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Miami commissioner tours St. Lucie River to learn problems, solutions to water quality concerns

City leaders seek out ways to promote better water quality
Stuart Vice Mayor Merritt Matheson with Miami Commissioner Ken Russell
Posted at 11:13 AM, Jan 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-21 23:51:43-05

STUART, Fla. — Forging a new partnership in the fight for clean water, the city of Stuart welcomed a Miami commissioner to tour the St. Lucie River Thursday at his request.

Commissioner Ken Russell hopes to work closer with Stuart city leaders in the future as they mutually seek out ways to promote better water quality in each of their communities.

Stuart City Commissioner Merritt Matheson led the tour with Russell, along with other local environmental experts including:

  • Mark Perry, Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center
  • Ben Hogarth, Stuart environmental and community affairs liaison
  • Representatives from Captains for Clean Water and the Everglades Trust

Conditions on the water Thursday were ideal, reminding Russell of the beauty of the area he once called home.

"I grew up water skiing, kneeboarding on the south fork of the St. Lucie River,” Russell said.

Matheson and Russell could reminisce on their childhoods, both growing up on the water in Stuart. It also helped Matheson paint the picture of how drastically conditions change on the river once Lake Okeechobee releases are in the mix.

"A lot of it was me describing to him as we looked to the lock to say, 'Imagine this looked like Niagara Falls and all of this would be white water. ... A canal in my neighborhood in Stuart that looked like grass over the waterway,'" Matheson described.

Russell learned more about how Lake Okeechobee releases and resulting algae impact tourism, health, the economy and the recreation he once enjoyed.

Miami Commissioner Ken Russell visits Stuart on Jan. 21, 2021
Miami Commissioner Ken Russell hopes to work closer with Stuart city leaders to promote better water quality in each of their communities.

"To hear people aren't doing that anymore, possibly for health reasons, that’s heartbreaking," Russell said.

Matheson took Russell to the headwaters of the St. Lucie River South Fork and to the St. Lucie Lock to show Russell where Lake Okeechobee discharges enter the estuary.

Matheson explained the plight to get more of that water sent south toward Russell's community and the Everglades and improve the infrastructure needed to move the water.

"We're sitting up here getting the water they should naturally receive," Matheson said.

"We should be fighting to pull that water south, while the east and west coast are trying to push it south," Russell said.

The two commissioners agree working together on water issues stands to benefit both of their cities.

"Our voices will be louder if we're working together," Matheson said. "We're really tied together. We have to start looking as a state in fixing water quality issues holistically."

St. Lucie River
The St. Lucie River has been plagued by toxic algae in recent years from freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee.

Russell was also looking at the effects on water quality of man-made structures designed to control the flow of water. Russell said the city of Miami may have to look at construction as they tackle rising sea level concerns.

"In the city of Miami, we have our own water quality issues. We've had fish kills. We've had algae blooms, low oxygen levels. We need to care about the water in the same way but for different reasons," Russell said.

Russell and Matheson agreed they want more cities to partner together as a voice in the clean water fight, not just environmental groups.

"Obviously Stuart doesn't want the water, and I've learned that. Miami does want the water and the Everglades does want the water, so I think there's a perfect partnership to be had,” Russell said.

Russell said Stuart was the first stop he is taking on a tour across the state to learn about water quality concerns in various communities. His next stop is the west coast of Florida.