Palm City was once narrow strips of pine flatlands interspersed with hammocks, ponds, wide prairies, sloughs, sawgrass and cypress trees. Today it is a bustling part of Martin County due to the drainage of the C-23 canal on the north, and the C-44 canal on the south. When one attempts to unravel the long history of drainage of Palm City, it is helpful to think in three connected but separate levels: local, state, and federal.
In 1919 the Palm City Drainage District was created. It was established for a local level as a special drainage district by the Florida Legislature with a lifetime of fifty years. It was primarily created to drain newly established Palm City Farms. Miles of canals and ditches were dug to drain into Bessey Creek, Dansforth Creek, and the South Fork of the St Lucie River. Some of these canals and ditches still exist today or have been incorporated into larger canals.
Digging of the St Lucie Canal in the south began around 1915 lasting into 1926. It was dug by the Everglades Drainage District, State of Florida, from the South Fork of the St Lucie River to Lake Okeechobee. After the deathly hurricane of 1928, the federal government authorized widening and deepening the St Lucie Canal to create the Okeechobee Waterway also known as the Cross State Canal from Stuart, across Lake Okeechobee, to Ft Meyers. Doing so allowed the St Lucie Canal to conveniently function as the main outlet for Lake Okeechobee’s flood waters. Later, after the great flood of 1947, the canal became part of the Central and Southern Florida Plan and renamed C-44 becoming part of the giant Central and Southern Florida Flood Control System of the Army Corp of Engineers.
The great flood of 1947 called not just for the widening and depending of the St Lucie Canal and enlargement of its structures, but the federal Flood Control Act of 1948 authorized more canals, levees, and structures to be built by the Army Corps of Engineers throughout southern and central Florida. Among the new canals were the C-23, the C-24 and C-25 canals of Martin and St Lucie counties -all discharging into the North Fork of the St Lucie River. The state asked for and supported this. The C-23 is the border between Martin and St Lucie Counties. Of course there were major unintended consequences that added to the discharges of the St Lucie Canal and the original Palm City Drainage District. This plethora of fresh, dirty water has all but killed the St Lucie River. Improving the health of the St Lucie is the goal of local, state, and federal restoration efforts today.
I posted most of these photos on Facebook, but today I will give explanations and document on my blog. From above, our St Lucie/Indian River Lagoon remains beautiful, but we must be sensitive to the losses beneath the waters. These aerials were taken during a “slack tide” between 12 and 2pm on December 9, 2020 by my husband, Ed Lippisch. December 9th was the last of five days the ACOE stopped discharging from Lake Okeechobee; however S-80 was discharging “local runoff.” (Click on chart above.) Unfortunately, due to high lake level and lack of storage reservoirs, since these aerials were taken, the ACOE has begun ramping up Lake discharges once again.
Below Lawrence Glenn of the South Florid Water Management gives a comprehensive ecological report covering low-salinities and loss of oyster spat in the St Lucie and other aspects, positive and negative, for the entire Everglades system.
Below is an explanation of aerials documenting discharges December 9, 2020. All photos by Ed Lippisch.
-S-80 at St Lucie Locks and Dam discharging local basin S-80 runoff on December 9, 2020
S-308 at Port Mayaca, Lake Okeechobee closed on December 9, 2020. No algae visible.
-Plume of along Jupiter Island south of St Lucie Inlet
-Dispersing plume in Atlantic Ocean just past Peck’s Lake in Jupiter Narrows
-St Lucie Inlet -St Lucie Inlet State Park, Sailfish Point, Sewall’s Point, Stuart, Jensen
-Looking north to Sailfish Flats between Sewall’s Point and Hutchinson Island. This area has greatly degraded since 2013 as far as loss of seagrasses and fishing opportunities
-The area below, especially around Sailfish Point, was once considered “the most biodiverse estuary in North America” as documented, first, by Grant Gilmore
-This photo reveals seagrass loss across many areas of the Sailfish Flats
-Another view between Sewall’s and Sailfish Point, a seeming desert…
-Close up, Sailfish Point
-Sewall’s Point, east Indian River Lagoon
-Sewall’s Point is a peninsula surrounded by the St Lucie River on west side, and Indian River Lagoon on east side
Ed Lippisch, selfie. Thank you Ed!
