Hurricane Irma may be gone, but her waters are not. Our now black river and the giant plume off the St Lucie Inlet attest to this. Clean rain that fell in our region during the hurricane is now filthy “stormwater” discharging, unfiltered, through manmade canals C-23, C-24, C-25, and C-44. Nature did not design the river to directly take this much water; this much water kills.
Every plume looks different, and this one is multilayered with no clear border. Sediment soup, black-brown in color, yesterday it extended out about 2/3 of a mile into a stirred up Atlantic and flowed south, in the rough waves not quite having made it to Peck’s Lake.
Since Hurricane Irma’s rains, area canals dug with no environmental foresight in the 1920s and 50s for flood control, and to facilitate agriculture and development, have been flowing straight into the river. On top of this, in anticipation of the hurricane, three days prior to IRMA the Army Corp of Engineers began discharging from Lake Okeechobee. During the hurricane they halted, and then started up again at high discharge levels reaching over (4000 cfs +/-) this past Friday, September 15th. As Lake Okeechobee rises and inflow water pours in from the north, and is blocked by the Everglades Agricultural Area in the south, we can expect more Lake O discharge on top of the canal releases themselves.
As advocates for the St Lucie River we continue the fight to expedite the building of the EAA reservoir and to create a culture to “send more water south.” In the meantime, we, and the fish and wildlife, and the once “most bio diverse estuary in North America,” suffer…
As the possibility of a direct hit from Hurricane Irma approaches, I can’t help but reflect.
Looking back, we see that it was the severe flooding and the hurricane season of 1947 that led Florida and the U.S. Government down the track to where we are today through the creation of the Florida Central and South Florida Flood Project, (CSFP).
In 1947, during the United States’ post World War II boom, Florida had a very active and destructive hurricane season. This slightly edited excerpt from the ACOE’s book River of Interest does a good job giving a short overview of that year:
“…Rain began falling on the Everglades in large amounts. On 1 March, a storm dropped six inches of rain, while April and May also saw above average totals. The situation became severe in the summer…
As September approached and the rains continued, the ground in the Everglades became waterlogged and lake levels reached dangerous heights. Then, on 17 September, a hurricane hit Florida on the southwest coast, passing Lake Okeechobee on the west and dumping large amounts of rain on the upper Everglades, flooding most of the agricultural land south of Lake Okeechobee.
George Wedgworth, who would later become president of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida and whose parents were vegetable growers in the Everglades, related that his mother called him during the storm and told him, “ this is the last call I’ll make from this telephone because I’m leaving. . . . “We’ve got an inch or two of water over our oak floors and they’re taking me out on a row boat.”
Such conditions were prevalent throughout the region. Before the area had a chance to recover from the devastation, another hurricane developed, moving into South Florida and the Atlantic Ocean by way of Fort Lauderdale. Coastal cities received rain in large quantities, including six inches in two hours at Hialeah and nearly 15 inches at Fort Lauderdale in less than 24 hours.
The Everglades Drainage District kept its drainage canals open to discharge to the ocean as much of the floodwater in the agricultural area as it could, exacerbating coastal flooding. East coast residents charged the District with endangering their lives in order to please ag- ricultural interests, but this was vehemently denied…
Whoever was to blame, the hurricanes had devastating effects. Although the levee around Lake Okeechobee held, preventing the large numbers of deaths that occurred in 1926 and 1928, over 2,000 square miles of land south of the lake was covered by, in the words of U.S. Senator Spessard Holland, “an endless sheet of water anywhere from 6 to 7 feet deep down to a lesser depth.” The Corps estimated that the storms caused $59 million in property damage throughout southern Florida, but Holland believed that the agency had “under- stated the actual figures.” The destruction shocked citizens of South Florida, both in the upper Everglades and in the coastal cities, and they demanded that something be done.”
Well, what was done was the Central and South Florida Flood Project.
Key Florida politicians, and the public demanded the Federal Government assist, and as both the resources and will were present, the project was authorized in 1948 with massive additional components making way not only for flood protection, but for even more agriculture and development. In Martin County and St Lucie County this happened by the controversial building of canals C-23, C-24, C-25 and “improving” the infamous C-44 canal that connects to Lake Okeechobee. This construction was basically the nail in the coffin for the St Lucie River and Southern Indian River Lagoon.
