January 28, 2021
That’s how it played out 15 years ago, when Captain Chris Wittman ventured from his home in Fort Myers, Florida to explore the Everglades, as he’d done since childhood. He figured it would be an enjoyable trip, like the others.
Wittman’s open truck window ushered in the din of waterfowl, insects, amphibians, and mammals as he drove through the low-lying sawgrass marshes, wet prairies, and tree islands famously known as the River of Grass. He mused that the eco- system’s charm caught him off guard. As a fourth-generation South Floridian and veteran fishing and hunting guide, he had spent his life immersed in the state’s enchanting natural exhibition, so he didn’t expect that on that day he’d be particularly taken aback. But it’s no wonder, since the Everglades, hosting almost 70 threatened and endangered wildlife species, is one of the most biologically diverse regions on Earth.
But the defining experience that happened next, Wittman says, was out of this world.
“We got on the water and almost immediately we noticed the birds,” says Wittman. “We went toward them and suddenly it was tarpon flashing everywhere. They were just blowing up. Every cast.”
Wittman pauses, taking a long, slow breath as he recalls that bluebird day in late summer. “They were cartwheeling. All those tarpon, just cartwheeling. We hooked 30 in two hours. And not just tarpon. There were cobia. And permit!”
He hesitates again. “But looking back on that now . . . I see it differently. At the time I wasn’t thinking about how the collapse of an ecosystem happens over time, with some bright spots of health here and there. That day was a bright spot. With each passing year, these types of experiences become rarer and rarer. Today is nothing like it was in 2006.”
And today is not what Wittman ever dreamed of, visualized, or prepared for. Over the last several years, he and fellow fishing guides have helped pull off what few people felt was possible. In tackling what they identified as corrupt water management in the state of Florida, they revolutionized public-driven environmental activism, transcending political parties to effect measurable change.
In 2016, Wittman and his friend Daniel Andrews believed their jobs as fishing guides near their home waters of Fort Myers, Charlotte Harbor, and Sanibel Island were in serious trouble when the latest in a chronicle of water crises drove away 80 percent of their clients. They knew they weren’t alone, so they called together as many affected charter captains as possible to start brainstorming solutions. The first get-together of Captains For Clean Water amassed 300 people. “It wasn’t just guides,” says Wittman. “There are so many stakeholders in the community who rely on good water quality and healthy ecosystems—the hotels, restaurants, stores. It turns out they were as upset as we were, and wanted to have the situation finally dealt with.”
The Everglades situation is shrouded in drama dating back to the 1880s, when real estate developer Hamilton Disston purchased 4 million acres south of Lake Okeechobee and built a canal with plans to drain the Everglades for farming purposes. Up until then, humans had not tampered with the natural flow of freshwater from northern Florida into Lake Okeechobee, or from the lake south through large natural sloughs and tidal creeks into Florida Bay. But, in the early 1900s, Florida’s governor created the Everglades Drainage District to reclaim the area for agricultural production and divert water from Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades’ natural southern path into canals to the east and west.
Then after two massive, deadly hurricanes in the late 1920s, Congress authorized building levees along Lake Okeechobee. Another hurricane 20 years later spurred the additional construction of the 143-mile Herbert Hoover Dike, completed in the 1960s, including levees, gates, and structures.
In 1948, by draining wetlands to support large-scale farming, the government created more than 480,000 acres of farmland south of Lake Okeechobee, known as the Everglades Agricultural Area. The region now comprises more than 700,000 acres, with most of it growing sugarcane.
According to the Everglades Law Center, the drain-and-ditch developments in the last 100 years have reduced the size of the ecosystem by half, with 40 percent of the water that once flowed into Everglades National Park now diverted to the state’s flanks or for other uses.
Three established water conservation areas south of Lake Okeechobee are set aside for wildlife habitat and recreation, as well as water storage during major rain events and reservoirs for farms and towns.
The Florida Oceanographic Society ex- plains that the water in the wide but shallow lake is unnaturally rich in nutrients as a result of manmade pollutants like fertilizer runoff. Those nutrients can create toxic algae blooms that pour from the lake and into coastal estuaries.