As you can tell, I have lots of people helping me. Whether it is Ed flying or my brother Todd who provides an incredible easy to read website called EyeonLakeO. You can click below to check it out. The more we know, the more we document, the more we can overturn the destruction of our beloved estuary…
Tales of the Southern Loop, Cape Sable, Marco Island, Ft Meyers, Moore Haven, Clewiston, Stuart, Part 7
I’m a bit late in getting this final Southern Loop published. Between the presidential election, Tropical Storm Eta, seemingly endless overcast skies, ACOE discharges from Lake Okeechobee, and resurging Covid-19, I have had a hard time keeping myself on track!
This post is split into seven sections for dates 9-17-20 though 9-22-20. It shares highlights of the second half of the Southern Loop along the waters of Cape Sable, Marco Island, Ft Meyers, Moore Haven, Clewiston, and back to Stuart. A fantastic trip!
Well before the era of high rise resort hotels, the island’s beach was surrounded by mangrove forests, and the Calusa Indians thrived here for possibly thousands years. Docking at Marco Island Marina was one of Ed and my most difficult experiences with the winds tearing along the seawalled canal as we struggled for direction. Once there, it was paradise. We wish to go back.
-Approaching Marco Island in the Gulf of Mexico-Marco Island is part of 10,000 Islands
II. FT MEYERS, CAPE CORAL, CALOOSAHATCHEE
The following day, after running just offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, Adrift arrived at Tarpon Point Marina, and docked with out issue- a familiar spot as this is where Ed and I had taken trawler classes in 2018. We had reached the Caloosahatchee!
That afternoon, Ed and I arranged a visit with Cape Coral resident, friend, and long time River Warrior pilot, Dave Stone. Also joining us was advocate and west coast fishing expert, Captain Chris Wittman, Captains for Clean Water.
Dave and Chris reminisced their history together documenting the blue-green algae discharges from Lake Okeechobee that exacerbated the horrific red tide in the Gulf of Mexico in 2018. Dave and Chris’ Facebook Live images helped turn the tide with the election of Governor Ron DeSantis and Executive Order 19-12.-
-Dave Stone and Chris Wittman visit Adrift In the following days, Ed and I made our way to Moore Haven. The channelized Caloosahatchee is 67 miles long with quiet, rural towns “Olga” and “Alva,” and two locks (Franklin and Ortona), along the way. During the course of this lasting and beautiful day, I actually heard Ed say: “I think I could retire here.” That was a first!
Of course like everything else, although there remains great beauty, from an ecological view, the story of the Caloosahatchee is a bit depressing . In the late 1800s, it was the first water body altered as Hamilton Disston plowed through the oxbows to change its course and blew up the rapids to drive the river through the sawgrass marsh at Lake Hipochee and then on to Moore Haven. This unnaturally connected the Caloosahatchee to Lake Okeechobee. Like the St Lucie, the Caloosahatchee has been plumbed to drain diked, and polluted Lake Okeechobee. This drain the swamp “progress” of the time, affects Florida’s waters today at great cost.
-The Caloosahatchee connects the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Okeechobee-The Olga bascule bridge-A lovely home along the channelized Caloosahatchee River-Cows cooling off. Hey! What about Best Management Practices? 🙂-Ed talking to the ACOE at Franklin Locks -Historic swing bridge at Fort Denaud, near La Belle; prior to dredging and drainage, just north of here were the rapids of the Caloosahatchee-Ed and I hold the ropes, Ortona Locks and Dam, near Ortona Prehistoric Village
III.MOORE HAVEN AT CALOOSAHATCHEE & LAKE OKEECHOBEE
By the time we reached Moore Haven at the mouth of Lake Okeechobee, the sun was getting ready to set over the Moore Haven Bridge. Hospitality was in the air and Ed and I were immediately assisted to dock by fellow travelers John and Susan Brady of Kemah, Texas, who now live on their boat Sunset Drifter. We had a delightful visit and got great tips for “living aboard.”
As I looked out towards the lake, I was ecstatic to see the famous “Lone Cypress” tree was only a stone’s throw away. This tree has been a Lake Okeechobee landmark for hundreds of years. I found it rather ironic that it now has a sprinkler next to it! Considering it was living in a sawgrass marsh in more than a foot of water 140 years ago, this is the ultimate metaphor for Everglades’ change.
-Visiting with the Bradleys at the Public Docks of Moore Haven-Sunset over the Moore Haven Bridge, also known as, Highway 27-Me standing with the Lone Cypress today, 2020 -A sprinkler!? -Historic marker-Post card of the Lone Cypress at mouth of Lake Okeechobee ca. 1880, Florida Memory.
