Altered, Ailing River at Center of Ecology, Economy
Water flowed slowly from Lake Hicpochee to the Gulf of Mexico for thousands of years, meandering through winding oxbows and a vast, natural filtration system.
The trees, aquatic vegetation, massive oyster bars and seagrass beds cleansed the water of any impurities, and water along the beaches was clear as gin.
Rae Ann Wessel, with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, wrote this about the river:
"Water would settle first in Lake Hicpochee, then Lettuce Lake and Bonnet Lake, until it reached, Lake Flirt above the Caloosahatchee valley. At the western end of Lake Flirt a rock formation created a quarter mile of rapids which fed the Caloosahatchee. Below the falls, the Caloosahatchee was a crooked, winding river that slowed the flow and provided natural filtration as the water moved slowly downriver."
Yes, the Caloosahatchee had rapids and waterfalls, but all that splendor began to fade after developers cut a canal through Hicpochee in order to drain Lake Okeechobee and the historic Everglades to make way for farming and development.
Today the river functions mostly as a canal, a way to get water and excess nutrients off the upstream landscape as quick as possible. It works, too well at times. Now, the focus is on undoing damages inflicted over the past century – reversing the past water management strategy in favor of cleaner water.
But it will take plenty of planning, money and political will to get that done. And that means it's not likely the Caloosahatchee will be unhooked from Lake O anytime soon. That's bad news for those living and playing downriver.