The sugar industry has been criticized for convincing water managers to let them use Lake Okeechobee as its own reservoir by not drawing down the lake levels in the dry winter months, which results in the need for massive discharge when it reaches capacity during the summer rainy season.
“And at times it’s billions of gallons of water per day being dumped into our estuaries, filled with Microcystis aeruginosa—a type of toxic blue-green algae,” says Florida Oceanographic Society’s Zack Jud, Ph.D. “That can have real health im- plications linked to Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and ALS. Plants and animals aside, this kind of pollution can be extremely harmful to human life. Eight million Floridians depend on the Everglades for their drinking water.”
U.S. Congressman Brian Mast and U.S. Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell sit on opposite sides of the political aisle but are unified in Everglades restoration, working together to advance what is now the largest ecosystem restoration project in the world at $17 billion. They insist their mission is not anti-farming, but a line in the sand to keep one industry from hurting a host of others.
Rep. Mast applauds the Captains for putting pressure on the sugar industry, which he says is taking more than its fair share of water, hogging the allocation of consumptive use permits south of Lake Okeechobee.
He wrote a provision to the Water Resources Development Act of 2018 that demanded the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers totally revamp how they manage the lake. This process is called the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual. Building on this for 2020, Rep. Mast says the bill will now require that the Army Corps reduce toxic discharges to the estuaries, including consideration to not discharge any toxic water whatsoever.
U.S. Sugar, an 85-year-old sugar company, claims that for decades farmers have worked to clean the water and their farms have achieved a 57 percent reduction in phosphorus, more than twice what is required by law. They say farmers have spent more than $400 million on-farm research and cleanup efforts. A portion of this, ac- cording to the Florida Sugar Cane League, is assessed through an agricultural tax and their on-farm practices (BMPs) that are required by permits to reduce pollution coming off their farms. But a 2018 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine shows the runoff is polluted until it goes into the state’s stormwater treatment areas for cleanup, with taxpayers’ footing the $4 billion dollar cleanup bill.
“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers discharges from Lake Okeechobee because of Mother Nature, not because of farmers,” says U.S. Sugar Spokesperson Judy Sanchez. “Blaming farmers is not productive, hurts Florida’s economy, and is simply un-American.”
“A clean environment is an American right,” says Rep. Mast. Mast says with the sugar industry lobbying to have the lake held higher to preserve their water supply and monopolize capacity in the stormwater treatment areas and water conservation areas to clean their own runoff, Mother Nature is the one variable that can’t be controlled. Water management, on the other hand, can be, Mast says, and ought not prioritize the sugar industry’s needs at the cost of others. “Regardless of where you live, that should be a premise of good government, to provide clean water, clean air, clean land. And we do it by working together. We want to give industries what they want and need, right up to the point they hurt the rest of us to get it.”
Rep. Mucarsel-Powell agrees, pointing to the importance of political will. “There are so many interests that are loud in Washington that push policies that are harmful to conservation. Often, those groups make an economic argument that protecting our environment and supporting a thriving economy are somehow mutually exclusive. We need voices like those of the fly-fishing community to be loud and counter those anti-conservation voices.”
Learning how to amplify the voices of fly fishers came with a steep learning curve for Captains For Clean Water. Capt. Wittman and Capt. Andrews figured the best place to start was at the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee. “We just figured if we walked in there and explained the problem to someone, they would fix it,” says Wittman. But even walking in proved more challenging than they expected, as security quickly sent them back to their truck to ditch their pocket knives. “Then we were met with everything from lip service to cold shoulders to special interests blocking us to well-meaning politicians saying ‘we can’t help you.’”
Wittman and Andrews say the lawmakers who pushed back—both Democrats and Republicans—were either close to the deep pockets of the sugar industry, or they felt pinned under the sugar industry’s might. Sugar accounts for just 2 percent of all American crops by value, but represents 30 percent of all political campaign contributions by crop-producing companies. Sugar corporations employ several dozen lobbyists in Tallahassee alone.