But before the death of the environment was clear, the Corps developed a plan that would include 1,000 miles of levees, 720 miles of canals, and almost 200 water control structures. Flooding in coastal cities and in the agricultural lands south of Lake Okeechobee would be minimized and more controllable.
Yes, a goal of the program was to provide conservation areas for water storage, protecting fish and wildlife habitat. Although water conservation areas were constructed, conservation of wildlife did not work out so well, and has caused extreme habitat degradation of the Everglades system, Lake Okeechobee, the southern and northern estuaries, the Kissimmee chain of lakes, and Florida Bay. Nonetheless, this project made possible for over five million people to now live and work in the 18,000 square mile area that extends from south of Orlando to Florida Bay “protected from flooding” but in 2017 living with serious water quality issues.
With problems apparent, in 1992 the Central and South Florida Project was “re-studied” and we continue to work on that today both for people and for wildlife…
Irma many be the system’s greatest test yet…
Yesterday’s Army Corp of Engineer Periodic Scientist Call was focused on saving people’s lives and safety. After the built-system was discussed, Mr Tyler Beck of the Florida Wildlife Commission, and Mr Steve Schubert of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported on the endangered Everglades Snail Kites and their nests at Lake Okeechobee. Like most birds, pairs mate for life. There are presently fifty-five active nests, thirty-three in incubation, and twenty-three with baby chicks…
In the coming days, as the waters rise on Lake Okeechobee, and the winds scream through an empty void that was once a cathedral of colossal cypress trees, Mother Nature will again change the lives of Florida’s wildlife and its people, just as she did in 1947. Perhaps this time, she will give us vision for a future where nature and humankind can live in greater harmony…
On Halloween eve, October 30th 1979, the southwest side of the dike embankment at Florida Power & Light Company’s Martin Plant suddenly, and without warning failed catastrophically.
It was the dead of night and certainly the creatures of the nearby Barley Barber Swamp sensed more than their human masters. No person saw the incident. There were no cameras, no guards, no witnesses. It was the 1970s.
We can imagine, though, even though the final report said “not,” that for months sands had been slipping, eroding underground, perhaps led by connection to the old borrow pits dug for the railroad that came through in the 1920s.
My brother Todd’s latest spectacular time capsule flight takes us through this fateful night that by the time Halloween arrived, derailed a southbound train. The conductor reported the incident to his superiors as a “flash flood.” It was eventually realized that this flash flood was part of something much larger in scope!
Even if you know the story, the numbers are staggering…
As Todd notes, when the dike let loose, 100,000 cfs of water (cubic feet per second) blew into L-65, the canal on the edge of the FPL reservoir, and into the C-44 canal connected to the reservoir at S-53. The biggest numbers we hear these days in cfs is about 5000.
Facing west, a wave surged over the sugarcane fields and overtop US 441, traveling north seven miles in the rim canal. S-308 at Port Mayaca flowed backwards, and 4000 cfs entered Lake Okeechobee.
The finally alerted ACOE maxed S-80 at St Lucie Locks and Dam at 15,800 cfs, (over twice the highest amount of the Lost Summer of 2013 at 5700+/-). Crazy! Todd says the max for S-80 into the St Lucie River is 16,900 cfs. Not too far off were they.
Of course, these peaks would have only been for a few hours, but nonetheless, as is often the case, these kind of numbers mean “instant death for the St Lucie.”
This FPL event traveled much further north than the C-44 canal though; the last paragraph of the SFWMD 1980 report’s “failure section” notes:
“The Rim Canal reached a peak the next day (November 1) at the north end of the basin, 17 miles from the St. Lucie Canal. The flood was contained at this northerly point by the Nubbin Slough Tieback Levee along Canal 59. The maximum area flooded, was about 14,100 acres.”
What a story!
Well, it’s only history, right? But then history has a strange way of repeating itself in one form or another doesn’t it?
It is a journey the state, federal, and local agencies don’t always wish to take–a journey to face the numbers of our watershed…
Today, Dr Gary Goforth (http://garygoforth.net) shares his most recent report, “Water Quality Assessment of the St Lucie River Watershed, For Water Year 2017, DRAFT.”
Mind you, for non-scientist people like myself, a “water year” is reported from May of one year, through April the next year, as opposed to a calendar year.
