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Nancy Smith

Lake Okeechobee Discharges? Sheriff Bill Snyder to the Rescue!

September 4, 2013 - 6:00pm

Just as I think the mercury in Martin County's crazy-mometer can't rise any higher, along comes Sean Barrett's doozie of a petition drive on Change.org.

Barrett, a computer technician who lives on a sewer-less, waterfront street in Port Salerno, apparently is so disgusted with the algae blooms and toxicity in Martin County waters, he decided somebody had to be threatened and, well, let's sic the sheriff on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Barrett's petition, if carried out to full cartoon fruition, plays in real time something like this:

A fleet of police cars, sirens blaring, lights flashing, screeches to a halt at the foot of the St. Lucie Lock. Why, look, it's Sheriff William Snyder and his deputies! They sure look mad.

The Martin County sheriff, steel chains thrown over his shoulder, gets out of the lead car, strides up to the lock, wraps the chains around the structure's gears and secures them with a padlock. "There!" Snyder announces. "I hereby declare it against the law for any more water from Lake Okeechobee to enter the St. Lucie Canal!"

This is precisely what the petition on the website seeks to do: "send our county sheriff to the locks controlling the toxic waste dumping of runoff water into the waterways of Martin County. ... The sheriff should close the locks and then seal the facility ..." It is addressed to County Commission Chairwoman Sarah Heard, with a shout-out to the other four commissioners.

I reached out twice to Sean Barrett, but he apparently didn't want to talk about his petition, at least not to me. Best as I can work out, the petition first was posted on Change.org sometime over Labor Day weekend. Since then -- and here's what got me -- it has elicited the support of some 32 people in five days. Yes, we already have 32 signees.

Think about it. Discharges are only ordered to keep the precarious Herbert Hoover Dike from breaking and drowning thousands of people. Yet, 32 people not only think the Martin County sheriff can charge onto federal land, but should -- and just like that, halt this public-safety function. They actually believe it's the answer to what they call "the unmitigated damages being caused to the wildlife, economy, public health and property values of our local taxpayers and residents."

The Army Corps, upon learning of the petition, deadpanned it with an official response. "We will continue to conduct water releases from the lake according to the schedule we have in force," said Terry Hines, the Corps' chief of corporate communications.

Snyder, meanwhile -- the same William Snyder who served in the Florida House before Martin County elected him its sheriff in 2012 -- tried to be kind about the petition. "There are a few things wrong with it," he said. "First, as a constitutional officer, nobody has authority over me on the job. I don't report to the County Commission. Certainly the County Commission can make a request of me, but it's up to me whether I carry it out.

"Second," he said, "the Constitution doesn't give me authority to walk onto federal property and take charge of anything. The only way I could do that is if a local judge gave me a binding order. Frankly, I can't see that happening."

Commission Chairwoman Heard, on the other hand, took a welcoming view of the petition. "It probably is appropriate," she told me.

"There's a lot of interest here in declaring this a state of emergency." She said she understands the sheriff doesn't have the authority literally to take over and halt a federal activity, but "people are angry and desperate and innovative in the ways they are expressing themselves" and there's not much wrong with that, she said.

Except -- and this is my problem with so much of what I hear said about the Lake Okeechobee discharges and polluted water in the Indian River Lagoon and Okeechobee basin -- it isn't helpful, isn't useful, is based on hysteria and therefore impedes rational conversation aimed at finding a solution.

Clearly, the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, not just the Indian River Lagoon, all are in dire trouble. The status quo is unacceptable.

But the counties affected the most by pollution have the state's attention. They have the scientists' attention. They even have the federal government's attention, for what that's worth. Everybody is listening. But it would be a whole lot easier to hear if they didn't have to do it over an atmosphere of witch hunts, mob rule and threats of thuggery.

The petition is good for blaming something or someone else, and giving the sad illusion that no personal responsibility is called for.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423.

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