In the morning Ed and I waved goodby to the Lone Cypress and to the Bradleys. Then the craziest thing happened. We were going through the locks at Moore Haven and there was substantial floating vegetation. To my surprise, I saw many marsh rabbits floating on water hyacinth or actually in the water literally up to their ears. We have marsh rabbits at home along the Indian River Lagoon, but I have never seen them in deep water. My emotions got the best of me and I did the unthinkable. I abandoned my post.
“Where is the net?” I shouted as I climbed the stairs leaving the rope hanging against the lock’s tall cement wall. “Ed I’m going to save the drowning rabbits!“
Ed was not pleased, yelling, “Jacqui, rule number one, never abandon your post!”
The trawler banged against the lock, the waters rushed in, and I could not reach the bobbing rabbits, so finally I gave up and re-grabbed the line. We passed through the lock into the rim canal of Lake Okeechobee. I silently watched as the rabbits floated by. Ed gave me that look that means he is “not happy.”
-Marsh rabbit with only ears and face above water -Video of marsh rabbits trapped on floating vegetation below, hit arrow
-After the fiasco at the Moore Haven Locks, Ed and I continued towards Clewiston. We didn’t speak for hours. I actually sat on the bow and cried thinking about how much humankind has altered this planet. But I got ahold of myself. The wind was picking up and many birds were flying overhead -a sign of changes to come.
I checked to see if there was cell service. There was, so I looked up marsh rabbits and to my chagrin, I learned that they are “excellent swimmers.” I looked towards the helm.
“Marsh rabbits can swim!”
His laugh echoed over the water. “Good thing you didn’t pull them onto the boat!”
“I guess so. But nonetheless, that was NOT NORMAL! ”
-The rim canal
V. CLEWISTON RIM CANAL/LAKE O
When Ed and I arrived in Clewiston it was very stormy, we took refuge at Roland Martin Marina. Captain Sam, a war veteran with feathers in his cap, helped us dock. I knew with this weather we’d be here for a few days so I got out my phone and called Clewiston Mayor, Mali Gardner who I’ve known for many years. Over the coming days, she and her husband displayed the warmest hospitality taking Ed and I on a tour of the area. So nice!
-After docking with the help of Captain Sam, Roland Martin’s Marina, Clewiston-Tour with Mayor of Clewiston, Mali Gardner. We sometimes have different interests, but we have great respect for one another.
Welcome to Clewiston! -Famous Clewiston Inn with wildlife mural-Mayor Gardner shows us the original shoreline of Lake Okeechobee where today many beautiful houses sit-Historic Clewiston homes and drainage system-Ed at the Clewiston Museum that houses the mind blowing fossil findings of Mark Renz from LaBelle-With Mary Anne Martin owner of Roland Martin Marina in Clewison. Ms Martin is a huge advocate for Lake Okeechobee. For years she has voiced against spraying of chemicals on floating vegetation, and works for the burning of lands when lake levels are low to regenerate Lake Okeechobee’s ecosystem. Lake Okeechobee is famous for its bass fishing. -Merchandise for sale and for display at Roland Martin Marina
VI. LAKE O
-After three days the wind died down and the S-310 lock to Lake Okeechobee was opened. It had been closed for high water for the first time in years. Ed and I headed home to Stuart. Lake Okeechobee was wild and windy, like an ocean itself. A flock of seagulls followed us 25 miles ! I threw bread from the upper helm and the talented birds, like acrobats, caught pieces in mid air. It was so much fun.
-S-310 to Lake O-Ed on open Lake O! -Flock of seagulls followed us all the way home across Lake Okeechobee!
This Google Earth image shows our path from Clewiston, across Lake O to the C-44 canal adjacent to Indiantown. The C-44 connects to the St Lucie River bringing us home to Stuart, Florida, in Martin County.
VII. STUART, C-44 Canal, ST LUCIE RIVER
S-308 Port Mayaca locks at Lake O to C-44 canal -Trees along the banks of the C-44 CanalS-80 St Lucie Locks and Dam, continuing C-44 to St Lucie River-C-44 is very impaired from Lake O, and basin agricultural and development runoff -After a long journey, a familiar sight, the Roosevelt Bridge opens to welcome us home to the Harborage Marina. Much of the C-44 Canal and upper St Lucie River were under water due to King Tides. This salt infusion is healthy for the St Lucie River as like the Caloosahatchee it is unnaturally connected to Lake Okeechobee.