The full report is linked at the bottom of the post and contains numerous helpful charts. I have just included the key findings below.
Dr Goforth wanted to get the draft assessment out before the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Basin Management Action Plan workshop scheduled for this Friday Aug. 25th at 10:00 am at Martin County Building Permits Office, 900 Southeast Ruhnke Street, Stuart, FL 34994, Conference Rooms A & B because this is where the rubber hits the road! FDEP: (http://www.dep.state.fl.us/central/Home/Watershed/BMAP.htm)
Water Quality Assessment of the St. Lucie River Watershed –Water Year 2017 – DRAFT Gary Goforth, P.E., Ph.D.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who watches the Watchers?)
1. Over the last water year (May 2016 – April 2017), the surface water entering the St. Lucie River and Estuary (SLRE) in general was of poor water quality. The best water quality entering the SLRE was from the highly urbanized Tidal Basins. The largest source of phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment pollution to the SLRE was Lake Okeechobee discharges. The C-44 Canal Basin contributed poor water quality, and was the only basin demonstrating a worsening in water quality over the last ten years.
2. It was estimated that stormwater runoff from agricultural land use contributed more flow and nutrient pollution than any other land use, even contributing more flow than Lake Okeechobee discharges.
3. The annual Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) progress reports produced by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection continue to indicate water quality conditions in the tributaries of the SLRE are better than they actually are. Examples of flaws in the BMAP assessment process include the omission of Lake Okeechobee pollution loads, the use of simulated data instead of observed data, the inability to account for hydrologic variability, and the inability to assess individually each of the major basins contributing to the SLRE.
4. An alternative to the assessment approach presented in the BMAP progress reports was developed and used to evaluate water quality conditions of major inflows to the SLRE and to assess progress towards achieving the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) load reduction goals. This alternative approach uses observed data, includes Lake discharges, accounts for hydrologic variability, and is applied to each of the major basins contributing pollution loads to the SLRE. For WY2017, observed nitrogen loads to the SLRE exceeded the Phase 1 BMAP target loads (adjusted for hydrologic variability) by 77 percent. Observed phosphorus loads exceeded the Phase 1 BMAP target loads (adjusted for hydrologic variability) by 53 percent.
5. The largest single source of total nitrogen, total phosphorus and sediment load to the SLRE was Lake Okeechobee discharges. In addition, total phosphorus concentrations in Lake Okeechobee discharges to the SLRE remained almost four times the lake’s TMDL in-lake target concentration of 40 parts per billion (ppb). In 2017, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) reported that phosphorus loading to the lake from surrounding watersheds was almost 5 times the Lake’s TMDL of 105 metric tons, yet staff acknowledged the agency does not enforce permits that set numeric limits on phosphorus discharges to the lake (SFWMD 2016, SFWMD 2017). Unfortunately, despite the continued and well-publicized pollution of the lake, the Florida legislature in 2016 enacted a water bill that pushed back deadlines for achieving the lake’s TMDL by decades (Ch. 2016-1).
6. The best water quality entering the SLRE during WY2017 was observed in the highly urbanized Tidal Basins, with concentrations of 97 ppb and 819 ppb for TP and TN, respectively. Each of the remaining source basins, except the C-44 Canal Basin, exhibited a slight improvement in nutrient levels compared to their base periods, however, collectively these WY2017 loads did not achieve the alternative BMAP Phase 1 load target (Figures ES-1 and ES-2). The C-23 and Tidal Basins met the alternative BMAP Phase 1 target for TP, while the C-23, C-24 and Tidal Basins met the alternative BMAP Phase 1 target for TN. The predominantly agricultural C-44 Canal Basin exhibited poor nutrient conditions, and in fact, continued a trend of deteriorating nutrient conditions compared to its 1996-2005 base period. As a whole, the water quality entering the SLRE remains poor, although a slight improvement over the 1996-2005 period was observed.
When I was a kid, I often walked to the Indian River Lagoon and just stood there in amazement watching the hundreds, if not thousands, of baby horseshoe crabs winding their way through the sands. They left circular trails, crossing over and over again…
Where were they going? What were they doing? Why were there so many?
Every once in a while, I would pick one up and place it carefully in the palm of my hand. Its sharp tail and prickly feet pushed against me. I watched in wonder at its strength as it bent in half. Once returned to the sand, the little crab went back to work immediately as if nothing had happened at all.
