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