-Roosevelt Bridges, Stuart, home sweet home back at the Harborage Marina After the almost three week trip, it was wonderful to be home. Ed and I had accomplished our goal and our promise to each other. Working together and experiencing our state’s waters first-hand was a life changing experience.
When we docked with out a hitch like pair of old pros, we both became strangely quiet. Home is wonderful, but somehow, we knew from here on out, there was nothing that could compare to being Adrift.
This past Saturday, July 25, 2020, my husband, Ed, flew across the state to Ft Meyers to visit pilot and fellow River Warrior, Dave Stone. Along for the ride were two other friends, Scott Kuhns and Don Page.
Before the men flew off, I asked the question, like a tape-recorded message: “Could you please take some photos of the algae in Lake Okeechobee?”
“Sure,” Ed replied. “But we’re just going straight across.”
The afternoon went by, and when Ed returned home, my first question was, “Did you see any algae?”
“No,” he answered. “Didn’t you look at the photos I shared?”
I looked at my phone and clicked on the 52 photos. “No visible algae in Lake Okeechobee? Really hunny?
…Where did you guys fly?”
Ed took a long breath. “I told you Jacqui- straight across.”
“What was your altitude?” I shot out.
“About 2000 feet; why are you asking?” Ed looked at me with wide eyes.
“Were you talking to Scott and Don so much that you didn’t really look?” I inquired.
Ed looked me straight in the eye: “Jacqui, we were ALL looking. I told you, there was none, zero, nada.”
“Hmm.” I mused. “Why then aren’t there any photos of the central or west side of the lake?”
“Because there wasn’t any algae!” His final reply.
So today, I share Ed’s photos.
They highlight Port Mayaca at Lake Okeechobee, C-44 Canal, St Lucie Inlet, Hutchinson Island (with a lot of seaweed), Sailfish Flats (seagrass kind of coming back), and Sewall’s Point (with very little seagrass around Bird Island.) Nonetheless, you’ll see that the water itself looks better all around.
And the algae?
It is wonderful that Ed and his friends saw no visible algae.” Really great.
“Visible” though is the key word here. Cyanobacteria is known for its ability to move up and down in the water column. Sunlight is key. My brother Todd’s website eyeonlakeo reveals daily pass satellites Terra, Aqua -there was heavy cloud cover over Lake Okeechobee parts of Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
In 2016, the year the lake was 90% covered in algae, Dr Edward Philips of the University of Florida Dept. of Fisheries and Aquatic Science was quoted in an Okeechobee publication. I thought it explained all so well, I wrote it down:
“Cyanobacteria have gas vesicles which act as buoyancy control devices. The vesicles can be expanded and filled with gas, causing the cyanobacteria to float on the surface, or deflated, which causes the cyanobacteria to descend into the water column. Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on.”
No Visible Algae in LakeO? Really Hunny?
Ed and I will back up in the air again soon! 🙂
~Your Eye in the Sky,
Jacqui and Ed
Port Mayaca at Lake Okeechobee
C-44 Canal and S-80. Now closed.
St Luice Inlet and Hutchinson Island
Sailfish Flats between Hutchison Island and Sewall’s Point.
This morning, for purposes of documentation, I am posting the path my husband, Ed Lippisch, flew over Lake Okeechobee yesterday (6-10-20) and all aerials taken. Thank you to my brother Todd Thurlow, who shares technical information on his website, for re-creating Ed’s path via Flight Aware, and for also sharing the latest satellite high resolution images of Sentinel 2 retrieved 6-9-20. All of Ed’s phots displayed in gallery format below were taken from 2000 to 1500 feet on return flight along southern portion of Lake Okeechobee ending at Port Mayaca, east central, Martin County. His flight to the west coast was at 5000 feet and Ed said he saw no algae visible from that perspective.
Family friend Scott Kuhns is a great dentist, pilot, and photographer. For years, Scott has been one of our “eyes in the sky,” taking flight over the St Lucie River-Indian River Lagoon -and west out to Lake Okeechobee.
Today, Sunday, May 3, 2020, before noon, Scott forwarded these striking photos. He wrote “I can see some algae at Port Mayaca.”
When I first reviewed the impressive photographs -coast to lake- I found it hard to believe, but indeed looking very closely, there is a wisp of algae close to S-308 at Port Mayaca in Lake Okeechobee.
