SWFL clean water non-profit takes stock and looks to the future

Springing from humble origins, spawned by a handful of grassroots working men and women stepping up to adopt an orphaned river, Caloosahatchee River Citizens Association – the predecessor to today’s Calusa Waterkeeper – was founded 25 years ago in the Spring of 1995, and has not looked back. Calusa Waterkeeper’s Mission: To Protect and Restore the Caloosahatchee River from Lake Okeechobee to the Coastal Waters remains true to its founders’ vision and just as challenging today as in 1995.
CWK 25th Logo
Longtime Lee County Commissioner, Frank Mann, commenting on the impact of the organization to his hometown newspaper, called Calusa Waterkeeper “an inspiration to all of us who care about our area’s future … Not only were they one of the first clean water activist groups, but over the years they were clearly one of the most effective organizations in this important battle,” he said. “I know of no individual or advocacy organization that has been more effective in the fight for clean water in South Florida than the Calusa Waterkeeper.”
Over the course of the last quarter-century, the organization has seen notable victories and some setbacks. Caloosahatchee River Citizens Association (or CRCA) started River Ride, an awareness-builder and fundraising bike ride that ran eighteen years from 1996-2014. In 2004, then CRCA Directors Rae Ann Wessel and John Capece successfully secured a $500,000 Oxbow Restoration grant from the South Florida Water Management District. In 2006, CRCA was able to get the Caloosahatchee River listed as one of the country’s ten most endangered rivers by the notable American Rivers organization, bringing much needed national attention to our increasingly impaired waterway. In 2014 CRCA became an Affiliate Member of the international Waterkeeper Alliance and a full Member the following year in 2016, changing its name to Calusa Waterkeeper and tapping longtime environmental advocate and scientist, John Cassani as its first Waterkeeper. In 2017, under John Cassani’s leadership, the organization forged the Calusa Waterkeeper Ranger Program to train and engage volunteer citizen scientists. Today, that robust program boasts 84 Rangers who aid Cassani with monthly testing of our waterways and augment CWK’s advocacy by attending agency, city and county meetings on water quality. The organization gathered more steam with the hiring of KC Schulberg as Executive Director in July 2018. Over the last two years, CWK has emerged as a leading authority on Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) and public health, hosting sell-out town halls and producing a celebrated documentary called “Troubled Waters.” Waterkeeper John Cassani has become the go-to source for journalists seeking topical science-based information on HABs, whether Red Tide or Blue-Green Algae. In 2019, CWK created a Continuing Medical Education (CME) course to train Lee Health doctors and nurses on the public health consequences of HABs.
Also, over the last two years, CWK (along with coalition partners) filed two lawsuits: one naming federal agencies and the Army Corps of Engineers over harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee; and one petitioning the FDEP to set minimum water quality standards for Florida so that cyanotoxins (contained in HABs) would be officially recognized as contaminants. In addition, Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani served as an expert witness and several of the Calusa Waterkeeper Rangers were petitioners for a third lawsuit to block the removal of the Chiquita Lock.

Despite these advances, the River’s prognosis is not rosy due to the pernicious effects of Climate Change, bringing increasingly warming waters, extreme precipitation events and severe droughts. On top of this, the River and watershed suffer from nutrient overloading, wetland reduction, an aquifer threatened by over-consumption, and sewage plants and infrastructure strained to the limit by an exploding population base. And so, today, Calusa Waterkeeper’s mission to restore the River remains unfulfilled and success is far from guaranteed.

25 years booklet cover
Waterkeeper John Cassani stated, “Water will be the limiting factor that determines what Florida will eventually become with respect to the economy and the environment. Without sustainable planning, future outcomes will likely further segregate winners from losers in terms of access to water for domestic supply and the environment, resulting in major impacts related to tourism, flood control, agriculture and property values. Public health concerns and risk associated with harmful algal blooms and fecal bacteria will become very expensive to solve and likely affect where people choose to live in Florida with enormous influence on the economy.”

Clear-eyed and determined to meet these challenges, Calusa Waterkeeper is doubling down on testing, advocacy, education and regulatory reform. This year, thanks to a grant from the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, the organization will expand beyond its extensive work on HABs into the more general nexus of water quality and public health, with a focus on widespread bacterial contamination of our waterways and specific case studies on Billy’s Creek and Estero Bay. The organization will also produce a follow-up documentary to “Troubled Waters” tentatively entitled “Tainted Waters.”

CWK Executive Director KC Schulberg stated, “None of us has a crystal ball to gaze 25 years into the future. But it’s clear that barring enactment of strong corrective measures – far stronger than those we have seen thus far – the next quarter-century will likely see further degradation of our River, consequential environmental devastation, challenges to our health, our tourism and quality of life, and the very real possibility that large swaths of our state may be submerged. That is why, for us and for our community, it is all hands on deck.”

Calusa Waterkeeper (CWK) is a donation, member and grant-supported Fort Myers-based 501(c)3 whose mission is to “Protect and Restore the Caloosahatchee River from Lake Okeechobee to the Coastal Waters.” CWK’s project area covers more than 1,000 square miles of water, and its work includes testing and reporting, regulatory advisories, educational and community outreach and public advocacy. CWK is a member of the international Waterkeeper Alliance, the largest and fastest-growing nonprofit solely focused on clean water, with more than 300 Waterkeeper Organizations and Affiliates on the frontlines of the global water crisis, patrolling and protecting more than 2.5 million square miles of rivers, lakes and coastal waterways on six continents. 2020 marks the 25th year since the founding of CWK, and the 5th year working with the Waterkeeper Alliance.