A recent October day offered a postcard image on Stuart area waterways under clear blue skies. I went boating with a trio of researchers and experts from the Florida Oceanographic Society who “see” a different picture. They know full well what is brewing below the surface of those waters.
Dr. Gary Goforth, an environmental engineer, told me that over the past summer an estimated 30 million pounds of sediment from Lake Okeechobee got dumped into the St. Lucie Estuary. Those discharges from the big lake and surrounding farmland are typically rich with phosphorous and nitrogen loaded fertilizer runoff.
Dr. Goforth said of the sediment, “It covers oyster beds, seagrass…the nursery for fish, baby turtles.”
Scientists say that toxic stew of runoff—including urban and suburban sources—fed the blue-green algae that choked the Treasure Coast. Water monitors dot the estuary, checking for salinity, nitrogen, phosphates and more. But researchers say state budget cuts over the last eight years to environmental agencies—upwards of 25 percent in some cases—have badly diminished water monitoring efforts deeper into the local watershed.
Dr. Goforth said, “When you have the data, you are able to sort fact from fiction.”
More comprehensive water monitoring, he added, would allow for better regulation of pollutant runoff and better enforcement of those rules. He went on, “We are failing on the enforcement side of it. That is the third leg of the tripod, to have an effective enforcement program to hold landowners accountable.”