The Oxbow Incident: Cruisin’ The Caloosahatchee!

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    Roughly one month ago, the Save Our Water Market Watch Summit explored the importance of quality water to our daily lives and economy. Nineteen experts from business, government, environmental resources, tourism, agriculture and education examined the state of our water today and for the future.

    It was time to put theory into practice on Sunday, November 13, when Rae Ann Wessel, the Natural Resource Policy Director for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), led a 2-1/2 hour tour on the Caloosahatchee River. Rae Ann is also a limnologist, a specialist in the study of the biology, chemical, and physical features of lakes and fresh water bodies. This is her 21st year of doing these tours, while the SCCF celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2017.Rae Ann Wessel, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation

    Our journey began aboard the Manatee Rover pontoon boat with 35 passengers, all locals and everyone a Save Our Water alumnus. We elevated through the W.P. Franklin Lock at Olga, heading east to Alva, twisting through the river’s historic natural bends. Rae Ann explained that the Calusa Indians settled our region, so the waterway is named the Caloosahatchee, with “hatchee” meaning “river.” Man altered it over time, so today it is a 75-mile channel between the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Okeechobee, with three docks and dams: the Franklin, Ortona, and Moore Haven, with Franklin the furthest west.

    Now the Caloosahatchee is a 25-foot deep, one-quarter mile wide box-cut artificial channel, as opposed to the 3 to 5 foot deep natural oxbows located off its banks that are the final remnants of the original river. They are the only places left with the river’s natural contour and shape, with vegetation, shade and native wildlife habitat, resembling what it looked like in the 1880s. Without locks and dams, the Caloosahatchee would be much smaller than the current channel that carries the official name of C-43.

    The Rising Tide

    The Franklin Lock would ordinarily raise the Manatee Rover three feet, but because this was the afternoon of the record-setting Super Moon, the tide was extraordinarily high so we rose just one foot. This is the furthest east the Gulf tide can proceed up the Caloosahatchee before reaching the artificially-created Franklin Dam demarcation, with Gulf water to the west and fresh water east to Lake Okeechobee. The Ortona Lock lifts water roughly 9 feet, with the Moore Haven approximately 4 more.

    Caloosahatchee RiverLock gates have manatee censors, meaning if they detect a sea cow they do not close. The Manatee Rover is the only boat on the Caloosahatchee with a guard around its propellers so it cannot harm the gentle giants. Just as we learned this, an early season manatee guided us out of the lock!

    The Caloosahatchee was the original transportation artery into Southwest Florida until the advent of roads in the 1920s. If you wanted to traverse this region, it had to be on a steamship. There were several postal drops along the route, as well as areas to load citrus; steamers could hold up to 1,100 boxes.

    When Lake Okeechobee reaches maximum capacity, its excess flows down the Caloosahatchee channel, or the 35-mile St. Lucie River to the Atlantic Ocean. Since the St. Lucie is much narrower, our side receives the vast amount. Because most of the water comes from the bottom of the lock gates, it is filled with dark dirty organic matter that blocks the light wavelength that plants at the bottom need for photosynthesis.

    Tarzan’s Yell

    Rae Ann points out the cabbage palm, oaks, climbing blue asper, elderberry and pignut hickory, as well as turtles and limpkin, a wading bird that is one of three endangered species on the river system, known for its raucous call made famous as the sound of the Tarzan yell in untold cinema adventures. In addition to her expertise on flora and fauna, she regales passengers with fascinating tales of the river history.

    Tired of traversing for over a week to the then-County seat in Key West, residents founded Lee County in 1887, with citizens deciding whether it would be a dry alcohol-free area or a wet one: The leading group for a dry county were the Women’s Christian Temperance Union that men of that era called “Women Constantly Troubling Us!”

    The root of much of our current water issues began with the Herbert Hoover Dike in the 1930s, as a Federal Government solution to massive deaths caused by the 1924 record rainy season and 1926 & 1928 hurricanes. The dike walled off Lake Okeechobee, created the 700,000-acre Everglades agricultural area and cutting off its historic route south to the River of Grass, leading to the water being rerouted into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers.

    Our day on the river was striking – mostly sunny with a light north breeze. Many passengers brought jackets but hardly any wore them, with the Manatee Rover overhead roof providing cool shade. Its cushion seats offered a comfortable ride, with Captain John and Rae Ann serving as gracious hosts.

    As we returned to the Franklin Lock & Dam, Rae Ann explained that a solution to this crisis is restoring the Lake Okeechobee flow south to the Everglades. “The Everglades National Park is so dry it easily catches fire and its soil vaporizes. Moving water south will help the Everglades, help Lake Okeechobee by keeping the dike from crumbling, will help the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, and supply fresh water to the Everglades and 10,000 Islands. It is a win-win-win-win!”

    A Unique Opportunity

    She explains Floridians have a unique opportunity to make this happen soon because Senator Joe Negron, the leading proponent of this solution, is the Florida State Senate President for the upcoming legislative session. Rather than waiting a decade for a plan that promises real relief, we can rapidly move forward.

    “US Sugar agreed to sell 181,000 acres 7 years ago; now they say environmentalists are taking away their livelihood, so what changed?” asks Rae Ann. “It is simple economics – they want to farm the Everglades as long as they can, then sell us bare rock rather than good soil.”

    As we disembarked, Rae Ann gave us an assignment: “Get and stay educated; act as an action alert system; and support Senator Negron, because we cannot use Lake Okeechobee as a holding pot for water. We will all receive a grade for this – we will either pass as a society or fail in the long run!” She encouraged everyone to attend the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s 32nd annual conference, “Three Estuaries; One Solution,” at the Sanibel Harbour Marriot Resort & Spa from Thursday, January 5 to Sunday, January 8, 2017. For more information see sccf.org or call 239-472-2329.

    To take the Caloosahatchee River Cruise, the Manatee Rover departs from the W.P. Franklin Lock & Dam at State Route 80 in Olga from 1 to 3:30 p.m. Cruise dates are Friday, November 25, as well as Sundays, January 29, February 12 & 19, March 12, April 9, and Mother’s Day, May 14, 2017. Advance reservations and tickets are necessary at $45 per person at 239-472-2329.

    Accept your assignment and cruise the Caloosahatchee soon!

    Gary Mooney