The Caloosahatchee River: Its History and Future

An osprey near the Caloosahatchee River

The Caloosahatchee River runs from Lake Okeechobee to San Carlos Bay on the Southwest coast of Florida. San Carlos Bay borders the Gulf of Mexico as well as Sanibel Island. The lower twenty-five miles of the river’s sixty-seven mile course is a tidal estuary, making it a valuable environmental asset. It’s essential for many marine organisms to spend part of their lives in an estuary. Unfortunately, the biological productivity of the Caloosahatchee has been catastrophically decimated by man.


The river was altered by the Calusa Indians before Europeans entered the area. The Calusa connected it to Lake Okeechobee with shallow canals to make trading and travel easier. Later, the Europeans arrived. By 1887 a large channel was dug connecting the river and the lake. Deadly floods and the desire to improve navigation spurred on multiple new projects. In government documents the river became the C-43 drainage canal. All these “improvements” led to the tragedy that is the present day Caloosahatchee.


There’s a jumble of competing interests involved with the river/canal today. Agricultural, recreational, fishery, transportation, environmental, municipal, residential and tourism all want to benefit from the Caloosahatchee, often at the expense of the others. The chaos has left the estuary relatively barren. Mangrove shoreline has been replaced with seawalls, turtle grass with mud. Scallops have been wiped out.

Pollution has mushroomed. Heavy releases of polluted fresh water and the drainage from both rural and urban areas has at times turned the Caloosahatchee into little more than an open sewer. The beach at the Cape Coral Yacht Club has occasionally closed because of it. Other nearby beaches have had to close as well. There has been fish kills, red tide and oyster die offs. The aesthetic costs have been high for a long time, but now the economic costs are rising. They’re being recognized, and money talks.

The future

There’s hope. Tourism is a major industry in Florida. A coalition of environmentalists and business has slowly gained strength and influence. Together they’ve been able to pressure a state government usually loath to spend on the environment, into funding projects which will have a real impact. There’s going to be a 55 billion gallon reservoir built within four years. It’ll hold a third of the water needed to regulate water flow. A three mile long berm will quickly be built that will immediately hold some water.

We’re far from a total solution, but it’s a big step, and more help has been promised. Returning the Caloosahatchee to a more natural state will create a bounty beneficial to both locals and visitors. Scallop will return. The water will be clearer. The snook population will take off. More fishable area will disperse fishing pressure. More sea grass will mean more trout, other game fish, dolphin and sharks. There will be more mullet and glass minnows for fish and birds to feed on. The list of benefits goes on and on. Is all this really possible? Total victory is far from certain, but many of us believe the tide has turned.

Update 7/12/2018: The water quality is horrible, maybe the worst it’s ever been. Much of the River is covered in a thick green algae. Bacteria harmful to humans is growing in it, causing respiratory distress to some people living nearby.

Update 2/21/2016: A lot of dirty water is being released from Lake Okeechobee and flowing down the Caloosahatchee now. This rarely happens in winter. This is the tourist season and the brown water is driving them away. Businesses are furious. Maybe with such an uproar, enough pressure will be put on the politicians to get something done.