Mr. Poppell goes to Palatka

The President’s Hoot
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
November 2010

The problem with damaging seagrass beds is that they are the foundation of the lagoon’s food chain and the nurseries for fish, birds, and other aquatic species.  Additionally, these species have been stricken because of tainted water quality due to water run off from our agriculture and home fertilizers, chemicals, medicine disposal, litter and sewage. So we must do everything to preserve seagrasses not only for our environment but also for the billions of dollars they bring to our economy.

Many of you wrote compelling letters to St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) on the Oslo Road boat ramp project.  The project continues to be bizarre as the county is trying to use a loophole in regulations that allows maintenance dredging, but not new dredging, in these protected environmental areas.

Canoeing ORCA by Bob Montanaro.

County officials still are spending thousands of your taxpayer monies to get a project approved by the regulatory agencies (principally SJRWMD) that they must know will harm the Indian River Lagoon and should not even be considered.   Unfortunately, to counter irrationality, other state, federal agencies and conservation groups then must spend their money and time. These groups include the Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, US Corps of Engineers, Audubon of Florida, Save the Manatee Club, Marine Resource Council, Sierra Club, Oslo Riverfront Conservation Area volunteers, kayak renter businesses, wading and small boat fisherman.  Even scientists have also responded to calls to action! Why doesn’t the County understand this as well?  The Oslo Road boat ramp completed in April 2009 is just for small boats, protected from large boat wakes.   The county has documented a single day high use of 15 vehicles with nine boat trailers. Now the county is requesting parking for 23 vehicles including 12 with boat trailers and to accomplish this is destroying three acres of conservation mangroves and paving the road. 

The county spent over $70,000 hiring G. K. Environmental to do surveys.  Experts have questioned their techniques and timing of the first surveys, and whether their results are valid.  The county staff, a commissioner, and a state representative together or singly have met with the SJRWMD on six occasions since January 2010 to get a variance and a permit to dredge a three foot channel from the ramp 225 feet toward the Intracoastal Waterway.  This is in spite of the fact that the county needs a variance to dredge in the Indian River Lagoon where there is a federally restricted shellfish harvesting area.  Moreover there are other problems with the dredging as it is: 

  • in a conservation area with extensive wetlands, purchased with state and county’s own bond funds,
  • adjacent to an aquatic preserve with the lagoon’s extensive seagrasses beds, and
  • in the largest area in the county for high use manatee activity and goes against the County’s own Manatee Protection Plan.

As if these transgressions were not serious enough, manatees tagged with satellite transmitters have been documented in the immediate project vicinity. Eight different manatees have been documented visiting the area.  There have been three deaths by watercraft-related causes in the last decade within a three-mile radius of the Oslo Road ramp (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, FWC)

The FWC considers the proposed dredging would be new dredging as no previous permits have been issued.  It has not been dredged for over 50 years!  Moreover, the proposed channel ends approximately 200 feet from the boat ramp in an area where rock is located at approximately 2.25 to 2.5 feet deep, which indicates no previous dredging. In addition, the county’s own submitted drawings show rock is present near the ramp indicating that this site was probably never dredged to the proposed three-foot depths. FWC further states “Because this is deeper (3 ft.) than the apparent current controlling depth in the surrounding Aquatic Preserve, we would anticipate potential increase in resource impacts such as propeller dredging and seagrass scarring.”

In spite of this information and restrictions, on August 10, 2010, our Florida State Representative Ralph Poppell went to Palatka, the SJRWMD Headquarters, addressing (for an hour of valuable staff time) the SJRWMD board of directors on the inefficiency of District staff in getting the Oslo Road boat ramp expansion project permit approved in a timely manner. He emphasized his power being Chair of the Natural Resources Appropriations Committee and Vice Chair of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Committee and threatened new state laws to speed up the permit process (although he is term limited this year). A board member asked how long the period had been in which the project application was submitted?  He did not know and so asked Michael Nixon, an accompanying county employee how long?  Mr. Nixon said only late Nov 2009, and it had been responded to by SJRWMD in a timely manner with a request for variance petition that IRC had only submitted in June 2010.   The board member commented that this was not unusually long and a permit like this usually takes a year.

Rep. Poppell followed this up on October 1, 2010, by writing SJRWMD Executive Director Kirby Green stating in the first sentence “It is abundantly clear that your staff either has little or no respect for you or that they run the show with no direction from you.”  We are fortunate that the SJRWMD staff is doing their job following the rules and regulations of the State of Florida!  Do they need this badgering by a state representative?

In two attempts at responding to SJRWMD concerns, the County has not presented any evidence of social, economic or environmental benefits or hardships in their requested variance to dredge at the Oslo Road ramp…perhaps because their real reason is that they just want larger boats to have access there.  

PIASthought the new ramp replacement compromise in April 2009 would end the county’s first application dispute that this threat would be behind us. Our positions now are the following:

A. Even though Indian River County has more boat ramps and boat lanes per capita than neighboring counties, PIAS is willing to support additional ramp sites and funding.  We have suggested building a larger ramp with more parking opportunity on county-owned property at 45th Street. only 5.5 miles from Oslo Road, which:

  • has twice the area for placing a larger boat ramp with more parking spaces,
  • has fewer seagrass and mangroves issues,.
  • is not in a high manatee activity zone.
  • is not in a conservation land or aquatic preserve,
  • is closer to the Inter Coastal Waterway for big boats

B. PIAS is opposed to any dredging to 3 feet at Oslo Road to allow bigger boats than have historically been there. The site is in a Federal Shellfish area, an aquatic preserve with snook, tarpon, and spotted seatrout nurseries, seagrass, manatees, and nearby bird rookery all depending upon a natural environment.  These regulatory agencies are our only hope of saving our Lagoon and our environment. 

Unfortunately, with all the pressure by the county and Representative Poppell, SJRWMD is issuing a permit to the county to dredge into the Indian River Lagoon.  Our board strongly feels that this is wrong, and we must fight this decision as it sets a dangerous precedent of allowing new dredging in environmentally sensitive areas throughout Florida. Thus we have hired attorney Marcy LaHart, to request an administrative hearing before a judge to object to this permit. Our opposition is likely to cost PIAS $10,000, most of which will be used to get depositions from scientists and government officials. 

Any special contributions by you would be appreciated to stop this unneeded dredging. Please send whatever you can to our office, marked “Save our Lagoon!”

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