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Agencies: No interest in filling pollution education gap

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of August 2, 2012)

When the County Commission eliminated the stormwater education coordinator position from the county budget two weeks ago, Commissioner Wesley Davis admitted the job was important to lagoon health but suggested that other county agencies would pick up the public education workload.

“We put some dollars in there for the citrus agent, who is regional, and the Soil and Water Conservation District can do education, and we have our Ag extension agents. All of them are trained to teach so it makes more sense for them to do it.”

Davis’s scenario sounds somewhat plausible, but there is a slight problem with it: All of the agencies and individuals he mentions say there is no reality to the suggestion that they can pick up the slack.

Asked via e-mail about taking over stormwater education tasks, County Extension Director and Agriculture Agent Christine Kelly-Begazo wrote:  “The county's stormwater department has had their own educator in the past so the extension office has not offered those types of classes to avoid duplication of services.  Currently, we do not have an extension agent that could deliver these types of programs.”

Citrus Agent Tim Gaver, who divides his time between St. Lucie, Martin, Okeechobee and Indian River Counties, said in a phone interview his educational efforts are closely confined to best management practices for raising fruit trees and that he provides no general public stormwater education.

Elwood Holzworth of the Soil and Water Conservation District said his agency works with private landowners and farms to encourage economically and environmentally smart agricultural practices. Some of Holzworth’s efforts focus on mitigating stormwater runoff from groves and ranches to reduce the volume of polluted water entering the lagoon, but the district does not do the kind of work that was done by former stormwater education coordinator Diane Wilson.

“Diane made 57 presentations last year to HOAs, the Kiwanis, the Board of Realtors and other organizations,” said stormwater engineer Keith McCully who was Wilson’s boss and who is one of two people remaining in the county stormwater division.

Those presentations, which sometimes included talks by state and regional water quality experts, were designed to help people understand how their behavior impacts the lagoon and learn ways to reduce pollution caused by excess fertilizer and other common contaminants.

Wilson also conducted employee training seminars and made presentations at stormwater professional education and networking events.

Wilson’s work was important because non-point-source pollution – runoff form streets, lawns and other urban surfaces – is a main cause of the pollution poisoning the Indian River Lagoon, killing sea grass, fish and dolphins.

The work done by agencies Davis mentioned is important and has contributed to a reduction in agricultural pollution in recent years, but those agencies’ primary focus is not on stormwater and in contradiction to Davis’s statement, none has any plans to fill the gap left by Wilson’s firing.

Davis’s statement that the agencies will take over Wilson’s efforts is faulty on a second level. Even if the citrus agent, the soil and water conservation district and the agricultural extension service were focused primarily on stormwater pollution, they are not being expanded, so the loss of Wilson’s programs would be a net decrease in any case.

Davis implied that the $11,000 added to the budget for the citrus agent was an expansion of environmental education funding but Gaver said the $11,000 will merely replace money now being paid by St. Lucie County, where he has his office.

He said many of the growers he works with in St. Lucie County also have groves in Indian River County and that the $11,000 is simply IRC paying its fair share and does not represent an increase in funding.

By cutting the stormwater education position, commissioners seemed to undercut their credibility on the issue of protecting the estuary that is the main economic engine of Indian River County.

As scientists have discovered severe and increasing problems with pollution in the lagoon and traced much of it to stormwater runoff carrying nitrogen from lawn fertilizer, Commissioners Bob Solari, Peter O’Bryan and Davis have said repeatedly that public education is the way to deal with the problem.

The cities of Vero Beach, Sebastian and Indian River Shores have all passed ordinances to regulate the use of fertilizer to reduce pollution but the commissioners have insisted education is better than regulation and promised to increase the county's educational efforts.

Now, instead, they have done the opposite.

“This reduction in public education, or lack of education going forward, is another blow to the lagoon,” said Warren Falls, managing director of ORCA, the Ocean Research and Conservation Association headquartered in the old Coast Guard station in Fort Pierce. “On the one hand these commissioners talk about the need for more education to protect the lagoon and on the other they fire the person who is doing education for the county. I am actually baffled by their behavior. It makes absolutely no sense.”

“The commissioners talk the talk, but when it comes to really protecting the lagoon – which is a much larger local and regional economic engine than Piper or Dodgertown or other projects they have spent millions of taxpayer dollars on – they don't walk the walk,” said Vero Beach environmental consultant David Cox, Ph.D.

Vero Beach Mayor Pilar Turner has said the lagoon contributes $800 million annually to the county’s economy and according to St. John’s River Water Management District the estuary provides a $3.7-billion annual economic benefit along its 150-mile length. Sport and commercial fishing, tourism and property values in The Moorings, Johns Island, Windsor and other communities along the waterway are dependent on a healthy lagoon.

In comparison, Wilson cost the county a grand total of $60,757.00 in salary and benefits, according to county budget director Jason Brown.

“Indian River County government has over the years done a great many things that have protected and benefitted the Indian River Lagoon, the keystone of our quality of life, but recently the current County Commission has repeatedly let us down,” said Cox.

"This latest lamentable decision by the Commission is entirely consistent with what appears to be an ongoing war against the lagoon marshaled by at least three of them.”