Ways to take care of Estero’s Waterways and Celebrate their Beauty

 

By Jacqueline Reynolds

 

Captain Codty Pierce

Calusa Waterkeeper Captain Codty Pierce

The United Nations celebrates World Oceans Day annually on June 8 as a way for communities around the globe to recognize the impact of oceans in everyday life. Although oceans cover a massive 70% of the Earth’s surface, there are small ways to increase and maintain water quality, even in the backyards of Estero.

“We have to remember that whatever we put into the ponds will make it to the ocean,” said James Douglass, professor of marine and earth sciences at The Water School at FGCU. “It’s only a matter of time.”

Estero’s intricate waterways are part of the Estero Bay Watershed, which in total spans almost 360 miles across 46 lakes, 17 rivers and two bays leading to the Gulf of Mexico. Estero Bay became Florida’s first aquatic preserve in 1966 and has such unique geological attributes and history that the Calusa Waterkeeper, Captain Codty Pierce, calls it one of the most interesting places in the entire country.

“What makes (Estero Bay) so unique is that it has a lot of the same geological attributes of a number of different places in Southwest Florida,” Pierce said. “You have that pine and palmetto upland forest that’s around Koreshan that meets the saltwater, you have those big mangroves and salt marsh grass that are off Winkler Extension, and south, you have a number of really old and interesting freshwater rivers.”

While many can agree on the beauty of Estero’s waterways, the harsh reality is that the watershed has become overloaded with various types of pollution affecting the health of the gulf. One of the major threats, nutrient pollution, is caused by wastewater and stormwater runoff and has created harmful levels of fecal indicator bacteria in local waters.

The Calusa Waterkeeper organization does monthly testing for fecal bacteria. The most recent April 2024 levels for the Estero River at Koreshan and Mullock Creek near San Carlos Park register extremely high. Douglass said Estero’s 700 septic systems are contributing to the issue, but so are the sewage treatment plants which date back to the 1960s. Some local sewage systems are now leaking and spilling pollution into the water.

“Proper treatment of (septic and sewage) is not as much an individual person thing as it is a responsibility of the municipalities,” Douglass said. “It’s kind of incumbent on citizens to hound their municipal leaders to make the proper investments in wastewater treatment and wastewater management infrastructure.”

Pierce also emphasizes the importance of speaking to local lawmakers about the best practices to ensure water quality.

Estero Bay (photo by Adele Amico)

Estero Bay (photo by Adele Amico)

Over the past several years, the Village of Estero has taken important steps to help reduce land-based pollution to local waters. There are currently several utility extension projects being designed and funded to connect residents to central water and sewer, to better protect water resources and greatly improve water quality in the Estero river.

“(Water quality) is directly tied to the quality of life we have here,” Pierce said. “Not only is our economy based on ecotourism, but so are our property values. All those factors are tied into clean water.

“It’s something that impacts each and every one of us.”

Commonly used fertilizers are an additional culprit to the nutrient-polluted waters, which can cause algal blooms through releasing excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus into the waterways. Douglass said being proactive and discussing proper use of fertilizers with landscaping companies and homeowners’ associations is important, despite Lee County’s ban of fertilizers during the wet season.

“Sometimes the wet season spills over the boundaries, like this year, because of El Nino we had a really wet dry season. That means we got tons of rain when the fertilizer ban was not in effect, so we’ve had a lot of fertilizer getting washed into the water this year,” Douglass said. “Having a ban for half the year is not really enough.”

Douglass recommends only fertilizing lawns that are not along a lake or canal, to help limit runoff into ponds. He also recommends adding plants to the waterlines, as they keep nutrients out of the water and remove nutrient pollution that is already in the water.

“It takes a shift in mindset from thinking of plants and weeds as an unclean thing that you’ve got to get rid of, to realizing that wetland plants around the water’s edge are very important for keeping the water clean,” Douglass said.

 

How Old Tech Pollutes Water

 

Many people enjoy the Estero River in their own backyard (photo by Tim Murphy)

Many people enjoy the Estero River in their own backyard (photo by Tim Murphy)

What has become an essential part of everyday life, the cell phone, also plays an important role in keeping the oceans clean. According to the World Health Organization, only 17% of e-waste in 2019 was formally collected and recycled.

Chandler Neubert, uBreakiFix district manager, recommends turning toward repairing tech products and keeping them as long as they work, rather than instantly upgrading.

“It can be really enticing just to upgrade and get the newest and greatest,” Neubert said. “But cutting back is always a great idea if there’s nothing wrong with (the technology). If you do want to upgrade, you can always find another use for any old device.”

Neubert recommends using an old phone, tablet or computer as a business device or even an emergency backup. Additionally, he said to repair screens and batteries if they break rather than purchasing an entire new piece of tech.

“A lot of what doesn’t end up getting recycled will more than likely end up in the landfill by Lake Okeechobee,” he said. “And basically, everything in these electronics is hazardous in every way.”

To make sure technology is being properly recycled, uBreakiFix will take drop offs of any electronic item smaller than a television at no charge.

Supporting water quality in Estero can go much farther than talking to local lawmakers, treating landscapes naturally and properly recycling technology. There are ways to pay tribute to the ocean that bring the community together each day.

“We need to celebrate World Oceans Day because the oceanfront is right at our doorstep — it is everything that makes our area unique. It’s what contributes to our economy, as well as the positive way of life that we have here,” Pierce said. “We have some of the cleanest air in the nation, and I attribute most of that to our proximity to the Gulf.

“It’s been a great way to live for multiple generations, and we’d like to see it continue forward.”

An entire ecosystem thrives in the Estero River (photo by Adele Amico)

An entire ecosystem thrives in the Estero River (photo by Adele Amico)

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