Editor’s note: The article below by Nick Thomas describes an option for flushing the Bethel Creek area of Indian River Lagoon by installing underground pipes between the Atlantic Ocean and the Lagoon at Bethel Creek. It was first published May 1, 2013. A week ahead of the recent Aug. 30 primary election, County Commissioner Tim Zorc proposed a pilot project to test the concept.
BY NICK THOMAS
Thirty years ago, the City of Destin in Northwest Florida was incorporated from Okaloosa County. The first order of business for the new City was to identify its strengths and move to protect them. For Destin, a town built on tourism, and the self-proclaimed home of Florida’s largest fishing fleet, the clear answer was to protect their famous sugar-sand beaches and the blue-green Harbor that served as both the economic and social hub of the City.
Bit by bit, the newly-formed City Council began gathering information and passing ordinances to protect Destin’s main assets.
By the end of the 80s, studies concluded that Destin Harbor, the 240-acre body of water fed entirely from the west by ocean water flowing into the local “pass” or inlet, was suffering from the ailments that have become all too familiar to residents of Indian River County – nutrient pollution, algae blooms, and the lack of flushing, circulation and oxygenation.
Determining quickly that 78% of the nitrogen loading and 94% of the phosphorus loading was entering the Harbor from surrounding lands, the City decided that there was little that they could do to do to ameliorate that problem since, to quote a 1988 study, “a substantial reduction in pollutant and nutrient loading was not feasible due to the uncontrollable nature of the sources . . . .”
Instead of throwing their hands up, or engaging in endless study and debate, the City of Destin undertook a public-works project to flush the Harbor with ocean water. That project, now known as the Destin Harbor Pumping Facility, was sent out to bid in 1988 and completed in 1992.
This project consists of a large (84 inch) pipe running some 1,600 feet out into the Gulf of Mexico and drawing ocean water into the Harbor. By design, the project includes a large pump, but the pump is not always necessary to facilitate the flow.
While there have been bumps along the way, including partial blockage by organic matter (oysters) and the cost of running the pump, the facility is still in use today, bringing life to the formerly stagnated eastern reaches of the Harbor.
Asked how the City of Destin found the public will to tackle the problems with their Harbor, City Council member from the early days of Destin, and now Associate Director of the Destin History & Fishing Museum, Ms. Kathy Marler Blue struggled to answer the question.
“Back then, there were not many voices opposing the project to save our Harbor,” she recalled, describing the community’s common commitment to solving this obvious problem. “We all understood what was at stake.”
“Compared to the divisiveness of politics today,” she continued, “I honestly can’t recall any hostility between liberal democrats and conservative republicans. It was just a different time, and we had a community to preserve.”
Fast forward to today, and the City of Vero Beach is dealing with the same problems Destin indentified and addressed thirty years ago, though progress on the issue has been slow, bordering on non-existent.
In an effort to break the log jam and bring clarity to the issue, local engineer Michael Walther of Coastal Technology Corporation made a presentation to the recent Indian River Lagoon Symposium. Is his talk, Mr. Walther walked attendees through the similarities between the present situation in Vero Beach and the conditions that existed in Destin Harbor in the early 1990s.
Mr. Walther went on to chronicle the dire state of our local stretch of the Lagoon, including the further dying off of our sea grass that was rated as poor back in 2006, and the only-getting-worse 2006 rating of “impared” for our overall local water quality.
In his presentation, Mr. Walther specifically discussed the proposition of building a Destin-like pipe system at Bethel Creek, the same site that locals have been focusing on for the past 100 years or more. Less than 1,000 feet from the ocean to the Lagoon, Bethel Creek is the site of an ancient inlet and the obvious location for a new flushing project, both because of its proximity to the Atlantic and the fact that the City of Vero Beach owns the land that would be traversed by the pipe – Jaycee Park and the Bethel Creek House. So there is no need to purchase an easement across private land.
Party to recent studies concerning the problems with the Indian River Lagoon near Vero Beach, Mr. Warren Falls, the Managing Director of the Ocean Research & Conservation Association (ORCA) located in Ft. Pierce, voices a pervasive sentiment that may well stand in the way of local progress. “We have to get away from a territorial mindset,” he says. “It’s time to come together and protect the Lagoon as a whole.”
While that’s an admirable attitude, and while it’s true that the Lagoon is an interconnected estuary ranging over some 156 miles from north to south, it does little to address the specific problems facing Vero Beach.
In the end, perhaps the greatest difference between Vero Beach and Destin is the fact that Destin has a closed Harbor that does not cross too many governmental boarders, so it can be addressed locally and as a whole. On the other hand, in Vero Beach, whatever we do will have effects, positive or negative, on the Lagoon to the north and south, and any palliative proposals are subject to input from many, many stakeholders.
While the effects of local efforts are and should be of concern to our neighbors, and while any major project should be undertaken with caution, it is cold comfort knowing that Vero Beach, along with certain stretches of the Lagoon near Melbourne and Cocoa, remains a virtual septic tanks while we wait.