Smack In The Middle

Right smack in the middle of Sunrise Ford’s property  is a culvert that drains polluted water from  the western part of the county into the Indian River Lagoon.   The culvert is part of the North St. Lucie River Water Control District that was established nearly a century ago to drain St. Lucie County’s swampland for farmers and future development.

For years, I was repulsed knowing that the filthy dark brown water that flowed through a good sized canal adjoining Sunrise Ford would eventually empty into the beleaguered river. While environmentalists —and most  Treasure Coast residents—rant about the billions of gallons of polluted water being diverted into the lagoon through Lake Okeechobee, we have our own homegrown pollution system that can be just as devastating to the  river.

The North St. Lucie River Water Control system is a made up of 200 miles of canals that spread from western St. Lucie County and head south through Port St. Lucie. The polluted water dumps into the St. Lucie Estuary and then flows under the Roosevelt Bridge and into the lagoon.

A similar system called Fort Pierce Farms Water Control District drains the agriculture lands and runoff from the northwest part of the county and dumps it into Taylor Creek which has a straight shot to the river.

Like the disgusting water that passes along Sunrise Ford, the water flowing through Taylor Creek leaves a large plume of pollution as it flows into the river and out the Fort Pierce Inlet.

So how much pollution monitoring is being conducted  in those water management districts? Not much as far as I can tell.

Ultimately the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is supposed to enforce water quality regulations.  But Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society,  said enforcement has been lax since Rick Scott became governor.

“The whole department is on the loose side of what the administration wants,” he said.

And some experts say the amount of polluted water in those two systems can cause just as much damage as the water coming from Lake Okeechobee.  During the “Lost Summer of 2013” when up to 3 billion gallons of Lake O water was pumped into the estuary a day, water managers said a similar amount of runoff was drained into the lagoon from St. Lucie County’s water control districts.

Unfortunately, our state legislators while promising to earmark money towards restoration of the Florida Everglades , took a giant step backward when it came to cleaning up St Lucie County’s  canal systems  as well as the rest of  the state’s waterways.    The new water bill passed quickly and early in the Legislative session allows agriculture to “self monitor”  its anti-pollution policies.

“It’s a travesty,”  said a researcher who keeps track of water quality along the Treasure Coast.

Critics said say besides reducing enforcement powers by the DEP,  farmers could claim they are practicing “best management practices,” when in reality they are not.

The DEP was hit hard when Scott took office and fired many of the long tenured scientists  as well as other  career staffers at the agency.  It was part of his policy to drastically scale down  government which has resulted in the loss of 27,300 government jobs since he took office while the state’s population has grown by 2 million. He also promised to curtail the power of regulators who could hinder jobs.

“There’s been a major brain drain here over the past five years,” said one frustrated DEP employee.

“I feel that everything we accomplished since I started working there is being undone,”  said a retired DEP manager. “And we were supposed to be the generation that would make a difference.”

Another former state employee was even more  skeptical. “They should call the DEP “Don’t Expect Protection,” he said.

The water bill does  provide money for eight employees to be hired by the Florida Department of Agriculture and  Consumer Affairs to oversee agriculture’s self monitoring practices. But I doubt very seriously that we will be seeing any heavy fines or enforcement from those new hires.   According to the DEP, Florida has 54,836 miles of rivers and streams as well as 49,128 miles of canals and 2,390 square miles of lakes, reservoirs and ponds. That’s a lot of ground for eight employees to cover.  And since they will be under the tutelage of Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a big promotor of the water bill, I would not expect them to be too aggressive with fines and cease and desist orders.

By all accounts the two St, Lucie County water control districts have worked well over the past ninety plus years.   And Perry said that there are those in the agriculture who are compliant with pollution regulations using new and innovative techniques.

The complex construction of canals and pumps has stopped flooding while aiding farmers with irrigation. But when the system was planned in the early 20th century, no one really worried about the long term effects the water districts would have on the once pristine Indian River.

I would hope that the state and its water management agencies could come up with an equally ingenious solution to clean up our waterways—and enact those policies before the Indian River is officially declared dead.

But the outlook is not encouraging. Gov. Rick Scott’s tea party agenda appears to be going strong and many don’t expect any major changes in the state’s attitude toward agriculture and water policies. Word is that the state politician who has one of the best shots of being our next governor is none other than the controversial water bill’s biggest cheerleader—Adam Putnam.