Tag Archives: South Florida Developer

83 Years of Asking the State and Federal Governments to “Close the Gates,” St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

South Florida Developer headline 1931, "Locks in Canal Closed; Fishing to be Benefited. (Newspaper courtesy of historian Sandra Thurlow.)
South Florida Developer headline 1931, “Locks in Canal Closed; Fishing to be Benefited. (Newspaper courtesy of historian Sandra Thurlow.)
Written minutes from a Martin County Commission meeting in 1931 asking  the ACOE to close the locks and  the importance to its citizens.  (Photo Martin County archives.)
Written minutes from a Martin County Commission meeting in 1931 asking the state to close the locks, mentioning  destruction to the river, and the importance to fishing industry. (Photo Martin County archives.)

The St Lucie Canal connecting Lake Okeechobee to the St Lucie River was constructed at the request of the state of Florida, the US Federal Government, and the local Martin County Chamber of Commerce, by the Army Corp of Engineers from 1915-1928. As this antique newspaper article of the Florida Developer above shows, by 1931 the Martin County Commission was already asking the state of Florida to close the gates and reporting clear evidence of the destruction of the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon.

I must thank my mother, historian Sandra Thurlow, for sharing this information and the photos in this post. She transcribed the 1931 article from the Florida Developer, a Stuart paper of the era. It reads:

South Florida Developer, November 6,

1931, LOCKS IN CANAL CLOSED; FISHING TO BE BENEFITED

Job of Checking Water Movement Was Completed Saturday TO KILL HYACINTHS; Fishermen Look For Decidedly Good Fishing the Winter

The east locks of the St Lucie Canal were closed Saturday, after being open nearly two years. In that time the level of Lake Okeechobee has been reduced from 18 to 14 feet. 

The work of closing the locks began Friday morning under  the direction of engineers for the Okeechobee Flood Control District. When they finished the job Saturday night, water continued to pour over the dam about as fast as before, in spite of the fact that the level of the canal had been raised 7 feet. 

This morning the crew went to the west end of the St Lucie Canal to close the locks there and thus check the flow of water from the Lake. 

The closing of these locks is regarded as highly important to the people of Stuart and adjacent communities, primarily because  as long as they remain open, the ingress of water from the Lake made the St. Lucie River fresh, driving out the salt water fish and bringing in hyacinths. With the water cut off from the Lake, it is expected that the St Lucie River will again become salt and this should bring back the fish and kill the hyacinths. Fisherman say it will take about 30 days for the effects of the is change in water to be felt, but they are exultant that this change had come about in time to promote good fishing in local waters.  

The minutes from the Martin County Commission meeting in 1931 also shown above are a bit harsher. The minutes state:

Be it resolved that the Board of County Commissioners herby instruct the Clerk to write the Trustee of the Internal Improvement Fund petitioning that they closed the gates at the Lake end of the St Lucie Canal until April 15, 1931, for the reason that the constant  discharge of a large volume of dirty fresh water into the St Lucie River has killed all the shell-fish, driven out salt water fish from the river, filled the river with hyacinth and polluted the St Lucie River as to completely take away its attractive features and ruin its commercial value to our community.

According to local Everglades SLR/IRL expert, Dr Gary Goforth,  (http://garygoforth.net/resume.htm), 1931 was the first year the amount of water released from Lake Okeechobee in to the St Lucie River was documented. Although there is no documentation of the releases that occurred prior to 1931, in 1931 it is documented that 1,414,414 acre feet of water was released from the lake into the river. This is over three times as much as was released into the SLR from Lake Okeechobee in 2013, (419,951 acre feet.)

The historic photos below document and show local people taking the water hyacinth issue into their own hands.

Downtown Stuart in 1931 showing over abundance of water hyacinth in SLR.
Downtown Stuart in 1931 showing over abundance of water hyacinth in SLR.(Thurlow collection.)
South Fork of the St Lucie River, hyacinth removal,     Rod and Gun Club-effort to solve problem with herbicide and dynamite, 1949.( Thurlow collection.)
South Fork of the St Lucie River, hyacinth removal, Rod and Gun Club-effort to solve problem with herbicide and dynamite, 1949.( Thurlow collection.)
SLR filled with hyacinth, near Treasure Island. (Thurlow collection.)
SLR filled with hyacinth, near Treasure Island. (Thurlow collection.)

On August 3rd at 10AM the people of Martin and St Lucie counties, on behalf of their government, will ask one more time for the state to close the gates from Lake Okeechobee to the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon.

As we have seen this summer, we have enough problems with our own local runoff that has been expanded since 1931 to include the building of C-23, C-24 and C-25 as well as  the widening and deepening of C-44 for its enlarged “local” runoff. Things must change, we have known this for a very long time. Finally there are enough of us to make a difference.

