By Maggy Hurchalla - Special to The Palm Beach Post
Posted: 7:33 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013
The St. Lucie River estuary anchors the south end of the 156-mile lagoon. It is the lagoon’s main source of fresh water. That wasn’t always so.
In the beginning, the St. Lucie River had no connection to Lake Okeechobee. Drainage to the lagoon was limited to the coastal ridge. The magic mix of fresh water and salt water that creates a productive estuary worked.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Florida set out to drain the Everglades. This “progress” ran up against two great hurricanes in 1926 and 1928. The high ground wasn’t high enough. The canals weren’t wide enough. The dikes around Lake Okeechobee weren’t big enough. Thousands of people died.
They set out to build better dikes and get rid of more water faster. On the west side of Lake Okeechobee, they connected the lake to the Caloosahatchee River. On the east side, they dug the St. Lucie Canal, to connect the lake to the St. Lucie River and the estuary. The coastal estuaries became the dumping ground for Lake Okeechobee – the escape valve that allowed development to continue in wet South Florida.
In 1930 the Martin County Commission sent its first resolution to Congress complaining that lake dumping was destroying the estuary. In 1992, as part of much larger concerns for all of South Florida, Congress ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to fix the environmental damage done in the name of progress.
In 1999, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) was complete. In 2000, Congress authorized CERP, to restore, preserve and protect the South Florida ecosystems. By then, the St. Lucie estuary and the Indian River Lagoon had been battered by the Lake Okeechobee discharges. As water demands in South Florida required higher Lake Okeechobee levels, more emergency discharges happened. As the overdrained system made Lake Okeechobee into an industrial nutrient sump instead of a functioning lake, the discharges got dirtier.
The consequences to the St. Lucie estuary were ugly.
First, the oyster bars that are so important to the estuary died. Oysters can’t swim away. Then algae blooms from the lake moved out to the coast. Then “lesioned fish” appeared in the estuary following discharges. That’s a polite way of describing the ugly red open sores in fish that survived.
Most recently, the Martin County Health Department has warned the population not to set foot in the estuary. The rainy summer of 2013 has resulted in more discharges. The bacterial count makes the water all the way to the mouth of the St. Lucie Inlet dangerous for human contact. More ominous, a neon-green sheen appeared that tested out as a toxic blue-green algae not fit to stick your toe in.
Every new discharge has been worse than the last. The comprehensive plan for the Everglades included getting the water right in Lake Okeechobee and dramatically decreasing dumping to the coastal estuaries. It included fixing the impacts of the flood control canals in the St. Lucie watershed. Those inflows are not as dramatic as the lake dumping, but they annually cause fish kills and algae blooms from too much dirty water that comes in too fast.
Today, with a toxic estuary in what used to be paradise, folks are losing hope. The St. Lucie estuary is like a punch-drunk prize fighter and may be a dead prize fighter with one more punch. Will Comprehensive Everglades Restoration start really happening in time? Is there still hope? How do we make it happen?
Maggy Hurchalla is a former Martin County
(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Martin County Democratic Executive Committee has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is Martin County Democratic Executive Committee endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)