No warning signs or action plan for dangerously dirty Estero River, but help may be on the way

Amy Bennett Williams
The News-Press

Normally, summer camp at Estero’s Happehatchee Center would end with a splash party — canoe races and a water fight in the village’s namesake river.

Not this year.

“As a nurse, I am recommending that these kids don't go into the water at all,” said former board member Holley Rauen, who’s also a volunteer ranger with Calusa Waterkeeper. Happehatchee describes itself as an eco-spiritual nonprofit.

Last week, a water sample pulled from the camp’s banks showed levels of dangerous fecal bacteria more than 10 times what would close a swimming beach. Exposure can cause gastrointestinal illness, rashes and infections.

Those alarming counts are nothing new to the much-loved-yet-chronically troubled river, which flows to Estero Bay, the state’s first aquatic preserve.

In case you missed it:Estero looks to expand monitoring of Estero River

And:Bacteria that closed Cape beach also found near protected Estero River

More than 20 years of data collected by Lee County and incorporated into a Florida Department of Environmental Protection database upriver of the U.S. 41 bridge show an average bacterial count of 400 colony-forming units – more than five times the safety threshold of 70.

“There’s tremendous usage there – not just from public boat ramps, but from all the private ones as well,” Cassani said. Day-trippers can follow its sinuous, oak-shaded course to Mound Key in Estero Bay, once home of the ancient Calusa. The river supports two liveries: Estero River Outfitters, which declined to comment for this story, and the Koreshan State Park, from which 929 boats have launched since August, 2017, according to park documents.

But unless a visitor had combed through hard-to-find online data, there’d be no way to know of the potential risk, because no agency has taken responsibility for issuing warnings or posting signs. The village doesn’t because “we’re not a primary point of entry,” said Estero Public Works Director David Willems. And the Department of Health in Florida won’t either, because the river’s primary use isn’t swimming.

"The Health Beaches Program is limited to public bathing beaches as defined in Florida Statue," said spokeswoman Tammmy Yzaguirre in an email. “Public bathing place” means a body of water, natural or modified by humans, for swimming, diving, and recreational bathing used by consent of the owner or owners and held out to the public by any person or public body (including), but not limited to, lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, artificial impoundments, and waters along the coastal and intracoastal beaches and shores of the state.

"Sites were assessed on the basis of volume of usage and availability of funding. We are willing to look at additional locations If provided with the specific locations that meet the above criteria. We would then work with the program office to consider the addition of them to the Healthy Beaches Program. We have recently been contacted about the Estero River and are waiting for the exact locations the community member is proposing we add."

Yet though the river isn’t a beach, most canoers or kayakers, unless gauntleted and wrapped, are bound to contact the water as it drips from paddle to hand (never mind the neophytes who capsize).

 “Horrendous,” unconscionable” and “awful” are words Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani uses to describe the chronic pollution of a river that’s a “Special Water” in the “Outstanding Florida Waters” program.

Like the storied Suwanee River, the Florida Keys and the scenic Crystal River, that designation entitles it to top-tier environmental safeguards — on paper, at least.

 “It’s supposed to have a non-degradation standard,” said Cassani. As for how it has remained in its decidedly degraded state more than two decades, he blames the pace of bureaucracy.

Theoretically, its poor condition could earn it a two-part, government-supervised improvement program: First what’s called a “total maximum daily load” of pollutants is determined, then a “basin management action plan” is established.  “This kind of thing can drag on for years,” Cassani said. “Theoretically,  up to 20 years. Just a side note,” he said ruefully,  “No TMDL in the state of Florida has been met to date,” referring to the daily standards.

But to see such changes through requires political will, points out James Beever, senior planner at the Southwest  Florida Regional Planning Council.

“There’s not been any enforcement of water quality rules under the prior administration (Rick Scott’s),” Beever said. “And in order to get an improvement  in water quality, you have to identify what the source is and then you have to rectify that cause.”

Complicating things further is that, he said, “In order to do water quality enforcement, you have to have the data gathered, and then you have to have the compliance people determine what the cause of that problem is, and once they can figure that out, they can try to stop the process which is causing the problem. Plus, “It’s likely there isn’t going to be one single source. Fecal coliform is a problem in a lot of the tributaries down here. It’s not like the Estero stands out as a unique situation.”

But Willems said the village is poised to learn more about its troubled river in the coming months.“We’re working with a consultant to come up with a plan to supplement the water quality information the county has been obtaining,” he said. “We’d add a couple more stations in hopes that that’s going to help us focus in on where the issues are.”

Next up, a $50,000 next-level of analysis of the river by FGCU that would pinpoint the source of the pollution with DNA sequencing, he said. “Nothing’s 100 percent (sure) until council approves it, but they’ve been pushing for us to figure out what’s going on and they like the idea of us partnering with FGCU.”

Finally, he said, “We have an idea of where the septic tanks are located, and we’re going to try to come up with a general conceptual idea of how we might be able to at some point connect those septic tanks to central sewer … First, we need to understand where it’s coming from, and then if it is coming from septic tanks, to plan to get the people off them.”

In the meantime, Willems said, he knows of no plans to warn the public about the water’s potential risks.

Cassani thinks there’s widespread reluctance to acknowledge the problem because of the potentially devastating effect to businesses. “Obviously this will be a troubling issue for local governments and the state of Florida. Imagine a bacteria warning sign at the popular boat ramp at Koreshan State Park or at the Estero River Outfitters.”

But he’s  championing the idea of aid for businesses, similar to what happened with last year’s dual states of emergency for red tide and toxic cyanobacteria.

“There’s a responsibility, he said. “If a business can demonstrate that they’ve been damaged by declining water quality,  there should be reparations. We do it for natural disasters – this is a man-made one.”

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Paula and Alan Enis of Columbus, Ohio, kayak down the Estero River on Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Estero. The river is designated as an Outstanding Florida Waterway, which gives it special protections.