “Breaking the lease and using it for storage now would provide the immediate relief the estuaries so desperately need.”

Rae Ann directed people to the SCCF website – – where they could either write their own letters to Governor Scott or sign a pre-written one.

During her presentation, Milbrandt talked about how important it is for people to work together so as to speak as a united front to those who make decisions about our water.

“We are fortunate in Sanibel in that we have four biologists working for the city,” she said. “We work closely with Wessel and other scientists on water quality. It’s important to note that here on the west coast we need a balance between freshwater and salt, while on the east coast they don’t want any freshwater at all.”

Holly concluded by pointing out the economic impacts of the water crisis – including the $87 billion real estate market – and that 2.6 million acre feet of storage are needed to fix the problem.

Dr. J. Bruce Neill, co-founder and director of the Sanibel Sea School, cautioned against acting hysterically and said people should focus on the facts. He also pointed out that there has been no mention of the environment in the current presidential race.

“The current system negatively impacts the environment on which our economy thrives,” he said. “How to create economic sustainability? Fix the water quality – something that’s going to be a long-term process so we need to have the stamina and the energy to keep up the fight. We need to demand that the people we elect to office pay attention.”

A number of people asked questions and made suggestions following the presentations, including lobbying Congress to end decades-long subsidies to Big Sugar and asking Governor Scott to change the way water is tested and provide a hotline for people to find out exactly what is going on with water quality.


Keri Hendry Weeg