My mother had told me the horseshoe crabs were more ancient than the dinosaurs and had been here “forever.” “They are living fossils” she would say. “And they can live over 20 years and take 10 years just to mature.”
Although I picked them up with such care, today, forty years later, when I try to find them, they’re gone.
What happened to the horseshoe crabs of the Indian River Lagoon? How did a creature so ancient, resilient, and prevalent almost “disappear?”
Although there is quite a bit of literature on the Central Indian River Lagoon, I could not find much on the Southern Lagoon. Some of the best documentation came from Gretchen S. Ehlinger and Richard A. Tankersley. On line, they are cited multiple times for their paper “Reproductive Ecology of the American Horseshoe Crab, Limulus Polyphemus, in the Indian River Lagoon: An Overview.” I was also able to read “Evaluation of the Horseshoe Crab Fishery in the Indian River Lagoon Using Catch Data From Two Power Plants,” and a September 2014 “FPL Cape Canaveral Energy Center Horseshoe Crab Deterrent Fence Specifications” publication.
All of these lead to the following observations: decline of the species has been noted for around three decades. There have been UME’s or “Unexplained Mortality Events” where up to a 100,000 have died in the same area around the same time.
Factors that are related to their overall decline in the lagoon include intense coastal development, shoreline breeding grounds destruction, and unbridled human population growth; expansion of agriculture drainage watersheds into the IRL; deteriorating water quality; power plants sucking up as many as 100,000 a year into their intake canals; and over-fishing. The crabs are used as bait, collected for marine purposes, and more recently captured live and bled for their “blue-blood”that is invaluable to human health.
Unfortunately, for many years, the value and importance of the horseshoe crab was not recognized. For instance, Ehlinger and Tankersley note a one year study in the early 2000s at two Indian River Lagoon power plants that recorded a total of 39,097 crabs trapped on the intake screens at Cape Canaveral, and 53,121 at the Orland Utilities Plant. The scientists also mention a previous study from 1975 that estimated 69,662 at the Canaveral Plant, and 104,000 trapped annually at the Orlando Utilitility’s Indian River plant. “This alone could easily account for a decline in the Indian River population.” (Ehlinger and Tankersley 2007)
The St Lucie Power Plant located here in the southern lagoon did not agree to be part of the study and there is very little research one can now find on the subject.
In any case, the good news is that just recently the Cape Canaveral plant has installed a wall to protect the horseshoe crabs and science’s recognition of the species has people wanting them to come back.
The Florida Wildlife Commission notes:
“Horseshoe crabs are extremely important to the biomedical industry because their unique, copper-based blue blood contains a substance called “Limulus Amebocyte Lysate”, or “LAL”.This compound coagulates in the presence of small amounts of bacterial toxins and is used to test for sterility of medical equipment and virtually all injectable drugs. Anyone who has had an injection, vaccination, or surgery has benefitted from horseshoe crabs!”
…”in March 2000, a series of management measures for horseshoe crabs went into effect in Florida. The regulations required a license to harvest and set a limit on the number of animals each licensee could harvest per day (25 to 100 animals allowed per day per person depending on the permit). In 2002, a biomedical permitting rule created a mechanism to allow for biomedical collection.”
Personally, looking at these photos of the horseshoe crabs being bled is like a science fiction movie to me. Never as a kid would I have imagined my little friends with needles in their heads being milked for their blood.
….But if this is what is going to save them… I must say, if they could talk, I bet now is the strangest part of their 450 million year journey. In my mind, they will always be free and drawing circles in the sand.
The video I am sharing today was filmed by the late Dr. Dale Hipson. Born and raised in Stuart, Dr Hipson was an avid wildlife lover, and very involved at the Stuart Heritage Museum. http://www.stuartheritagemuseum.com
Through the help of my mother, Dale’s family, and the community, I share one of Dr Hipson’s most famous videos from 2006 filming what seems to be hundreds of alligators marching across Powerline Road in the Dupuis Wildlife Area. I recall asking Dr Hipson why they were all crossing the road. “They are seeking more water,” he said, “levels change abruptly all the time.”
In the video, Dr Hipson and Shirley Corley’s “amazements” can be heard in the background. The video is quite delightful, even funny at times, and deserves to be reintroduced to the public. I know you will enjoy it.