How to kill a perfectly good Florida river
By CARL HIAASEN
The killing of the St. Lucie River is deplorable but hardly unique. Other Florida rivers are being destroyed, although the symptoms aren't so arresting.
The St. Lucie is dying as a manmade slime trail, a huge vein of effluent streamed with blue-green algae. The remaining fish are increasingly sick and ulcerated, the birds have flown and residents of neighboring counties are being warned to keep their children away from the water.
Unlike some of Florida's rivers -- poisoned slowly by mines and paper mills -- the St. Lucie is dying very publicly, and in a heavily populated region. Many thousands of people live on or near the waterway, and some are protesting loudly.
It's uncomfortable for state authorities. Often a river can be killed off without much fuss; only a few stout souls in mill towns dare to protest, and the enviros downstream don't get much play in the local media.
But the St. Lucie is different. Palm Beach County TV stations have been avidly covering the story, sending up helicopters -- helicopters! -- to take video of the churning crud.
This is bad. This is ugly stuff.
The source is Lake Okeechobee, a humongous latrine for ranches, farms, groves and, more recently, massive residential developments in Central Florida.
For decades the state has tolerated the dumping of cattle manure, pesticides and fertilizers into the big lake. Tons of foul sediment were stirred up by last year's hurricanes, and water is now being pumped at up to 26,000 gallons per second into the St. Lucie River.
Water managers blame the weather. Months of heavy rain have forced them to keep flushing Lake Okeechobee so it won't overflow, they say. The runoff can't be sent elsewhere because the high phosphorus levels exceed the limits imposed for the Everglades restoration project.
So where does all that bad water go? Down the Caloosahatchee River to the Gulf of Mexico, and down the St. Lucie to the Atlantic.
What the good people of Martin and St. Lucie counties see and smell on their river is the disastrous culmination of generations of lousy planning, worse management and slimy politics.
Florida has a squalid record of letting special interests exploit and contaminate our public waterways, and the state remains an unfailingly enthusiastic partner in such pollution.
Georgia-Pacific, which empties up to 36 million gallons of crap every day into a creek near Palatka, now has a permit to pipe its waste directly to the St. Johns River. Meanwhile, International Paper Co. in Pensacola has a green light to build an outfall pipe to wetlands along Perdido Bay.
The most outrageous case is in Taylor County, up in Florida's Big Bend. There the Buckeye paper mill, which manufactures fluff for disposable diapers, has annihilated virtually all life in the once-teeming Fenholloway River.
In a grievously belated attempt to restore the Fenholloway to a ''fishable-swimmable'' waterway, the state has brilliantly decided to let Buckeye pipe its toxins straight to the Gulf of Mexico, a swath of which has already been deadened by noxious dumping.
For these upcoming atrocities you can thank pro-industry stooges at the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and also Florida's assiduously gutless Department of Environmental Protection (the former chief, David Struhs, left for a job at International Paper). The rivers will go black before any Bush brother notices.
Rather than requiring big companies and governments to clean their waste, it's much easier (and cheaper) to pipe it somewhere less noticeable. Somebody would have already suggested that remedy for the St. Lucie River were it feasible to build a sewer pipe from Lake Okeechobee to the sea.
With property values along the St. Lucie in jeopardy and much of the river unsafe for human recreation, plenty of folks in Martin and St. Lucie counties are angry.
Officials of the South Florida Water Management District say that they're at the mercy of the rains and of the timetable for Everglades restoration.
On the drawing board is the C-44 reservoir, which supposedly will cleanse about 13 billion gallons of Lake Okeechobee poo before it reaches the St. Lucie.
Unfortunately, the project isn't due for completion until 2010, and many fear it will be too late. The Martin County commission has discussed suing the water district for wrecking the St. Lucie, and similar action is being considered by a group called the Rivers Coalition.
Meanwhile, the Stuart-Martin Chamber of Commerce has enlisted a bigtime lawyer, Willie Gary, to join the river battle. Gary lives along the St. Lucie and has offered his counsel for free, which is not happy news for the state.
In what many residents perceive as a blunt threat, some water managers have suggested that litigation could result in the postponement of the C-44 reservoir construction. In other words: Shut up, be patient and trust us.
It's not easy.
The history of Florida waters is one of greedy abuse and neglect. Surely there must be a way to save the Everglades without killing the rivers that border it.
The ruination of Lake Okeechobee took 70 years, but the St. Lucie is deteriorating much faster. Completion of the filtering reservoir is a minimum of five years away, which is an awfully long time to wait if you're a kid who wants to fish or go swimming.
An awfully long time to sit by and watch a river die.