On Friday, July 29, Kritstie Anders, Education Director with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), gave a presentation to approximately 100 attendees at The Academy at Shell Point concerning the Caloosahatchee River and the Everglades.
Anders gave a comprehensive overview of the delicate nature of the area - "Everglades 101," as she called it. She began with history, all the way from the time of Pangea. Anders explained that what we know as the Everglades once extended from as far north as Orlando and as far west as Cape Coral. Corkscrew Swamp is one of only a few remaining examples that represent what's left of our "Mini Everglades."
Anders continued her geological and ecological history of Florida, explaining that the mineral rich soils found in Central Florida, south of Okeechobee are the result of years of over flow from the lake at the hands of storms and rainy seasons. This yearly overflow created Florida's flood plane.
Kristie Anders, Education Director at SCCF, spoke to about 100 people at The Academy at Shell Point last Friday afternoon.
By the 1880s, the railroad had started up in Florida, allowing people to further populate the southern half of the state. At this time, the Caloosahatchee was little more than a meandering creek that started near LaBelle. Many of these new settlers were farmers from the central United States who had come to Florida because of the longer growing seasons. With the influx of so many farmers and the construction of new farms, a means of shipping the goods out of the middle of the state was needed. The Caloosahatchee was dredged, widened and connected to Okeechobee, resulting in what Anders called an "inland highway of waterways."
The years 1926 and 1928 were particularly bad for hurricanes. In the storm of '28, some 2,000 people were killed in the area around Okeechobee largely because of flooding caused by the overflowing lake. The storm, said Anders, was the catalyst for the construction of a series of levees and waterways around Okeechobee, resulting finally in what we know today as the Hoover Dike. Tomatoes, corn, squash, beans and sod flourished. At one point, mentions Anders, landscaping products were our number one crop.
By the 1970s, a few years after the completion of the Hoover Dike, observers began to notice a steep drop off in bird populations in Everglades National Park. What they found was that runoff from all the farms had essentially poisoned the water, making it unable to sustain marine life. The lock and levee system was built to recycle water and so fertilizers were being recycled through the watershed, eventually winding up in the Everglades. Without fish, the birds left. Everglades National Park sued the federal government and won. The Seminoles and Miccosukee followed suit, winning their cases as well.
As a means of preserving the Everglades, water that was being recycled out onto the flood the plain was diverted in greater quantities into the Caloosahatchee.
Here in Florida, hurricanes are a part of life and, in 2004, the state was hit by a series of brutal hurricanes, that as Anders put it, "had Florida ready to move to Montana." These hurricanes brought water levels on Okeechobee to the brimming point.
"One foot of rain north of the lake raises water levels in the lake two or three feet higher because of the dams," said Anders. "When it reaches a critical point, the Army Corps has to let some out and the Caloosahatchee is this release valve."
Following the 2004 storms, the release valve was engaged, churning years of accumulated chemicals on the bottom of the river, resulting in massive algal blooms.
Now in the present, Anders explained how these most recent years have been drought seasons and, to preserve water for farmers south of the lake, our river has essentially been shut off. What does this mean? The fertilizers are still in the river, causing the algae to multiply and the river isn't moving, resulting in what the SCCF calls a "toxic river." Additionally, without outward flow saltwater has started to seep in, raising the salinity, killing off many plants and wildlife.
Not only have fish been turning up dead in the river, but just recently many washed up on Florida's beaches. The sea grasses that are vital to so many marine animals are perfect places for bacteria to accumulate, denying the grass the ability to photosynthesize. A fine example of the absence of a once common species is the smalltooth sawfish. Anders says there are only two sawfish known to be living in Florida Bay.
Anders and the SCCF's message is clear: "The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) needs to allow more clean water to flow down the Caloosahatchee. Scientists believe that if we were allowed only one additional inch of water to be released into the river during drought, it would help to prevent the stagnant water."
Anders did mention that the SFWMD is purchasing land south of the lake to work on sending some of the excess water through dense marshes that could filter out some of the destructive elements and send the water on its natural track.
According to Anders, many in the tourism and real estate industry are lobbying on behalf of the river. Tourism is a $2 billion industry in Lee County.
"It's in their own best interest to protect the water quality," she added.
In closing, Anders conceded, "This does not fall solely on the SFWMD. If this was an easy problem it would have been fixed and it will take decades. People in Southwest Florida need to speak up about the problems here at the mouth of the river. An ailing Caloosahatchee hurts jobs, business, real estate and our wildlife. This issue should be beyond politics."