Can you see it? When things are so beautiful, like right now, it’s easy to miss!
Thanks Scott for your continued service “River Warrior” extraordinaire! We will continue to keep an eye on the water as we move closer to hurricane season.
ST LUCIE INLET, CROSSROADS OF INDIAN AND ST LUCIE RIVERS DIVIDED BY SEWALL’S POINT, ~ALL PHOTOS BY DR SCOTT KUHNS
JUPITER NARROWS & ATLANTIC OCEAN SOUTH OF ST LUCIE INLET
C-44 CANAL at ST LUCIE LOCKS AND DAM, S-80
S-308, CONNECTION OF C-44 CANNAL to LAKE OKEECHOBEE
VERY TIP of S-308 with ALGAE WISPS SLIGHTLY VISIBLE, BUT DEFINITELY THERE
INSIDE STRUCTURE S-308, PORT MAYACA LAKE OKEECHOBEE ALONG C-44 CANAL. S-53 ON ANOTHER CANAL. ALSO FPL COOLING POND SURROUNDED ON WEST BY WHAT APPEARS TO BE SUGARCANE FIELDS
If you live in Martin County, you may have experienced a short lived violent storm this past Sunday, April 26th, 2020. In south Sewall’s Point, early afternoon, the winds exploded in a crash of falling branches, rain, thunder, and hail! Under the deafening sound of our metal roof, Ed and I stood on the porch in amazement, looked at each other and said, “well at least it’s raining,” as presently drought conditions cover much of the state.
The following day, Ed took wing taking these aerial photographs. They are a good example of “local runoff.” No Lake Okeechobee thankfully! Lake O too though looked beautiful after the storm as displayed at the end of this aerial series. Somehow, it always seems most beautiful after the storm…
L-R: ST LUCIE RIVER, SEWALL’S POINT, INDIAN RIVER LAGOON, HUTCHINSON ISLAND, ATLANTIC OCEAN, by Ed Lippisch 4-27-20
INDIAN RIVER LAGOON, ST LUCIE COUNTY, HUTCHINSON ISLAND ~NOTE ST LUCIE POWER PLANT AND SAVANNAHS ON MAINLAND TO WEST
I have been wanting to write about these water quality maps for months. Now that I am at home, social distancing, due to the coronavirus pandemic, I have no excuse. So today, we begin.
Some history: about six months ago my brother, Todd Thurlow and Dr Gary Goforth started collaborating to create nutrient pollution color coded maps. The data is compiled by Dr Gary Goforth via South Florida Water Management District’s DBHydro water quality database; and the graphics are generated by Todd. All of these computer generated images can be found on my brother’s website, eyeonlakeo. This is a site you are probably familiar with as it led the charge on Harmful Algal Bloom Lake O satellite imagery before that went public in 2018. My goal is to do the same with these maps. In time, have them “go public.” The form this data exists in the District’s reports today is very sophisticated and thus confusing for the general public. With help from Gary, Todd, and a former eighth grade teacher, (me) it doesn’t have to be!
So let’s start with overview color. Basically, any color other than green is a flashing light, especially orange-red, or dark russet!
When looking at these maps, one must keep in mind that the map is in WATER YEARS. A water year begins on May 1 of a year and goes through the following year ending April 30th. The above map labeled “Lake Okeechobee Watershed Total Phosphorus Concentrations,” is Water Year 2019. (May1, 2018 – April30, 2019.)
Next, one must learn to think in terms of SUBWATERSHEDS and BASINS. The image above is for the entire 3.4-million acre watershed of Lake Okeechobee, and is broken into sub-watersheds and basins from large to small based on the way the water “flows” or used to. The sub watersheds are identified in bold in the table to the left and the basins are listed below.
The colors on the map are shown by scale at the bottom from green to dark red. You don’t have to be a genius to see that for instance S-154 Basin is one of the darkest color reds with a concentration of 857 “µg/L” (microgram per liter, commonly expressed as “parts per billion”, or “ppb”). In 2001, the State of Florida established a Target for the average phosphorus concentration in water entering Lake Okeechobee of about 40 ppb, so this basin’s concentration of 857 ppb is 21.4 times the Target concentration for the Lake; hence this basin has a “Target Multiple” shown in the table of 21.4.
