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Nancy Smith

Martin County, Address Your Own River Pollutant

August 19, 2013 - 6:00pm

Martin County leaders have a choice. They can continue pointing fingers at agriculture to the south of Lake Okeechobee for the toxic state of the St. Lucie estuary and Indian River Lagoon. Or they can look in the mirror -- and fix the part of the problem that lies squarely at their feet.

The county's estimated 30,000 septic tanks -- or, about a third of the homes in Martin, many of them built before 1986.

A growing body of evidence on the degradation of the lagoon and the estuary points to leaching septic tanks as a "major" contributing factor -- although how major is still a matter of conjecture. Harbor Branch professor Brian LaPointe, who has studied the river for more than 30 years, thinks it's considerable.One septic tank on 4 acres -- thats enough to create a nutrient problem, he says.

Prepare to be amazed: Take a look at how many waterfront septic tanks there are leading into the St. Lucie Estuary and alongthe entire 156-mile lagoon.

Now take a look at the results of another study, this one by the state Department of Health in Martin County. It measured contamination in four locations selected by the Rivers Coalition: Roosevelt Bridge, Sandsprit Park, Leighton Park and east of Bessey Creek. There was no attempt to identify the source of the contaminants, but the numbers are alarming. Anything with a score of 105 or more is poor, meaning laden with contamination. Very disturbing.

Still not convinced? Here's a look at a Martin County assessment of stormwater, another carrier of fecal material. This materialincludes a table listing 10 areas in need of septic to sewer retrofits including Sewalls Point for a total of $88 million.For a dramatic look at Martin County septic systems, colored in brown, scroll to the last page.

Certainly it's true, the flow of fresh water mixed with toxins increases the ability of algae blooms to grow. Ceaseless fresh water, that is the bottom-line damage causer. But the persistent cry coming from Martin County -- in the local press, among county commissioners and civic organizations, that the estuary and lagoon's pollution is coming from agricultural interests pumping bad stuff into Lake Okeechobee -- is likely to lose much of its pizzazz at Thursday's Senate committee meeting in Stuart to study the toxic waterways.

The South Florida Water Management District has, frankly, a stunning chart on exactly where the fresh water flowing into the St. Lucie Estuary is coming from. Brace yourself here: Less than a quarter of it comes from the lake.The water doing all the damage is primarily coming from the C-44 basin, C-23, C-24 and Ten Mile Creek, and from the coastal basin. Be sure you scroll to the second graphic, the "Estimated Surface Water Inflow."

None of this comes as a surprise to J.P. Sasser, the four-term former mayor and lifelong resident of Pahokee.

"Out here, we've been required to clean up our (feces)," Sasser told me, using the more colloquial term. "Now it's time for the east coast to clean up theirs."

Said Sasser, "It's been fashionable for years to blame agribusiness for pollution problems. Particularly in the Glades around Lake Okeechobee. But you know what? Over the last 20 years, laws were put in place to force agriculture to clean up its act. And by the way, the Glades cities of Belle Glade, Pahokee and South Bay have had sewer systems for years.

"If we're so bad out here, Martin County, where is your sewer system?"

Sasser points to a map -- it's in the first graphic shown here: "This map shows in great detail the locations of all the septic tanks in the Martin County area over the last 30 years. The area outlined in black is predominately rural agricultural areas. Look at it -- all discharges are monitored by law. This is the area where Martin people want to come and rally (Sugarland Rally, Clewiston, Sept. 1).

"Now look at the area outlined in red, the large population areas," Sasser advises. "Discharges in this area are not required to be monitored. The yellow in both areas represents septic tanks."

Money for infrastructure, he says, is critical for correcting the problem. But he holds out little hope. "If all this were in Afghanistan, money would be flowing in like that water over the Martin lock. But the federal government does nothing. (U.S. Sen.) Bill Nelson comes down here and bumps his gums, but then goes back up to Washington and does nothing. Congress has lost all credibility."

Now, I love Martin County. It's the home of my heart, that's just how it is. I want to see the rivers right again and the future bright for my children and grandchildren there. So, I proffer this bit of advice for Martin, wanting the county to get the biggest bang for its buck as this water travesty moves toward resolution:

Set your sights on the Indian River Lagoon suite of projects -- known as IRL-S.

They're the ones conditionally authorized in 2000, fast-tracked by Gov. Jeb Bush as part of Acceler8 in 2004 and fully authorized by Congress in 2007. They have already received more than $400 million in state and local funding for land acquisition, design and preconstruction. You're way out in front here.

Funding for Martin Countys wish list will provide relief in the short term, let's hope. But priorities have to be figuring out how to resurrect the Ten Mile Creek reservoir and the stormwater treatment area at the head of the North Fork.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, told me Monday his Senate committee's main thrust will be countering the harmful effects of Lake Okeechobee releases and restoring the Everglades -- not counting septic tanks. He didn't say so, but I imagine leaning on the Army Corps of Engineers to fix an increasingly leaky dike will be another of his priorities.

Negron is unlikely to pursue state and federal grants to pay for septic-to-sewer conversion, though certainly he will listen to the evidence. He said he voted to repeal the state law requiring septic tank inspections, calling it undue government intrusion.

Listen carefully Thursday. I think you'll find the time has come for somebody with gumption in county hall to start the septic-tank conversation.

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

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