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Outdoors: Modern catastrophe churning near Stuart


Published:   |   Updated: October 6, 2013 at 12:59 AM

One of the saddest stories in Florida’s sad history of environmental disasters is a modern one.

In an age of environmental awareness and scientific knowledge that should prevent following the footsteps of the past, we have a watershed catastrophe in the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon, in the waters around the posh, east coast town of Stuart.

This area was, not long ago, perhaps Florida’s finest estuary. The water was stunningly clear, sea grasses grew everywhere, and there was an incredible abundance of enormous snook and fat spotted sea trout as long as your leg (I knew many of them on a first-name basis). Manatees and porpoises were abundant and healthy, as were all the wading and diving birds that mark a healthy ecosystem.

It was such a striking spot that Karl Wickstrom, founding father of Florida Sportsman magazine and one of the state’s leading voices for conservation, moved the company there from Miami to be in the epicenter of sport fishing. And the fortunate few who owned waterfront property were rightly convinced they were living in heaven on earth.

That is not the case today.

The water has turned a sickly green for much of the year, and it has become so cloudy that vast areas of the once-abundant turtle grass have died off. With the grass went the food chain, and with the baitfish went the gamefish. One can only hope that most migrated out the inlets into safer water beyond. Both manatees and porpoises — bottle-nosed dolphins, actually — have turned up sick in large numbers.

What appears most likely to be causing these issues is the outflow from Lake Okeechobee, which is the kidney — or maybe more correctly, the bladder — for most of intensively developed Central Florida, Disney World, et al, and the farming industry below it.

Okeechobee, fed by the Kissimmee River, which originates in the Orlando area, gets loaded with nutrients when the state gets a lot of rain, as it has been doing the past several years. Those nutrients get shunted to the South Fork of the St. Lucie, the Caloosahatchee and other outlets via canals that run through what were formerly wetlands stretching all the way to the brackish water of the Everglades, a natural filtration system that slowly released “polished” or reduced-nutrient water to tide.

The canals were dug decades ago to drain the land for farming, creating vast muck fields that are now used mostly for growing sugarcane.

The Caloosahatchee, which runs to the state’s west coast and exits into the Gulf of Mexico at Punta Rassa near Fort Myers Beach — is having the same sort of problems as the St. Lucie, so the culprit seems fairly clear.

The Corps of Engineers is attempting to defend itself by pointing out that most of the water that goes into the St. Lucie estuary comes from within the watershed, which is assuredly true.

But it’s also true that most of the water that goes into Tampa Bay comes from a heavily developed watershed — and Tampa Bay is in the best environmental shape it has attained in the past 40 years. No other areas along the east coast are having anything like the problems experienced by those around the mouth of the St. Lucie River, so it’s fairly likely that all those angry folks who point to the outflow from the lake as the source of their problem are right.

To be sure, the Corps has very little choice in the dumping. Its primary mission is to make sure the Okeechobee Dike does not fail, and if water gets too high in the lake, engineers say failure is highly likely. Therefore, when the lake goes up, the Corps opens the locks and lets the water flow. It has to, because consider the consequences — and the public reaction — if a wall of water took out the farm communities on the south side of the lake.

The cure for this — and all the homeowners, anglers, kayakers and environmentalists around the St. Lucie want a quick solution — is going to take many years and hundreds of millions of dollars.

Basically, according to scientists and engineers, the entire Kissimmee Basin will have to be replumbed, with the water that now gets channeled to the coasts going into vast marshy holding basins — now mostly farmland — where the nutrients will be leached out by the thick vegetation of the shallow water, and the run-off can be released a little at a time.

Further, stronger efforts are needed upstream, where the excessive nutrients originate, to cut run-off from residential areas, golf courses and farms, among many other sources. Some of this work already has been done by plugging part of the Kissimmee River’s dug channel, forcing water back through historic marshlands that slow and clean it, but much more is needed.

All of this means enormous expenditures of tax money from the state and federal levels, at a time when the economy is still shaky and the business mood is anything but elevated, thanks to concerns about federal government regulations.

In short, there’s no quick fix. But there is a fix.

That’s the good news.

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