The color coding gives you a quick and easy way to identify which basins are close to the target (green basins) and which basins need a lot of improvement in their non-point source controls (red basins). For a more quantitative assessment, you can check out the “” values in the table for each basin. It’s important to remember that while concentrations are very important to identify which basins need additional non-point source controls, such as farming or urban best management practices (BMPs), the “load” entering the lake from each basin is also important. We’ll talk about loads in a future blog. Now let’s take a look above at map number two, the “St Lucie Estuary and Watershed Total Nitrogen Concentrations” map. Nitrogen is the other important nutrient besides phosphorus that affects our water quality, including algae blooms. Since we already know now how to interpret the color coding, we can easily see that the Tidal Basins – the largely urban areas around the estuary – has the lowest nitrogen concentration, i.e., the Tidal Basins has the best nitrogen water quality. The Tidal Basin had a concentration of 824 ppb, and with a Target Multiple of 1.1 this concentration is still about 10% higher than the Target set by the State of 720 ppb. So while this basin has the best nitrogen levels in the watershed, it still has some improvements to make in order to meet the nitrogen Target. By contrast, Lake Okeechobee discharges, and runoff from the C-23 and C-24 basins are the darkest red and therefore have the poorest water quality, with nitrogen concentrations about 2 times the Target. The orange to red colors for these and the C-44 and Ten Mile Creek basins indicate these basins need to implement considerably more effective source controls in order to meet the Target for the Estuary.
Todd’s website and Gary’s (http://garygoforth.net/Other%20projects.htm) show phosphorus and nitrogen maps for the Lake and St. Lucie Estuary watersheds. They are working on maps for the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary Watershed.
In closing, these powerful visual maps give us the ability to easily “see” where the greatest problems of nutrient runoff are located; the nutrients come from many sources, including urban and agricultural activities, e.g., fertilizer application. And although the numbers and colors don’t tell us exactly where this pollution is coming from, we can determine it is problematic in the designated basins.
That’s enough for our first day. Hope it was a good one!
Thank you to Rotarians Mr Larry Lavargna and Ms Elmira Gainey for co-chairing Stuart-Sunrise Rotary’s 2nd Annual Water Forum, Public Health as it Relates to the St Lucie River. There are few instances where so many influential water voices come together to speak on the river as it relates to public health and for a question/answer period after each to boot. A excellent public forum!
I noticed that of all the speakers, Dr Gary Goforth had written out his talk, thus in case you were unable to attend, I asked if he would share. His words are included below. You can also find many of the presentations recorded and posted at Treasure Coast on Facebook.
The most powerful things happen when we all get involved and include others! Thank you Sunshine-Rotary!
We are so blessed to live in Paradise! Like you I love this river, its estuary, its mangroves, its beaches, its near-shore reefs. But as many of you know, it is a Paradise with a tragic problem. Below the surface of this serene river lies poison.
Ms. Sandra Thurlow recently provided the following treasure: In 1885, Homer Hine Stuart, Jr. for whom Stuart is named carried around a small woodcutting representing the confluence of the North Fork and South Fork of the St Lucie Rivers. This carving showed the river as 20 feet deep at the location of the future Roosevelt Bridge. Imagine that!
Thirty years later Ernie Lyons described looking down into the River 15-20 ft through clear tea-colored water to a sandy bottom below.
The area behind us was known worldwide as “Giant Tarpon Kingdom” with regular catches of silver kings above 175 pounds. The world record was reported as 220 pounds, caught just up river.
In 1913, the State of Florida decided to construct a canal connecting Lake Okeechobee with the Atlantic Ocean. The primary intent was to divert the overflow of Lake Okeechobee away from its natural course south through the Everglades, thereby allowing the sawgrass plains south of the lake to be developed for agriculture. A secondary benefit was to provide cross-Florida transportation of produce and other commerce.
On June 15, 1923, the first recorded discharges from Lake Okeechobee passed through the newly constructed St. Lucie Canal, which connected the St. Lucie Estuary to the Lake. But an unintended consequence was the discharge of countless tons of muck and dirty freshwater from the Lake that forever changed the landscape of the St Lucie River and Estuary.
Within 10 years the Martin County Commissioners had asked the State to stop the discharges “for the reason that the continued discharge of a large volume of dirty freshwater has killed all the shell fish, driven all salt water fish from the river, filled the river with hyacinths and so polluted the St Lucie River as to completely take away the attractive features and ruin its commercial value to the community.” (December 15, 1930 MCBCC)
The lake discharges drove out the king tarpons – the 150-200 pounders – and the small city of Stuart recast itself as the “Sailfish Capital of the World.”
