Calusa Waterkeeper to retire after decades defending clean SWFL water

Reporter: Elizabeth Biro Writer: Joey Pellegrino
Published: Updated:

Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani, a man who has dedicated himself to the preservation of Southwest Florida’s waterways, plans to retire soon.

Cassani has been the face of the region’s water for years. Whether you’re talking about issues of fecal matter in Billy’s Creek, blue-green algae in the canals, or red tide near Sanibel, John Cassani has always been part of the conversation. Few people have been more passionate about protecting our waterways, making it his decadeslong mission to defend our right to drinkable, fishable, and swimmable waters.

Cassani says he discovered this passion at a young age.

“My parents, you know, we’d go fishing on weekends, chase frogs, and my dad owned a sporting garden, just co-owner with his brother in a sporting goods store,” Cassani said.

Many of his most memorable moments happened on or near the water, like proposing to his wife and raising his own children.

“With my son, kayak fishing on upper Pine Island Sound… memories I’ll never forget,” Cassani said.

And Cassani hopes others will be able to share similar memories with their families That’s why he has spent around the last 45 years working as an environmental advocate and water resources manager.

“I have to tell you, I’ve witnessed a lot of change over that period of time, more than four decades, and it hasn’t all been good,” Cassani said. “Right now, at this point in time. So discouraging. We’re right on the cliff edge, if you will, of losing it in a big way.”

As his retirement looms, Cassani shared what he considers the biggest water worries in Southwest Florida.

“I would point to a statewide issue where nutrient-impaired streams have increased by a factor of four since 2010; that’s the state’s own data from their integrated water quality report,” Cassani said. “That’s staggering. A fourfold increase in the miles of rivers and streams impaired for nutrients. It’s similar for fecal bacteria as well. So, those are just two parameters.”

Despite having a restoration program since 2012, Cassani says the Caloosahatchee River has seen a 77% increase in pollutant nitrogen over the last decade. Restoration and conservation are important, but to him, it is more important to prevent the problems from occurring in the first place.

“We used to have an algae bloom in the river, a big bloom, maybe once a decade; now, it’s every two or three years, requiring states of emergency by the executive branch to deal with this issue. And the same thing is happening with red tide: We’re seeing increased frequency and duration of red tide events since the 1950s,” Cassani said. “I hate to see wildlife and habitat decline so much, where manatees are starving, we’re not seeing the butterflies. We’re not seeing the insects, the bees, and things that we saw as little as 20 years ago.”

He does credit local environmental programs with providing some measure of help and acknowledges that people’s desire to live in Florida has to do with some of the issues.

“Locally, Lee County did the Conservation 2020 program, which was a validation to me that the taxpayers still cared about our resources locally—they voted to tax themselves,” Cassani said. “Growth is driving as the main driver of water quality decline in the coastal areas of Florida right now.”

As Cassani looks to the future, he hopes whoever replaces him can bring bold ideas, so our children and our grandchildren can enjoy the same beautiful place we do now.

“Florida leads [many of the] states in miles of coastline,” Cassani said. “They’re like third or fourth, and the number of lakes, the number of estuaries and area of estuaries and miles of rivers and streams are spectacular.”

Not just spectacular but a way of life and a livelihood for people like Cassani and so many people in Southwest Florida.

“I think it’s really what motivated me a lot and was very gratifying… the feeling of being on the water,” Cassani said. “It just lifts your spirits to be on the water.”

The land acquisition program protects natural areas for present and future generations.
It’s preserved over 31,000 acres across 54 locations so far. But, before Cassani passes on his Waterkeeper hat, he wants to see prevention efforts go further in stopping pollutants at their sources.

“I think the biggest shift in the evolution on water policy in Florida has been overwhelmingly influenced by special interests,” Cassani said. “So, it’s easy to get frustrated; it’s easy to get burned out, being a water resource advocate in Florida. But what keeps us going is how spectacular resources were and to some degree still are today.”

Cassani plans to retire as soon as his replacement is lined up.

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