In order to get the attention of lawmakers, Captains For Clean Water had to focus on the issue’s economic impact, rather than the injury to snook, tarpon, or sea turtles. At the 2016 ICAST trade show in Orlando, the issue came up with nearly all the Florida fishing guides in attendance. “So, we stayed up until 3 A.M. writing a script. We set up a camera in the Simms party room, and made an anthem video featuring a number of affected charter captains,” says Wittman. “Until then, the fly-fishing industry brands didn’t realize the importance of their involvement, but suddenly they saw Flip Pallot, Rob Fordyce, Dave Mangum, Bear Holeman, Carter Andrews . . . all using their voices to speak out against this water mismanagement. That got their attention.”
The Captains juiced the momentum, launching a passionate campaign encouraging all in the outdoor industry to demand their elected leadership pass Senate Bill 10, establishing a reservoir and filter marsh to store and clean water in the Everglades Agricultural Area on state land south of Lake Okeechobee. The public response surpassed expectation, and the bill passed, veto-proof. Then Captains took on the Water Resources Development Act, known as the WRDA bill. WRDA gave EAA authorization by including it in the federal bill. Captains again stoked the fire in the outdoor industry’s gut to bombard U.S. senators and House representatives. The effort generated 60,000 emails in one week. It got to the point that Wittman says the oﬃce of U.S. Senator Marco Rubio contacted the nonprofit asking them to turn off the machine. “Yeah, no!” remembers Wittman. “We’ll be happy to turn it off when it passes.”
“Then in 2018 we had another big water crisis,” says Wittman. “Large-scale discharges. Before then, half the guiding community said it’s a problem, and after that . . . everyone said it.”
Today, it’s everyone outside of Florida that Captains For Clean Water aims to mobilize. They say restoring a national treasure sets a precedent for conservation that can be used to save or restore similar gems impacting other fisheries. He points out that many captains in Florida care about the fly-fishing industry’s fight to protect Alaska’s Bristol Bay fishery from mining, and that while that issue is geographically distant from Florida’s, they’re wildly similar in their David vs. Goliath storylines. Both are equally important.
The nonprofits Save Bristol Bay and Captains for Clean Water in November released a film about the parallel struggles titled Everyone in Between. It is available at captainsforcleanwater.org.
The fishing charter captains who have rallied with Captains For Clean Water say the movement shows no signs of slowing. “Every now and then there is an organization that means so much to the environment and the animals that live there that nothing gets in its way,” says renowned guide and TV personality Carter Andrews. “And I mean nothing. Political party aﬃliations, cities, counties, farms, businesses, residential communities, and other environmental organizations all see the importance of restoring water from the Everglades. When it is explained properly, you can’t argue with the facts. Captains For Clean Water has raised more money and more awareness than anyone ever thought possible.”
Jessica Pinsky is Captains For Clean Water’s director of public affairs and policy, bringing a new level of political savvy to the nonprofit’s staff of nine. While she reminds them to leave their pocket knives in the truck, Pinsky won’t make captains Wittman and Andrews shave their beards or stop wearing their ball caps when they go to Tallahassee or Washington, D.C. “What they bring to this fight is a new breed of activism,” she says. “And no one in the Everglades fight had seen it until they stepped up. That’s when we started seeing progress happen at a record pace.”
Captains For Clean Water started when two full-time fishing guides sacrificed their careers to save those of their peers. There are certainly moments of frustration and doubt, but there are plenty of bright spots that remind Wittman of his most memorable day in the Everglades, when everything came together. He used to wonder if that magical, mysterious day was simply a rare and lucky glimpse of how the River of Grass thrived when the water flowed south. But now, witnessing what the angling community can achieve together, he doesn’t look at it as a fleeting picture of the past, but rather a big bay window into the future.
*Hilary Hutcheson started guiding fly-fishing trips as a teenager in West Glacier, Montana. Today she continues to guide the Flathead River system, and owns and operates her fly shop, Lary’s Fly & Supply in Columbia Falls, Montana, where she lives with her daughters Ella and Delaney, her partner Ebon, and their three-legged Labrador Jolene. Her last story in Fly Fisherman was “Bull Trout Bastion” in the June-July 2020 issue, now available at flyfisherman.com.