Ernie Lyons described the damage in this way:
“We turned our good, sweet water into a cup of poison and changed a laughing little river into a reeking abomination – in the latter part of an ordinary lifetime. Clean rivers are not “forever and forever” like the sunrise.” (from The Last Cracker Barrel (1976) p 62)
As a professional engineer I’ve had the honor of working to protect the environment of south Florida for more than three decades – in the Everglades, in Lake Okeechobee, along the Kissimmee River and its headwaters, and in the magnificent estuaries –the St Lucie and Caloosahatchee. My wife and I raised three kids here along the St Lucie River and I’ve taught my two grandsons to fish and appreciate the incredible biological diversity throughout the river and estuary and near shore reefs. But unfortunately, we don’t eat the fish we catch in the River because of the public health risk.
I recently had the misfortune of being in the emergency room of our local hospital. One of the very first questions I was asked was if I had had any recent contact with the St Lucie River.
During the 2016 discharges I walked along Stuart Beach with Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch and we collected the names and stories of over 100 people who had gotten sick after coming in contact with the water.
A beautiful dog, Finn, died that summer after morning frolic in the water. Several other dogs suffered acute liver failure, and suffer to this day.
2016 was a watershed year in understanding the relationship between the discharge of polluted water from the Lake and public health. The media began to focus on toxic blue green algae – particularly the microcystis form. While parts of our beloved estuary were covered in foul smelling neon green guacamole, the media began reporting on the effects of microcystis and human health. An Ohio State University study reported that those of us in Martin and St Lucie County have twice the national average rate of death for non-alcoholic liver disease. They correlated this high rate with one thing – discharge of polluted water carrying blue green algae from Lake Okeechobee. This particular form of blue-green algae – microcystis – carries a dangerous toxin that can cause serious liver disease which can lead to death. Additional human health risks have also been identified – Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease.
In the last year – thanks to the efforts of Congressman Brian Mast – the Corps of Engineers acknowledged for the first time that Lake discharges to the estuaries carrying microcystis are toxic to humans, and the US Government makes these discharges knowingly and with the understanding that they are poisoning us – the public that they serve.
Numerous public health advisories have been issued in our region in association with lake discharges – warnings to the public to avoid contact with the water. But none have ever been issued when Lake water is sent south – the environmental conditions south of the lake are not advantageous for sustaining toxic blooms. So the alternative to knowingly poisoning the public are clear – send the water south.
Col. Kelly is now in charge, and we are truly grateful for his leadership. As the Corps revises its operation schedule of the Lake, I am sure that Col. Kelly will ensure that the public health, economies and environment of our region are given equal weight as the public health, economies and environment of the area south of the Lake. Hundreds of millions of dollars in economic loss are felt by the regions around the estuaries during years of heavy lake discharges. Public health is adversely affected. There is no acceptable level of lake discharges. There is no level of Lake releases to the St Lucie Estuary that is beneficial.
Lake discharges contain pollutants include toxic blue green algae, sediment (muck), low salinity water, and nutrients. However, even if all the Lake water was sent south, our beloved St Lucie would still be in trouble. Our local watershed has its challenges – particularly high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in agricultural runoff. Our watershed suffers from the same lack of pollution regulation as the Lake Okeechobee watershed: landowners are not held accountable for pollution from their property.
But the problem is not just ag runoff – WE ALL ARE RESPONSIBLE. For the St Lucie Estuary, approximately 5-10% of the total nitrogen loading is from our septic tanks. If you have a tank – have it inspected and maintained. Water quality data show an improvement in nitrogen levels due to positive actions taken by the City of Stuart, Martin County, Port St. Lucie and homeowners – conversion of more than 8,000 septic tanks to centralized sewer. The City of Stuart has one of the best programs for converting septic tanks to sewers: a voluntary system that allows homeowners the option of waiting until their tanks or drainfields need replacing before hooking up. But converting septic to sewer doesn’t solve the problem of nutrient overload – it just moves the problem to other areas. The majority of the residuals from wastewater treatment plants are returned to our watersheds as “biosolids” that contain high concentrations of phosphorus and nitrogen. An article in this morning’s Stuart News documented the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in dolphins, and the researchers attribute much of the problem to pharmaceuticals that pass generally untreated through centralized sewers and are returned to the watershed through biosolids. We still need a better strategy for managing biosolids. Sen. Harrell – we look to you for leadership in the Legislature to require additional oversight and regulation of the application of all biosolids in our watershed.
