|The President’s Hoot|
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
Do you know how important the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) is to the well being of our county’s environment? Often called “The District”, it is supported by our taxes and is responsible for managing ground and surface water supplies in all or part of 18 counties in northeast and east-central Florida with more than 700 dedicated staff members (http://floridaswater.com). Unlike most of our local, state, and federal governments, we are taxed without representation, as the Governor appoints and Florida Senate confirms their nine-member Governing Board, who sets and approves the district’s policies and operations.
Besides telling you when you can water your lawn to preserve water, the duties of the District include:
- issuing permits for various water use activities and/or activities that have the potential to adversely impact ground or surface water resources and adjacent lands
- buying land to preserve or restore vital wetlands and water resources
- conducting research about the quality and quantity of ground and surface water resources
- mapping ground and surface water resources
- conducting outreach and public education programs
One of the most valuable actions they have taken is purchasing wetlands along the Indian River Lagoon; our Oslo Riverfront Conservation Area is an excellent example. In addition, in our county, they have purchased agriculture lands around Blue Cypress Lake and surrounding marsh and restored them to wetlands, which improves the water supply for Melbourne and cities north, but has also brought back the snail kite. Recently they installed a much needed stormwater treatment plant, which cleans sediments from one of the major canals draining Sebastian before it enters the St. Sebastian River. This summer they are removing muck from St. Sebastian River. We also appreciate very much the District providing funds to install culverts to 40,000 acres of mosquito control impounded high marsh along the Indian River Lagoon from Volusia County to Martin County, which have helped keep our snook, other fish populations, and sport fishing economy going.
A year ago, a developer requested from our county’s Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission a zoning change from agriculture to residential. We were concerned that the preliminary building plans completely eliminated two natural historic tributaries of the St. Sebastian River for a new development called Sebastian Park (see map photo). The developer of this “Park” of 160 acres proposed 394 house lots at 2.5/Ac, but could not find space to save even one of the historic tributaries of our county’s most important river. After Frank Wegel (Friends of the St. Sebastian River) and I presented our concerns over the loss of the tributaries, the P&Z Commission wisely deferred approval. Afterwards, Frank Wegel alerted the developer that the Marine Resource Council (MRC), a non-governmental organization, was very much interested in purchasing important lands surrounding the St. Sebastian River. MRC received $3.1 million to purchase such lands and, in fact, has already purchased neighboring lands. The Friends and Audubon were hopeful that the developer would sell 46 lots to MRC to protect at least one tributary.
However, a few weeks ago, in reviewing the consent agenda for SJRWMD Governing Board concerning permit approval for this development, the developer was still installing a new plug and culvert, which would inhibit the natural flow of the tributary. Dr. Grant Gilmore an international fish expert, Frank Wegel, and I presented our concerns over the total elimination of these tributaries to the governing board. Dr. Grant Gilmore explained the importance of unobstructed free flowing tributaries to the survival of the rare species that depend on the St. Sebastian River, including a variety of gobies, 5 species of snook and the opossum pipefish. Millions of common snook larvae migrate through Sebastian inlet, while only about the size of a pencil eraser moving into small St. Sebastian River tributaries and shallow ditches to feed and grow. In the case of the common snook, they grow to become the larger game fish that sport fisherman like to catch and eat. The other four species of snook and the opossum pipefish are found as permanent reproducing populations in only two other rivers in the U.S., both tributaries to the Indian River Lagoon, the St. Lucie and Loxahatchee Rivers, making them rarer and more endangered than wood storks and rosette spoonbills.
After hearing Dr. Gilmore, the District decided to withdraw the permit for further consideration as they admitted that in the mitigation review, they had not considered the importance of these fish. The District is to be congratulated for recognizing the importance of the St. Sebastian River tributaries to our sport fishing industry. These fish and others using the St. Sebastian River also provide food for wildlife such as other fish and birds. Thank you SJRWMD for again reviewing this permit, which could be a very important precedent.
Also Kudos to the MRC for purchasing important properties that protect the St. Sebastian River. Hopefully, SJRWMD, MRC, and developers, working together, can save our county’s important fish habitat.