Have I got this right? One of the leading columnists for a newspaper whose market serves the heart of last year's blue-green algae disaster is OK with septic tanks?
Well, septic tanks apparently would be OK in Sewall's Point if only the town's nearly 2,000 residents weren't behaving exactly like Glades folks portrayed them -- as "wealthy coastal elites."
They are, after all, hurting "the cause." And I mean the newspaper's, not the lagoon's or the estuary's.
That's how I read Gil Smart's Aug. 8 column in Treasure Coast Newspapers (TCPalm), "Sewall's Point sewer clash makes it seem critics of 'coastal elites' are right."
Smart isn't embarrassed for the town's residents.
He isn't even embarrassed for the newspaper, which continues to pooh-pooh the Miracle-Gro effect of nitrogen from human waste on algal blooms in the St. Lucie estuary and Indian River lagoon.
What good soldier Gil Smart is doing, it seems to me, is hoisting the flag for his newspaper's agenda. We don't need no stinkin' sewer conversion -- algal blooms come from agriculture, not septic tanks, goldurnit.
He's also saying a vote for septic-to-sewer conversions is a vote against Sen. Joe Negron's reservoir, which the Legislature passed and the governor signed into law. (I don't get it either, but that's what he said -- "In fighting this, and getting town officials to back off, residents gift-wrapped a talking point for those who still might find a way to delay or thwart construction of the Negron reservoir ...")
So, let's see: Septic tank conversions in a waterfront community at ground zero for blue-green algae are actually part of some evil plot to derail the southern reservoir?
Most of all, I have to wonder why Smart chose to reflect the opinion of Dr. Gary Goforth, an engineer who sees little value in septic-to-sewer conversions, but omitted Dr. Brian Lapointe, the scientist who's been sampling water in the area -- in fact, all around Florida and beyond -- for three decades. I thought this newspaper was all for "going with science."
No offense to Goforth, but he's not a scientist. He is, by all accounts, an exemplary civil engineer with experience in constructing stormwater treatment areas in the Everglades, according to South Florida Water Management District records. He was never involved in CERP, has no expertise that I know of in local basin runoff or discharges and certainly no practical experience with septic tank effluent. If he's taken a single e. coli sample in the estuary or lagoon, no one I talked to has heard about it.
Lapointe, on the other hand, research professor at Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, is one of the country's foremost authorities on algal physiology and biochemistry, seagrass and coral reef ecology, eutrophication, marine bioinvasions and marine conservation. His work in the Keys led to a strong phosphate ban and new state regulations for Monroe County requiring greater nutrient removal from sewage effluents. He has sampled water and written reports for several Florida counties and municipalities moving toward septic-to-sewer retrofits, among others Lee County, Charlotte County, Sanibel Island, Rockledge -- and in 2015, Martin County.
In fact, even before Lapointe's report, the Martin County Water Resource Department had produced a priority list of projects to improve water quality in the basin. With it was a table listing 10 areas in need of septic-to-sewer retrofits -- and, yes, it included Sewall’s Point -- for a total of $88 million. Since 2001, Martin government, same as Sewall's Point Mayor Jim Campo now, has been trying to do the right thing for the estuary. Have a look at the Martin County Water Quality Needs Assessment of 2013 in the "Download" attachment in blue at the end of this column.
What's gleefully interesting to me is, practically 20 years to the August evening that a roomful of Sewall's Point residents were hugging their septic tanks -- on Aug. 6, 1997 -- Palm Beach Circuit Judge Moses Baker was signing an order in Village of Tequesta (plaintiff) vs. Loxahathee River Environmental Control District (defendant), finding for the defendant.
The Loxahatchee district wanted to convert septic tanks to a sewer system in the portion of the town built on the river; the residents didn't want to pay for it, didn't think it was necessary and resented the intrusion.
But the Upper Loxahatchee River is as close to a sacred place as we get in the Sunshine State -- it's the only river system in Florida included in the federally designated "National Wild and Scenic Rivers System."
Brian Lapointe had everything to do with the case. The court wanted Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute to study the river and offer its report. The study's conclusion, which Lapointe wrote, was included in the judge's 32-page decision:
"... This study produced clear evidence that a combination of high population density, net positive groundwater flows to tide and the use of septic tanks/drainfield systems in the Tequesta Peninsula has lead to widespread contamination of groundwaters to levels in violation of state standards. ... Hence, discharges of STE (septic tank effluent)
from residences in the study area represent a significant pollutant source to the Loxahatchee River. Water quality impacts would be much more severe without the tidal mixing, dilution and flushing provided by this esturine system. Elimination of septic tank discharges would reduce pollutant loads into groundwaters and surface waters of the study area, leading to improved water quality in the Loxahatchee River -- the only federally designated wild and scenic river in Florida."
The order is too large to attach on this page. But if you want to read it, email me and I'll forward it to you.
Though I worked 28 years at The Stuart News/Port St. Lucie News -- part of Treasure Coast Newspapers -- I had gone by the time columnist Gil Smart arrived. So I have no special insight into how he came up with the argument in his commentary. All I can do is see where it's going.
It just seems a little disappointing -- and completely incongruous -- that an influential newsroom staff member, a member of the newspaper's editorial board, could on the one hand be part of an activist campaign on the beach holding signs to muster support for a clean, healthy river ... but on the other, fail to support a measure to stop untreated raw sewage from draining into it.
To care, you don't have to believe algal blooms only come from leaking septic tanks. Nobody believes that. But you do have to look at what now has become a long history of evidence, look at the water samples, what they contain, where they were taken, and do the right thing. Florida -- Sewall's Point and the local newspaper included -- should have outgrown its tolerance for septic tanks a long time ago.
Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith