December 14th, 2020. What a beautiful day!
Deborah Drum, Director of Palm Beach County’s Environmental Resource Management Department, ERM, invited me in my capacity as a SFWMD Governing Board member, to tour the Lake Worth Lagoon. I first met “Deb” when she was the ecosystems manager for Martin County. Today she oversees a much larger piece of the water pie. Palm Beach is Florida’s third largest county and has over 1.4 million people! Martin County? Ranking, I’m unsure, but we have just over 161,000 people…
After a quick Covid greeting elbow-bump at Bryant Park, of course we abided by social distancing rules, Deb introduced me to five of her 140 person staff. They were delightful and they informed me of the mission of ERM: to establish, maintain, and implement programs for the protection, preservation, and enhancement of the land and water resources of Palm Beach County.
This philosophy really translates into building restoration projects and is a shift from what I’m used to for the St Lucie River where the focus is more on managing and advocating against the ongoing crisis of poor water quality. Today I will give an overview of some of the hundreds of projects that have been constructed costing millions of dollars. This is a complicated generational feat and today occurs with the coordination of Palm Beach County’s Deb Drum and Staff, and the complex help of hundreds of hands-on volunteers and members of the business community. See “mission” link above for more information on the history of this program.
So how does it work in Palm Beach County?
FOCUS ON PROJECTS
Since the 1990s, the Palm Beach County environmental resources department has implemented hundreds of projects. In order to achieve this, relationships have been forged with the business and development community that in turn, indirectly, provide millions of dollars in materials for creating habit and other environmental projects in Palm Beach County.
As an example, Jennifer, Baez, Environmental Program Supervisor explained that it is more cost effective for developers to share such materials for island or reef building, than to dispose of such items. Wow. Developers helping the environment? Now that’s a paradigm shift for my thinking!
~This cooperation has been forged over decades and is now ingrained in Palm Beach County culture.
For example, if FDOT is building a new bridge, they save and coordinate with the county for the best pieces of throw-away cement to be used for an inland or offshore reef. Or say a new marina is being built, or expanded, by Rybovich Super Yacht Marina, and there is tons of sand and rock that have been excavated- well rather than throw it away or haul it to the dump, the business contacts the county and this material is put to work for the environment! I guess one could say it is “give and take.” In any case, for Palm Beach County this model is working.
Once riding along the beautiful lagoon in the boat, I was fascinated to listen as Deb’s’ staff, TJ Steinhoff, Environmental Technician; Jennifer Baez, Environmental Program Supervisor; Jeremy McByran, Palm Beach County Water Resource Manager; and Mathew Mitchell, Environmental Manager as they told me the story of their years of building Lake Worth Lagoon creations and the measurable benefit to fish, birds and wildlife.
“It must be fun to know you are doing something positive every day. And then seeing those results.” I noted.
All four agreed. They love working for Deb and for Palm Beach County. But let me be clear, just because the focus is one projects, this does not mean there are no water quality issues…
-Bryant Park, Lake Worth Lagoon
-Staff ready for boat tour covered for Covid-19: TJ Steinhoff, Environmental Technician; Jennifer Baez, Environmental Program Supervisor; Jeremy McByran, Palm Beach County Water Resource Manager; and Mathew Mitchell, Environmental Manager
-Rip-rap in from of a hardened shoreline, the beginnings of a Living Seawall project at Bryant Park
-A look at the water of the Lake Worth Lagoon on December 14, 2020
-The 5 photos below are of large human-created Islands, restoration projects, in the Lake Worth Lagoon.
Below: Jennifer Baez, PBC Environmental Project Supervisor points to one of the many mangrove, native vegetation, sand islands built on top of “dead holes.” These areas were once devoid of life because they are so deep, and were the unintended consequences of dredge and fill in the Lake Worth Lagoon that took place many decades before environmental laws regulated such activities.
Jennifer explained how ERM identifies these deep holes, carefully works around muck, and then fills the depression with sand -in turn forming an island- that creates wildlife habit, seagrass beds, and eventually mangrove forests. She says one very obvious benefit of theses projects has been that Palm Beach County now has the most southerly nesting/foraging area of American Oyster Catchers.
In springtime, the bright orange, black and white birds with their fluffy, adorable chicks are attracted to these human made islands near Bryant Park.
Deb Drum, Director ERM and yes she is smiling under that mask! 🙂 -Showing off more project islands!
-The Southern Boulvard Bridge rebuild (below) is an example of materials used for a reef in Lake Worth Lagoon as seen on depth finder screen of Mathew Mitchell below. Mathew said he is very proud to be part of this project and explained that through technology and hands on visits he is documenting how the reef is improving fish habitat.
ISSUES OF WATER QUALITY
As I mentioned, just because Palm Beach County primarily focuses on restoration, doesn’t mean that the Lake Worth Lagoon doesn’t have water issues. Before the late 1800s, Lake Worth was a many miles long fresh water lake with no outlet to the ocean. Today there are two inlets and although the water body is now technically an estuary, salinities can be as high as the ocean due to heavy flushing from its inlets. Also due to fresh water inputs, like the C-51 Canal, salinity can swing up and down.
-The SFWMD measures saqilinties in the LWL
Lake Worth Lagoon Water Quality issues are most affected by canal, area runoff, and sometimes Lake Okeechobee discharge into the lagoon. The C-51 is the canal of that continually drains unfiltered and untreated into the Lake Worth Lagoon. The C-51 carries contaminants and nutrient pollution from agriculture and urban development into the lake-lagoon-estuary. Deb Drum explained that sediment coming from this canal is extremely problematic causing a muck-layer throughout the lagoon. This impedes seagrass development and is a serious issue that is being addressed.
Although the Lake Worth Lagoon was not built as am overflow water outlet for the Central and South Florida Plan, like the St Lucie and Calooshahatee were, Lake Okeechobee discharges are sometimes directed its way through the C-51 canal. This is a controversial issue and of course local advocates of the Lake Worth Lagoon would prefer not to have this excessive polluted fresh water.
-Jennifer and Deb in front of the C-51 Canal structure opening into Lake Worth Lagoon, note look of water. The C-51 basins are tremendous. All this runoff all ends up in the LWL.
C-51 Canal is the long blue line coming from the west connected to other interior canals. It then runs along Southern Boulvard as in the image below. The curve south occurs around the Palm Beach International Airport, then turns east discharging into the LWL. Water Quality is being address methodically through Basin Management Action Plans.
KEEP ON RESTORING!
So in the meantime, Lake Worth Lagoon’s water quality ails, but Palm Beach County keeps restoring…
Below shows a recent island restoration project near Southern Boulvard. This project addresses resiliency by protecting a nearby neighborhood seawall. In time, native plants will grow in and wildlife will arrive. People are allowed on beach area but if OysterCatchers are nesting, the area is taped off by FWF so the birds can nest in peace.
-Jeremy McBryan, Palm Beach County Water Resource Manager.
Well, I could go on and on but the bottom line is that Palm Beach County is proactive. I am impressed! I learned so much about the mission of ERM and the Lake Worth Lagoon. I really had no idea about all of the amazing restoration work being done by Palm Beach County. Now for us all to push the state on Water Quality and to do our own part in our own backyards by avoiding fertilizer and chemicals that run right off into the water. This would actually be a huge start.
Very impressive Deb! Thank you to you and to your amazing ERM staff!