When Martin County Commissioner Sarah Heard voted two years ago not to fund a DNA study of the pollutants in the St. Lucie River by Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute's Brian Lapointe, we were somewhat surprised at her dissent … but our most environmentally concerned citizens trusted her.
Heard told us then that she already knew the source. She said, “It's agriculture. Not septic tanks.”
Well, that study came back this month with overwhelming, resounding proof that NO, it's NOT agriculture, it's septic tanks. Human waste is poisoning our groundwater, our surface waters, the wildlife that lives in it, and is damaging not only the St. Lucie estuary, but the Indian River Lagoon and our reefs.
Our septic tanks threaten even dolphins that consider this place their permanent home. They do not leave it, even when they eat what kills them.
Does Heard accept the study results? No. Instead, she attempted to poke holes in Lapointe's study to prove that his science is flawed, that it is indeed agriculture that damages the estuary more than septic tanks, and the Lake Okeechobee discharges are more damaging than our own water basin runoff. Yet, two other studies, one of which was conducted by our county staff, echoed Lapointe's results.
Yes, Lake Okeechobee discharges are an issue, but septic tanks are a more immediate issue. Now we know irrefutably that septic tanks near waterways are a menace to life of any kind.
In the fresh light of this study, did our county commission opt for a comprehensive, phased plan to remove all the septic tanks along the shores of our treasured waterways, the St. Lucie River, the Indian River Lagoon and the Loxahatchee River? Unfortunately, regrettably, unconscionably NO. They did not.
They had already targeted the septic tanks in our agricultural areas, some of which will not drain into the river for 50 years, and had already killed at least one sewer line extension along the Indian River Lagoon to stop development, and now they've added only two “hot spots” -- in Golden Gate and All American Ditch in Old Palm City for sewer lines, removing a total of 2,100 septic units from the nearly 20,000 we know about.
What about the rest?
Commissioner Doug Smith made a strong case, yet again, to at least put a plan in place, even if it's a 20- or 30-year plan, for what Lapointe said causes at least four times the pollution of lake discharges -- maybe up to seven times more. Having a plan attracts more grant funds -- and we're going to need every dime we can get.
Smith was ignored. Why? Because sewer systems foster development. They will make this place a more desirable place to live, and will eliminate the need for septic drain fields, allowing property owners more options to use their property.
It's a sick way to control development. Literally. Sick.
Allowing our septic tank effluent to feed the toxic algae that kills our sea grasses; letting the effluent-borne bacteria and viruses and pharmaceuticals infect our groundwater, our rivers and the lagoon; and allowing our dolphins to suffer and our reefs to die because that's a better alternative than allowing any growth, which also would help fund a sewer system, too?
This truly archaic policy makes no sense. Our growth is strictly controlled by our Comprehensive Growth Management Plan -- as it should be. Controlled growth. We've won awards for that plan, yet this fight over sewer systems has been ongoing for more than two decades.
When Maggy Hurchalla was an elected county commissioner, she led the fight to KEEP septic tanks even for new development in order to thwart growth. She won the fight then, and she's still fighting. No need for a countywide plan, she still says. Just get those hot spots ... well, just get some of the hot spots. Ignore the ones on the Loxahatchee, she insists, a refrain parroted by Sarah Heard, Ed Fielding, and Anne Scott, her faithful commissioners, and even Marty Baum, our Indian Riverkeeper.
What's difficult to follow is that in one breath, Fielding is leading the charge against septic tanks to justify gutting the Community Redevelopment projects, yet he, Anne Scott and Sarah Heard laud the effectiveness of septic tanks along the Loxahatchee in order to justify their ban on sewer lines into the secondary urban services district. Then they blast septic tanks again when farmers want to build a packing house.
A dichotomy? Definitely. Their priority is not water quality. Their priority is stopping all growth of any kind, anywhere.
They are willing to destroy our CRAs, pollute our rivers and make our dolphins sick, if necessary, to ensure that Martin County is set aside as an enclave for only the mega-wealthy. They are succeeding.
Barbara Clowdus is editor and publisher of Martin County Currents. This commentary is reprinted from the Currents' November edition, just out -- online and in print.