Hope to see you at the rally and may the state and federal government know that we will never stop asking, some would say demanding, that the ACOE, through the federal government  and the state of Florida “close the gates!” 

river rally 2014 

 

The Long Deteriorating “Fishing Ground of Presidents,” St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

Harold R Johns, posing with a large tarpon, early 19920s, Stuart, St Lucie River. (Photo from Stuart on the St Lucie by Sandra Henderson Thurlow.)
Harold R. Johns, posing with a large tarpon, early 1920s, Stuart, Florida, St Lucie River. (Photo from Stuart on the St Lucie by Sandra Henderson Thurlow.)

When the pioneers permanently opened the St Lucie Inlet in 1892, it killed the freshwater grasses that filled the waterways creating a brackish estuary that due to the convergence of tropical and temperate zones, and the nearby warmth of the Gulf Stream, became “the most diverse estuary in North America.” (Gilmore)

After a short period of time, sportfishing thrived in the area, and fishing guides called Stuart the “fishing grounds of presidents” as US president, Grover Cleveland, vacationed and fished the area in 1900 and years after.

In spite of long standing issues with the health of the estuary,  as late as the 1970/80s Dr Grant Gilmore of Harbor Branch documented over 800 species of fish living and breeding in the then healthy seagrasses around Sailfish and Sewall’s Point at the convergence of the St Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon. This was a larger variety of species in one place than any other area in United States. (Gilmore)

"Goliath Grouper" called "Jew Fish" at the time, Stuart. ca. 1920s. (Thurlow Collection)

“Goliath Grouper” called “Jew Fish” at the time, Stuart. ca. 1920s. (Thurlow Collection)

Going back to the the 1930s, the 1938 Blue Book, a popular annual fishing publication of the time, lauds fishing throughout the entire Stuart area:

“The City of Stuart located approximately 20 miles south of Fort Pierce is world renowned for its fishing. Located as it is…it offers a variety of fishing similar to Fort Pierce but somewhat more pronounced, particularly with regards to the tarpon, sea trout, snook, channel bass, bluefish, crevasse jack, pompano and ladyfish. It’s fresh water fishing is particularly good far into the back county among the Sloughs with their tributary and drainage canals to Lake Okeechobee and the many drainage canals through this territory. These Sloughs and Canals offer splendid fishing for black bass, as well as for the larger game fish from the salt water, such as  th snook and tarpon, that make their way into Stuart Harbor and on up into the both and south branches of the St Lucie River. –Particularly good fishing for these species can be had at the St Lucie Locks about 12 miles inland south of Stuart…”

All photos from Stuart on the St Lucie, Sportfishing chapter, by Sandra Henderson Thurlow.
All photos from Stuart on the St Lucie, Sportfishing chapter, by Sandra Henderson Thurlow.

IMG_5769 IMG_5767

It is interesting to note that although the Blue Book piece, written in 1938, celebrates Stuart’s fishing, one can find evidence of tension regarding the releases from Lake Okeechobee in the literature of the day as early as 1925.

Fearing the onslaught of development in the booming twenties and the changes brought on by the connection and building of the C-44 canal from Lake Okeechobee to the South Fork of the St Lucie River, beginning in 1923, the South Florida Developer’s, November 10th, 1925 headline reads:

Article 1925, South Florida Developer. (Thurlow collection.)
Article 1925, South Florida Developer. (Thurlow collection.)

“Fish Will Leave the River As City Grows, Fisherman Assert, Sewage and Oil Sure Death to a Favored Sport is Verdict.”

The article quotes commercial fishermen who know that  the over abundance of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee will chase away the salt water fish and that the oil on the water from development, perhaps from cars and road runoff,  if excessive, won’t allow the fish to sufficiently breathe.

Fishing guide Phil O’Brian is quoted as saying: “I know the ways of the sea fish. They can’t stand fresh water; and they won’t stand sewer water. We have the fresh water now mixin’ in from Lake Okeechobee and we’ll soon have the sewer water.”

These pioneers are probably rolling over in their graves should they have learned about the story of the St Lucie/Indian River Lagoon most recently.

The St Lucie River was labeled “impaired” by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in 2002 mostly due to pesticides and heavy metals from agriculture and urban pollution runoff accumulating in the sediment from all area canals, especially C-44 and Lake Okeechobee. In a way, just like the 1920s fisherman foresaw…

The fight against the area canals and Lake Okeechobee continues today, and if by the grace of God we can undo some of the hands of history, the St Lucie and Indian River Lagoon will surely heal herself and we once again could be the ” Fishing Grounds of Presidents…”

…but then we might have to get rid of that green and sprawling golf course at the Floridian.

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FDEP Impairment St Lucie River: (http://www.dep.state.fl.us/southeast/ecosum/ecosums/SLE_Impairment_Narrative_ver_3.7.pdf)