A River in Trouble–Reflections from my Kayak Trip on the Caloosahatchee River

Dead Boat on a Dead River ©Lynne Buchanan
A week ago, I went to visit John Capece from the Caloosahatchee River Citizens Association before venturing on the Caloosahatchee River.  We discussed the issues facing the river, which made the list of one of the Ten Most Endangered Rivers in the United States in 2006 and is still in dire straits today.  In fact, John has been working to raise awareness of the river's problems for much longer than that.  Though I have learned that the issues common to all Florida Rivers have to do with too much nitrogen and the alteration of flow, John said, "You can blame cities or you can blame agriculture, but it really comes down to too many people."  The too many people issue was clearly evident on the Caloosahatchee as you will see in the images below.  There are farms, groves, and people's over-fertilized lawns abutting the river directly, with no easements and only a few oxbow restoration projects.  Everybody is using the water and dumping into it, either directly or through runoff.  The Caloosahatchee suffers greatly from agricultural run off, waste water issues, and releases of too much freshwater from Lake Okeechobee, instead of allowing the water to go South to the Everglades where it is needed.  This river is a wake up call for all Florida rivers.  No matter how much our government tries to downplay the water issue, Florida rivers and springs are in serious trouble.  I have included a couple of images that show restoration projects and  the potential beauty of this river the hand of man has altered so much.  However, given what I experienced on that river, a lot more is needed than a few more oxbow projects, though they do help a bit.  The water quality of the entire river must be addressed and quickly.  The color of the water was awful and by the end of the day, my eyes were burning and my throat was sore.  

Oxbow Near Alva ©Lynne Buchanan

Oxbow Near Horticultural Fields ©Lynne Buchanan
The first Oxbow is soon after the Alva Bridge and in parts there was only a narrow path left through the vegetation.  The second Oxbow is just past the horticultural fields and had houses along it just before the dead end here. The map showed it as having an outlet that has totally filled in with plant life, no doubt related to excess nitrogen levels.  

The photos below are examples of point source pollution along the river.  The first is from horticultural fields and the second is a pipe running through someone's backyard, which has fertilized grass growing right up to the river's edge as well as boats and cars in the yard.  To me, this image confirmed John's statement that people are a big part of the problem too...  I should also mention that the local farmers and citizens who live in this area are not the ones purchasing the flowers.  It is a big business shipping flowers for a profit.

Horticultural Point Source Pollution ©Lynne Buchanan

Living Too Close to the Edge ©Lynne Buchanan
When I kayaked parts of the river, I saw horticultural fields and orange groves growing right down to the river, and in the other sections I drove along, there were fields with cows directly across the road from the water.  More than any river I have been on, this one showed me the dangers of not having easements.

Orange Groves Along the River ©Lynne Buchanan

The net result of so many people engaging toxically with the river was some very sad looking water. This image was made on a little island right by the first oxbow.  Green slime was attacking the twigs, which there weren't very man of, which turns out to be a very bad thing.  Rivers need twigs and leaves in the water for nutrients, but algae and slime decompose them too quickly.   The constitution of this water made me a little nervous about paddling, as you accidentally end up ingesting water that gets on water bottles or on your hands.  By the end of the day, I felt pretty badly.  Hopefully, the effects aren't permanent, but I can tell you I wouldn't want to drink water coming from this river unless someone could guarantee that it had been safely treated though I am not sure I would believe such claims–not necessarily because it can't be done but because I suspect people try to cut corners to save money and they are starting with some pretty sad water.  
Sad Water ©Lynne Buchanan

Olga Water Treatment Plant ©Lynne Buchanan
The image above is of the plant for the last remaining surface water source along the river.  The agencies in Lee County, according to John Capece, want to "shift everyone to groundwater since that eliminates a public relations headache with the water plant closing down each time there is a water quality episode (salinity or algai toxins)."  On this river, I can imagine there would be quite a few closings.  

Matthews Creek Flowing into the Caloosahatchee ©Lynne Buchanan

Grasses with Algae, Matthews Creek ©Lynne Buchanan
In addition to problems with the Caloosahatchee River itself, many creeks that run through farmland carrying more fertilizers and waste products also flow into the river.

Abandoned ©Lynne Buchanan

We and the River are Part of a Web ©Lynne Buchanan
Kayking on the Caloosahatchee left me with such an odd feeling of abandonment and destruction, compared with the usual feeling of peace and alignment I experience.  Boats and buildings along islands dotting the ailing oxbows made me realize that people who once fished and interacted with the river  in a healthier way had moved on, realizing the water was dying or was already dead, while the majority of people who remained were using her irresponsibly.  When I took a hike along the Caloosahatchee Creeks Preserve East on the new trail to the river across from the power plant, I came across this spider web on some branches overhanging the water's edge.  This image spoke so powerfully to me about how we and the river and the riparian landscape are all part of one web. What we do equally impacts the health of the river and our own health.  

Oxbow in Ft. Denaud  ©Lynne Buchanan

Restored Oxbow 24 ©Lynne Buchanan
As I believe it is always important to end on a hopeful note, even when the grounds for hope might be slim, I am ending this blog with some photographs of oxbows that have been not been destroyed and/or have been restored.  The river must once have been beautiful, like all Florida rivers.  This waterway has been over-utilized and cannot be brought back to its original state because too many people own the land around it, but that does not mean that we shouldn't try to improve its water quality and bring it back to the best it can be at this point in time.  We can turn the tide, if we all act together and demand that our political system works to protect our environment and our health before it is too late and all our waterways are irreparably harmed.