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Standing united

Thousands join “Hands Along the Water” event for awareness.

August 15, 2018
Jessica Salmond, Chuck Ballaro - News Editor ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Coast to coast, Florida residents took a stand on Sunday.

More than 30 beach communities on both sides of the state gathered friends and visitors together on the plagued sand for "Hands Along the Water," an event to raise awareness about the ongoing water quality crisis Florida is facing.

Fort Myers Beach was among the beachside communities that participated. The event was simple: gather in a line down the beach, hold your neighbor's hand, and stand up for the importance of water quality.

Article Photos

Photo by Jessica Hernstadt

People lined up starting north of the pier and stretched past the Cottage; on Sterling Avenue beach access; and at Bowditch Point Park.

Dan Allers and his fiance Megan Zelenak were several of hundreds representing their beach near the pier.

"I think the event went well, not only locally on our beach but statewide. It was inspiring to talk with and meet people from all political backgrounds for a greater cause," Allers said. "Everyone I spoke with was gathered for awareness, not finger pointing. Without communication, collaboration and commitment from residents, business owners, visitors, politicians and scientists we will not find a resolution to stopping senseless devastating results of a natural occurrence."

The event was organized by a social media grass-roots effort. Event pages were posted on Facebook to draw people in attendance.

Town Manager Roger Hernstadt and his wife, Jessica, joined in the movement on Sterling Avenue's beach access.

"We think it's very important to bring attention to the impacts being created by poor water management in the past and a lack of maintaining infrastructure around Lake Okeechobee," Hernstadt said. "It wasn't political, it was just a symbol of the fact that many people want this issue to be prominent in the upcoming election and want these problems fixed."

In the Calooshatchee and canals in Cape Coral, Pine Island and North Fort Myers, nutrient-heavy, algae-laden freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee have resulted in shore-to-shore pea-green "blooms" of toxic fcyanobacteria. The blue-green algae is also befouling the east coast of Florida along and around the St. Lucie River, which exprienced a similar devastating "bloom" in 2016.

Meanwhile, along Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel and other beach-front communities from Naples to Tampa Bay, there is on-shore outbreak of toxin-producing Karenia brevis, the organism that makes up red tide. This red tide bloom has been circulating on the Gulfcoast for almost a year, and is now spread from Marco Island in Collier County to Anna Maria Island in Manatee County.

The same nutrients from the freshwater discharges are believed to be feeding the red tide locally, too.

Vice Mayor Joanne Shamp joined Hernstadt and others on the beach Sunday. Florida's water quality problems have a long history of slow or no action, but Shamp is hopeful that this time around, it will be different.

"The impact has been shocking," she said. "It's just stunning the size of the creatures that have been impacted."

But besides the marine life, she thinks the impact on human health and the tourism economy is unavoidable now.

"It's obvious, the human impact," she said. "You can't ignore it. The difficulty breathing, the respiratory issues, not being able to go in the water. It's a crime, really."

Shamp joined the event to stand in solidarity with her fellow residents - but said everyone needs to make the effort to walk down their streets and tell their neighbors about what's going on; tell their friends what elected officials to contact or how to speak up; and spread the story of the crisis happening in Florida on social media.

"Everyone needs to take some personal initiative and responsibility in expressing the dire situation we're in and demanding that everything that can be done be done absolutely as quickly as it can," she said. "We need to stand as a unified voice."

Lee County was well-represented Sunday. Concerned citizens gathered on Bonita Beach, Sanibel and Cape Coral, too.

Dominique Kuzer, organizer at the Cape Coral event at the Cape Coral Yacht Club, said the idea was to come together in unity, leaving politics aside.

"We want to give our voice to the water that it doesn't have. It started on a Facebook post. Me and another woman jumped on it and I created it in Cape Coral," Kuzer said. "It just spread like wildfire."

Kuzer and many others have said they have never see water quality this bad.

At the Yacht Club this weekend, there were continuing remnants of the conditions, with some dead fish lying on the algae-speckled beach that has been closed to swimming.

Shan Davis said they live along a canal, and have been a little luckier than others where the algae is packed in. Still, the stink pretty much keeps them indoors.

"It smells like cow manure. It doesn't seem to be getting the importance it should have. The problem is that I don't know if the rest of Florida gets it," Davis said. "My biggest worry is that people will forget about it."

Susan Brown and Cindy Rooney, members of the Cape Coral New Residents Club, echoed what many have said for the past few months: It has never been this bad, with dead manatees and fish.

"What we need to do is clean up Lake Okeechobee and change the laws. The governor took away laws designed to protect the environment and the power we had to protect the environment," Rooney said. "It's a multi-faceted situation. Let's get the regulations back in place."

Sunday's event took less than a half-hour. Kuzer had everyone line up on the water at 10 a.m. At 10:14, everyone pointed to the water in honor of the marine life before joining hand for about 15 minutes.

During the event people chanted "We want change," and "Clean it up."

Many wore surgical masks and a handful were in costume.

Linda France, a 25-year resident, was there to lend her support and said the grass roots effort was amazing.

"We gathered to speak for the fish and the residents. We're tired of getting kicked in the can so we decided to make a difference," France said. "It's never been this bad and that's why I got involved. We need to clean Lake O and send the water south. I think the local and county government is doing good, but the state and federal have dropped the ball."



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