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My Visit with Collier County Waterkeeper, Harrison Langley

Harrison Langley at the Helm

Harrison Langley at the Helm

Harrison Langley is one of the youngest Waterkeepers I've met, but he is passionate about protecting the waterways he grew up on.  One of his favorite places is Keewaydin Island and I quickly saw why.  This seven mile long island has no electricity or running water, as well as no cars, roads, or bridges.  It is a very upscale eco community and virtually unspoiled.  The residents generate all their electricity with solar panels.  

Solar Panels on Keewaydin Island

Solar Panels on Keewaydin Island

It is always heartening to see areas in Florida that have been protected and where wilderness areas have been left in tact. This barrier island is managed by the State of Florida's Coastal Office, NOAA, and Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.  It must be reached by boat, and there are water taxis if you don't want to rent a vessel.  The island was developed in the 50s and 60s, when local residents signed a petition to stop the construction of a road.  They didn't want it to become developed like Fort Myers Beach.  The beach is constantly monitored for sea turtle nests by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

Keewaydin Island Wilderness Area

Keewaydin Island Wilderness Area

Keewaydin Island Along Gordon's Pass

Keewaydin Island Along Gordon's Pass

This section of the island is along Gordon's Pass.  They are planning on dredging right across from here shortly. The project is controversial for two reasons.  First, it is low on the federal priority list, even though Gordon's Pass is the main route from Naples Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, so only $1.7 million was approved for the project.  Critics say the sand will fill back in sooner rather than later because not enough money has been appropriated.  Secondly, environmental advocates claim that sea turtle nests will be disturbed.

Proposed Dredging Site, Gordon's Pass

Proposed Dredging Site, Gordon's Pass

Though the waterways around Naples have serious water quality issues, Takoda seemed to find the water here much better than it was along the C-44 canal from Lake Okeechobee.  The water didn't smell and there was no blue-green algae.  However, the Gordon River and Naples Bay are polluted with copper and chlorophyll-a, which comes from nutrients.  The ponds in the  many golf courses in the area tend to experience algae blooms from all the fertilizers used.  Copper is frequently used to kill the algae, but it makes its way into the river and bay and is harmful to the ecosystem.

Takoda Surveying the Water along Gordon's Pass, Naples

Takoda Surveying the Water along Gordon's Pass, Naples

The Golden Gate Canal and Henderson Creek dump excessive amounts of freshwater into the Gordon River, which feeds into Naples Bay and the important Rookery Bay Estuary, which runs behind Keewaydin Island.  Rookery Bay is home to many endangered species including the loggerhead turtle and the golden eagle.  During a bad storm event, up to 1 billion gallons a day of fresh water can be dumped into the river, which throws off the balance of the estuary and kills marine life.  On an average day, 150-240 million gallons of freshwater is released into the Gordon River.  The Colllier County Watershed Management Plan aims to reduce this influx of freshwater, in order to restore Naples Bay so that it can be swimmable and fishable.  http://www.nbc-2.com/story/31370604/naples-bay-restoration-project-to-seek-federal-funding#.V7S5_JMrI_U

The Gordon River

The Gordon River

Naples Bay, Gordon's Pass, and other waterways in Collier County have also all been impacted by the discharges from Lake Okeechobee via the Caloosahatchee River.  Where the waters of the Caloosahatchee go depends on tide and wind.  Harrison told me that the compromised water of the Caloosahatchee River travels 75 miles out to the Gulf Stream and then drifts according to the direction of the wind.  It has pushed past Sanibel Island to the North and into Naples Bay and even as far as the Keys in the southerly direction.  Bill D'Antuono, a local fisherman who works with Harrison patrolling the waters, has seen blue-green algae 25 miles offshore from Gordon's Pass. Bill spoke about his concerns with NBC news: http://www.nbc-2.com/story/32337562/fisherman-spots-blue-green-algae-in-water-near-collier-county.

Harrison Langley, Bill D'Antuono and Their New Drone

Harrison Langley, Bill D'Antuono and Their New Drone

Harrison and Bill were practicing with their new drone when I arrived to meet them.  They plan to use this drone to see where pollution discharges are coming from and to monitor algae blooms , so they don't have to get too close to toxic cyanobacteria.

Unfiltered Stormwater Heading towards the Oysters in Naples Bay

Unfiltered Stormwater Heading towards the Oysters in Naples Bay

Another big water quality issue Harrison faces is unfiltered stormwater runoff.  The image above shows water pouring out through the drain after a shower that occurred while we were visiting. The water is being pushed towards oysters, which are being covered in muck.  The sand there is quite toxic with heavy metals and other pollutants.  Just around the corner is a popular sailing spot for school-aged children, and it was in this area that the first case of Vibrio, the flesh-eating bacteria was reported to have been contracted.

Conservancy of Southwest Florida Filter Marsh with Native Plants

Conservancy of Southwest Florida Filter Marsh with Native Plants

Harrison took me to see the filter marsh on the Conservancy's campus before I headed north. This project filters the water, so it is cleaner by the time it reaches the Gordon River and Naples Bay. Harrison is planning to do a similar project to filter runoff coming from a local mall.

Clam Pass, North of Naples

Clam Pass, North of Naples

Clam Pass, 6 miles north of Naples, is an important fishing area for birds and nursery for aquatic life, with its 35 acres of mangrove forests.  

Spoonbill Landing in Clam's Pass

Spoonbill Landing in Clam's Pass

I was delighted to see a spoonbill fly in.  They are more common around Sanibel Island, but perhaps they are moving to knew locations in search of cleaner waters.  One of the tram drivers pointed out the in-coming bird to his passengers saying it is rare to spot one here. 

Spoonbills, Tricolored Heron, and Jumping Fish, Clam Pass

Spoonbills, Tricolored Heron, and Jumping Fish, Clam Pass

Ibis Parade, Clam Pass

Ibis Parade, Clam Pass

The boardwalk is 3/4 of a mile long and densely packed with native vegetation the entire way.  I was surprised to see so many ferns, tillandsia, vines, and emergent mangroves  and grasses this close to civilization.  I knew this natural landscape was providing structure and food for many species, as well as filtering runoff and other toxins from the water.

Protected Area with Ferns and Native Vegetation, Clam Pass

Protected Area with Ferns and Native Vegetation, Clam Pass

Emergent Grasses and Mangroves Beneath a Latticework of Roots, Clam Pass

Emergent Grasses and Mangroves Beneath a Latticework of Roots, Clam Pass

Tillandsia, Clam Pass

Tillandsia, Clam Pass

Before the day ended, I made one more stop at the Delnor-Wiggins State Pass Park.  Located on a barrier island with beautiful views of the Gulf, it terminates in a pass which separates this island from Barefoot Beach.  Next time I hope to have time to visit that beach, as Harrison says it is his favorite.  The sunset I saw was quite remarkable due to the looming storm clouds. The big cloud forming on the right, which was so heavy with precipitation it looked bruised and purple, kept expanding after the sun went down.  It was so filled with heat and energy that it lit up the sky for the entire hour and a half it took me to drive to Sarasota from there.  Lightning would erupt from it every few minutes.  Though it looked quite dramatic, I was glad it stayed out to sea.

Sunset Delnor-Wiggins State Pass Park

Sunset Delnor-Wiggins State Pass Park

Collier County, like most places in Florida is experiencing serious water quality issues, but many residents there care about their property values and seem supportive of efforts to clean things up, though continued development to the area is always a threat.  Other areas in Harrison's watershed include Marco Island, which is a breeding ground for dolphins, sharks and stingrays, Ten Thousand Islands and Big Cypress, where Burnett Oil recently received approval to explore for oil.