What started as one fishing guide protesting on the Caloosahatchee River bridge has grown to be a nationally-recognized non-profit that has become a powerful voice in the fight against a decades-old water crisis.
Daniel Andrews, a full-time fishing guide in Southwest Florida, was protesting the Lake Okeechobee discharges that have long been polluting our Florida estuaries and were now threatening the lifeblood of his business. He held a handmade sign painted with four words that would eventually become more significant than he may have realized:
CAPTAINS FOR CLEAN WATER
Lake Okeechobee, the largest freshwater lake in the state of Florida, spans 730 square surface miles. Historically, outflow occurred across the south rim of the lake into the Everglades.
In the 1920’s, after hurricanes caused Lake Okeechobee to flood the area, the state and federal governments began flood control and reclamation projects. Levees were constructed and a large area of the Everglades was drained for sugarcane farmland.
In 1937, the government completed a cross-state waterway to drain the freshwater east and west - through the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers - and spare ruin to the crops of sugarcane south of the lake.
This is where the mismanagement of Florida’s water began. And decades later, we’re on the verge of completely destroying one of our most valuable resources.
The discharges have had a devastating environmental and economic impact. The Everglades ecosystem is suffering like never before, neglected of the freshwater it so desperately needs. The St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries are being polluted with billions of gallons of the murky, nutrient-rich freshwater, killing seagrass, oyster beds and marine life.
In 2016, we witnessed a 50,000 acre seagrass die-off in Florida Bay due to the lack of freshwater. Meanwhile, toxic algae blooms spread throughout our local waterways, breeding green sludge and smelling of rotten eggs. Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in four coastal counties due to the algae blooms.
As a result, Florida’s $9 billion fishing industry and $63 billion tourism industry have experienced a detrimental downshift.
As a group of fishing guides from Fort Myers, FL decided that they “had enough” of the poor water mis-management practices, Captains for Clean Water began to take shape.
Daniel Andrews, together with co-founder Chris Wittman, a local fishing guide for over 18 years, and many other dedicated contributors, have used the CFCW platform to educate voters and push legislators through grassroots events and countless trips to our state’s Capitol in Tallahassee.
The solution is known: restore the natural flow of Lake Okeechobee by purchasing land to store, treat and send the water south into the Everglades. The funding is available through Amendment 1 and Senate Bill 10 (the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project), but the political will is needed.
THE INAUGURAL RESTORE CLEAN WATER GALA
On March 3, 2017, Captains for Clean Water hosted their inaugural Restore Clean Water Gala at the historic Burroughs Home on the Caloosahatchee River - one of the estuaries that they are fighting to protect.
I would venture to say the outcome well-exceeded the expectations any of us might have imagined.
Over 360 guests overflowed the banquet room, standing to share their stories and donate money to continue the fight for clean water and real solutions. The microphone circled the room and with each heartfelt story, the donation count ticked higher.
$310,000 later, the excitement in the room was unmistakable. Daniel and Chris were in disbelief. Eyes teared up. We clapped, we toasted, we felt a solid assurance that Captains for Clean Water was the fighting chance to fix Florida.
Supporters came from all over the country for this event. Special guests included some of the biggest names in the industry - Blair Wiggins, George Gozdz, Rob Fordyce, Peter Miller, Carter Andrews and the host of the evening, C.A. Richardson of FlatsClass TV.
Marine Biologist, Zack Jud, Ph.D., opened with how we got to this place of having to fight for clean water (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Today, the US Army Corps of Engineers pulls a few levers on these dikes and controls the massive discharges, most recently in 2016. 700 billion gallons of black freshwater, filled with pesticides and nutrients, were dumped into our rivers creating 200 square miles of toxic algae blooms that poisoned our estuaries and devastated our economy.”
“The government is using Lake Okeechobee for two conflicting purposes: flood control and crop irrigation. We know the solutions, we just need political support.” Jud said, “Storage and treatment of water south of Lake Okeechobee, reduce harmful discharges and restore the flow of water south to Florida Bay and the Everglades.”
Rob Fordyce, legendary fishing guide and host of the TV show Seahunter, explained how we as taxpayers are funding the harmful spraying of herbicides and we don’t even realize it.
Fordyce recalled seeing abundant wildlife in his days of traveling to Flamingo, a city in the Everglades. “There were deer, birds and rabbits munching grass on the side of the road.” The sawgrass, he said, “stood higher than his head.” It has been 7 years since he has seen an animal in Flamingo and today, the sawgrass stands no higher than his knee.
"They are spraying herbicides and chemicals that are non-regenerative and it’s killing the animals and poisoning our own environment."
A FINAL THOUGHT
A few years ago, I wasn’t educated on this issue at all.
And I was never much of the “environmentalist” or “activist” mentality.
Spending most of my childhood in the outdoors, I became conditioned to think "It was here yesterday, it was here today and so tomorrow, I'm sure it will be here still." The woods, the water, the animals - everyday I woke up and they were there. And it was good.
Fast-forward as time tends to do, I began to learn what it means to "take for granted."
Land development, pollution, endangered species, political agendas; we as humans are stealing the very livelihood that we are now fighting to protect. This isn't a new concept. The conservation movement has been around for centuries, but it clicks for people differently.
This was my click.
The 2016 discharges, green-sludgy, toxic algae blooms and government-placed states of emergency, hit home and I poetically realized “this shit is messed up.”
Mike and I were living in Fort Myers and running his boat out of Cape Coral, right on the Caloosahatchee River. We witnessed the outflow of brown, muddy freshwater penetrate the blue-green waters of Fort Myers and Sanibel like a slow-moving virus infecting a victim.
The water was gross. Dead marine life was floating in the river and washing up on-shore. The fish weren't biting, assumingly because they, too, were thinking "this shit is messed up" and hightailed it out of the sewage.
The standard operating procedure became: flee the river, head north, find fish.
Coastal businesses and restaurants affirmed what we knew to be true. People don’t want to come to Florida [right now]. They’ve been watching the news. No one wants to pay for a fishing trip in toxic, brown waters or a beach getaway with a fishy stench. Tourism was taking a big hit.
For many Floridians, our livelihood is at stake. Fortunately, we don't have to be bystanders.
Because of Captains for Clean Water, hundreds of thousands of people have become aware of this crisis and are joining the fight. Global brands have even taken notice and stepped out to show support: Yeti Coolers, Orvis, Simms Fishing Products, Costa Sunglasses even created this #FixFlorida video.
Captains for Clean Water is the voice, the muscle and the boots on the ground that have avowed their battle cry:
“Enough is enough. We will not give up.”
This is history in the making. And all of us can be a part of it.
Here’s how you can take action and get involved:
- Visit captainsforcleanwater.org to learn more
- Sign the Now or Neverglades Declaration
- Donate to support the mission of CFCW
- Become a member of CFCW and they’ll send you some cool gifts
- Contact a politician and show your support of Florida Senate Bill 10 and
- Join CFCW in Tallahassee on April 11 for NowOrNeverglades Sportfishing Day
Captains for Clean Water is a grassroots 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that advocates for the elimination of harmful, large-scale Lake Okeechobee discharges into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie River Estuaries by restoring the natural flow of Lake Okeechobee water south into the Everglades and Florida Bay. Restoring the natural southern flow of Lake Okeechobee water is essential to the survival of our estuaries, the health of the Everglades, and the long-term viability of South Florida’s largest drinking water source (the Biscayne Aquifer).