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Calusa Waterkeeper Works to Protect Region’s Vital Marine Resources

Calusa Waterkeeper Works to Protect Region’s Vital Marine Resources

Water. From the grand rivers, coastal sounds and bays throughout the region, to the creeks and canals that meander through our neighborhoods, to the glistening Gulf of Mexico, water is in so many ways a crucial lifeblood for Southwest Florida. The simple bonding of two atoms that every middle school student knows as H2O underpins the natural beauty and quality of life we all enjoy – both those living along the shores and the marine life that exists beneath the surface and gives the region its unique character.

But while water may spring from a simple pair of bonded atoms, providing stewardship and protection for this vital natural resource can be anything but simple. The convergence of our marine ecosystem and the pressures produced by a combination of natural and man-made circumstances require constant attention to a delicate balance. A quick glance back reminds us of the interconnectedness of our lives with this water wonderland we call home as our community was recently compelled to overcome the ripple effects of red tide and blue-green algae blooms.

Stewardship and educated mindfulness regarding our local waters is at the core of Calusa Waterkeeper’s mission. One of 13 nonprofit member organizations of Waterkeepers Florida, the Calusa Waterkeeper is dedicated to the protection of an expansive region that includes the Caloosahatchee River and estuary, Lake Okeechobee, Nicodemus Slough in Glades County, Charlotte Harbor, Estero Bay, and the near-shore waters and watersheds of Lee County.

For Ruth Watkins, the organization’s president, a key is grassroots education that breaks down oftentimes daunting, complex science-based issues into opportunities for community engagement.

“When residents are aware that a public hearing is scheduled, or decision is to be made regarding a specific issue they can readily identify with because it’s going to impact their neighborhood, their hometown, that’s when their passion leads to advocacy on that specific issue which, in turn, contributes to impact on the larger, more complex issues,” she says.

The interrelated fragments that make up the fluid kaleidoscope of water quality issues Calusa Waterkeeper focuses on are: harmful algal blooms (HAB), such as blue-green algae and red tide; Lake Okeechobee discharges, which can impact HABs; a water discharge-control reservoir project in Hendry County; monitoring and preserving historic Caloosahatchee River oxbows; local water-resource management issues that impact nutrient and sediment conditions in surrounding waters; and monitoring bacteria levels that result from aging waste-water infrastructure.

With such a vast area of responsibility, stretching from Lake Okeechobee to Southwest Florida’s coastal waters, Calusa Waterkeeper established a Ranger Academy to train citizen volunteers. Held twice a year and encompassing six to eight hours of instruction, the academy teaches participants how to visibly recognize potential trouble-spots, conduct water-quality surveys and report conditions.

“The program has been wildly popular,” says Ms. Watkins of the initiative that began in 2017 with eight graduates and currently has 84 citizen volunteer rangers in a program crucial to monitoring the condition of area waters.

The organization has risen to the challenge of continuing to move forward at a time when social distancing in response to COVID-19 forced an abrupt halt to such community-driven efforts as town hall meetings and other individual and collective outreach. It maintains engagement with its ranger corps during the disruption through Calusa Waterkeeper and third-party webinars that provide an element of continuing education to augment the volunteers’ knowledge. Additionally, the nonprofit’s “Words from the Waterkeeper,” a popular web video program presented by Calusa Waterkeeper’s longtime local ecologist John Cassani, keeps citizens informed about ongoing issues and is available at www.calusawaterkeeper.org.

The COVID-19 crisis forced the organization to cancel its annual fundraising event, the “Calusa Palooza” concert at Centennial Park in Fort Myers, adding to the pressure on funding operations. But Ms. Watkins says the steadfast support of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation has provided an essential level of reassurance.

“We could not be more grateful for the way the foundation has responded with their compassion for nonprofits. It’s been amazing,” she says, referring to the foundation lifting restrictions on community impact grant funds. “I’ve written grant proposals and worked with funding sources for a couple of decades, and the lifting of restrictions is pretty unheard of. The foundation has been so incredibly responsive and supportive.”

How and when the region will fully emerge from these unprecedented times remains largely unknown. But the commitment of Calusa Waterkeeper to the region’s precious natural resource is as bonded to Southwest Florida as two hydrogen atoms are to an oxygen atom in the very H20 whose health the environmental steward seeks to sustain.

For more information, please call Calusa Waterkeeper at 239-784-0880, or email [email protected].

This article is part of a summer series that highlights the vital work of regional recipients of 2020 Community Impact Grants from the Southwest Florida Community Foundation.

Southwest Florida Community Foundation
Southwest Florida Community Foundation

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