November 6 2017
Water, water everywhere ... too much of it tainted
BY: Gil Smart,
Two months ago, my in-laws moved to the Treasure Coast.
Stuart, specifically; they're in a condo development just steps away from the Indian River Lagoon. And prior to their arrival, I regaled them with stories about how beautiful this part of Florida was: palm trees, sunshine and especially the water. Water, water everywhere.
Except you don't actually want to go near it.
And with discharges from Lake Okeechobee pouring chocolate-colored water into the St. Lucie River and beyond, and enteric bacteria spikes triggering avoid-water advisories throughout the region, they haven't.
In the time they've been here, my mother-in-law has gone over to the beach once just to take a look — not to swim. Periodically, we say: Hey, let's go to the beach! But no one wants to deal with brown surf.
That chocolate-colored water coagulating along Stuart's Riverwalk? Who wants to be around that?
And while my father-in-law has promised to show my 7-year-old a thing or two about fishing, we don't actually want to go to the Stuart Causeway or Sandsprit Park because we might inadvertently touch the water.
Do we realize how ridiculous this is, that we live surrounded by water but the danger is we might actually come into contact with some of it?
The state currently has 13 avoid-water advisories in effect in our region: three in both St. Lucie and Martin counties, seven in Palm Beach County.
The spike in enteric bacteria triggering these advisories is caused by heavy rains and storm water laden with fecal pollution. Pets, wildlife, livestock and sewage systems contribute to the pollution. Tainted water drains off the land, through canals and into our waterways. Ingesting it or even touching it can cause upset stomach, diarrhea, eye irritation and skin rashes.
Enteric bacteria can plague the St. Lucie River without discharges, but the numbers often increase when discharges are occurring — like now.
With water levels in Lake Okeechobee continuing to hover around 17 feet, the Army Corps of Engineers — which manages the Herbert Hoover Dike around the lake — is releasing as much water as possible. Between Sept. 15 and Oct. 29, 74.4 billion gallons flowed east into the St. Lucie River, while another 170 billion gallons flowed west into the Caloosahatchee River.
When will it end? No one knows.
Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds, the Corps deputy commander for Florida, said in a prepared statement the Corps has "had to slow the rate of discharges at various times due to high tides and heavy precipitation."
But, she said, the Corps "will continue to monitor downstream conditions and adjust accordingly."
This raises an interesting question.
"Downstream conditions" are deplorable. Our water quality and clarity are abysmal. Does this matter?
The question is rhetorical because we know the answer. We know that however much damage is done to our waters, or businesses or people sickened by tainted waters, the Corps' mandate is to protect the dike and protect the people and farm fields south of the lake from harm.
We simply are collateral damage.
And try explaining that to your newly arrived in-laws.
The proposed reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee will help. Though it's years away, we're heartened to see the South Florida Water Management District moving quickly on the project.
Not everyone is enamored with the proposed southern storage, and some are fighting what might be termed a rear-guard action against it, insisting that storage north of the lake should take precedence.
Surely, we need storage north and south of the lake. No one has ever said the southern reservoir is "the" answer. But it's undoubtedly part of the answer. Late last month an official with the South Florida Water Management District said if the reservoir were online now, it and other projects would "put a huge dent" in the discharges.
And that's reason for hope indeed.
So don't worry, I tell my in-laws. We'll get over to the water eventually. What's happening now is not normal.
Then I think: I came to the Treasure Coast in December 2015. Discharges have occurred in 14 of the 24 months I've been here.
Maybe it is normal.
But maybe, just maybe, it won't always be.