The Florida Legislature is the single most influential group that can positively affect the public health in the state of Florida. The Legislature has an obligation to understand that allowing continued pollution of Lake Okeechobee and the estuaries will directly and adversely impact the health of the public you represent. Unless the State begins holding landowners accountable for the pollution they generate, there is absolutely no reason to believe that our water quality will improve and as a result, our public health will continue to decline. No matter if the Corps and SFWMD implement all the projects on the books – there will still be Lake discharges of toxic water to our estuaries – and unless the Legislature reverses its direction, the water quality and public health problems will persist.
I ask Sen. Harrell to work with the Legislature to hold the state’s Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) accountable for protecting our environment. Their current program for improving water quality going into the Lake is terribly broken. Pollution loading to the lake reached an all-time high in 2017. And compounding this problem is that annual DEP reports to the Governor and legislature and public are misleading – as they allege that pollution loads are decreasing – when the reality – as documented by the SFWMD – is that average pollution loads are higher than the Starting Period. For 2017 the measured phosphorus loads to the Lake were 60% greater than they reported in their annual report. For 2018, the measured loads were 40% greater than they reported. Who holds the DEP accountable for transparency and accuracy in reporting to the Governor, the Legislature and the public? Sen. Harrell – please demand accountability on the part of DEP.
USEPA recently established draft guidelines for microcystin in water. We urge the legislature to direct DEP to expeditiously embrace and adopt those guidelines to protect human health. We support Col. Kelly’s efforts to prevent Lake discharges to our estuary that contain blue green algae, and urge him to adopt the microcystin guideline into the new version of the Lake operating manual.
I want to thank Ms. Thurlow-Lippisch on behalf of the SFWMD – for exploring more ways to sending Lake water south through the STAs, into the Everglades and on to Florida Bay. The SFWMD is also the agency responsible for collecting water quality data documenting the state of the water. Thanks to the leadership of Ms. Thurlow-Lippisch, they are initiating steps to establish a regulatory program that if done properly will hold landowners accountable for reducing nutrient pollution. The SFWMD will need our support as they develop an effective program – and we the public need to turn out and support them in their efforts.
We’ve heard Col. Kelly and others describe projects to be completed in the next 2-3 years. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first discharges from the Lake with a promise to stop the toxic discharges?!
I’d like to end with a challenge for all of us from an idol of mine – Timer Powers – Timer was a former Martin County commissioner and water management board member and Executive Director:
“The greatest challenge in front of us is to take the steps that are necessary to assure that our younger generation has the rivers, the creeks and the critters that are at the heart of our whole society. There’s not many people representing the critters, and if we fail to represent those who can’t represent themselves, either nature or people, then we have failed.”
So to my fellow clean water advocates – let’s rise up to meet this challenge! We can do this people!
Thank you all, and to the Rotary for bringing us all together on this beautiful day along side this beautiful estuary!
Yesterday, 3-17-19, my husband, Ed, flew the Super-Cub over the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon ~ twenty-one days after the ACOE started discharging from Lake Okeechobee on February 24, 2019.
When Ed arrived home, I asked, “So how was it?”
“Brown,” he replied.
“Like dark coffee brown, or kind of like that weird mixed greenish-brown?”
He looked at me, and smiled. “Jacqui, it was brown.”
“OK, I said, I’ll take a look at your photos.”
So here are the photos from Ed’s flight from Witham Field in Stuart, over Sewall’s Point and Hutchinson Island, then out west to S-80 to see the “Seven Gates of Hell” where you can see the one gate discharging now at an average of 250 cubic feet per second, down from an average of 500 cubic feet per second. As you can see from the SFWMD chart below, there has been other runoff locations as well, but the majority is from Lake Okeechobee.
Thank you to my husband Ed, for showing us that right now, the river is brown.
The following phots are of Caulkins Water Farm, a former orange grove that died due to citrus greening that now holds water from the C-44 Canal. This is a wonderful thing! As local ag-man Mr. Hadad, told me once, “Jacqui we spent 100 years taking the water off the land, and we’ll spend the next 100 years putting it back on.” The later photos are of S-80 again with view of C-44 canal leading west to Lake O.(https://www.facebook.com/CaulkinsWaterFarm/)