September 27, 2012

"Eve Samples: St. Lucie River gets dumped on again" @TCPalm

Enough fresh water to fill more than 900 Olympic-size swimming pools every day started gushing into the St. Lucie River last week.

The water — arriving from Lake Okeechobee via the St. Lucie Canal — is laden with pollutants. It is brown and foamy as it cascades through the St. Lucie Lock & Dam.

We can expect it to kill oysters and sea grasses. Depending on how long the Army Corps of Engineers continues the releases, it might trigger algae blooms and fish kills.

"It's easily the most frustrating aspect of the current system that the Army Corps operates, just because the estuary bears the brunt of it," said Kevin Powers, vice-chair of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board.

There is no debating that the releases — which started Wednesday as the Army Corps tried to lower a rising Lake O — will hurt the already ailing St. Lucie River estuary.

What is still being debated, after decades of abuse, is where to focus efforts for a solution.

Allies of the Rivers Coalition, a diverse collection of advocates for the St. Lucie River, have been clear about what must happen.

"The true long-term fix for the next generation is for them to be able to move and store the water south," said Leon Abood, chairman of the group.

If he had a nickel for every time he made a statement like that, he'd be able to buy all the land needed to restore the natural flow of water from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades.

But the unwavering message has not forced the hands of those in power.

The Rivers Coalition has tried taking its battle to federal court. It has tried diplomacy with government agencies.

Neither approach has stopped the discharges into the St. Lucie River. On Thursday, 925 cubic feet of polluted water per second flowed through the St. Lucie Lock & Dam — less than what the Army Corps is allowed to send our way, but enough to cause damage.

Still hoping for a solution, the Rivers Coalition now intends to try its message on a new potential ally: the sugar farmers who control much of the land south of Lake Okeechobee.

"We don't have the political will to force it. We don't have the money to outspend them. We don't have the political influence to out-lobby them," Abood said. "So we've got to get them to the table."

Two representatives of the sugar industry — consultant Thomas MacVicar and David Goodlett of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida — will join the Rivers Coalition at 11 a.m. Thursday for a public meeting at Stuart City Hall.

They're bound to get an earful from fed-up residents who are tired of the federal government propping up the sugar industry with subsidies while the St. Lucie River suffers.

"What we're looking to accomplish is to have them be frank and candid in their answers to specific questions involving the flow way south, involving cleaning up their own water, involving their support for a flow way concept," Abood said.

Abood and other members of the Rivers Coalition were hopeful about a flow way in 2008 when former Gov. Charlie Crist announced a deal to buy more than 180,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee from U.S. Sugar. That deal was dramatically scaled back after Gov. Rick Scott took office, though the South Florida Water Management District still has an option to buy the remaining 153,000 acres.

Powers, who is in the unique position of living on the St. Lucie River and sitting on the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board, is more focused on near-term projects than embracing the idea of a flow way.

He pointed to four things that, in combination, he believes could help the St. Lucie avoid at least some water from Lake Okeechobee:

Construction of the C-44 reservoir, which will capture local runoff in the St. Lucie Canal; rehabilitation of the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee's 140-mile perimeter, which might allow the lake to hold more water; restoration of the Kissimmee River north of the lake; and water-quality projects to the south.

"I would rather focus on things that we have an actual chance of doing," Powers said.

Abood said he agrees with Powers to a point. He supports those four projects — yet he and many others in the Rivers Coalition want the larger fix, too. They raised their voices together Wednesday night, when about 50 protesters from the River Kidz group gathered at the St. Lucie Lock & Dam to oppose the releases.

As Powers pointed out, Martin County's voices often get drowned out amid the competing interests jockeying for Florida's water supply.

"Martin County's at a huge disadvantage. It's got 140,000 residents. It's got 100,000 voters," Powers said. "There's 5 million people in the counties south of us. Who do you think has a louder voice?"

-By Eve Samples