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St. Sebastian River still in trouble, despite cleanup efforts

Photo: Aerial view of U.S. 1 bridge over the St. Sebastian River.

Of the eight tributaries that flow into the troubled Indian River Lagoon, the St. Lucie River gets the most attention as a waterway in desperate need of cleanup.  But the St. Sebastian River, which draws far less scrutiny, has serious water quality problems of its own.

Six years ago, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection declared parts of the river “impaired” due to depleted oxygen and high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus that feed destructive algae blooms.

Tim Glover, president of Friends of the St. Sebastian River who lives in Micco on the river’s north prong, says he hasn’t seen any improvement since then, despite major cleanup efforts.

“I’d say there’s been a degradation,” Glover said.  “Fishermen don’t get the kind of catches that they used to.  There have been oyster die-offs over the years.”

Dr. Grant Gilmore, founder and chief scientist at Estuarine Coastal and Ocean Science, Inc., said he did not spot a single fish during a recent visit to the north prong where he’s been sampling fish for decades. What’s more, “the whole bottom was covered with cyanobacteria; all the vegetation they depend on was gone,” he said.

“Water quality isn’t where we want it,” said Dr. Duane DeFreese, executive director of the Indian River Lagoon Council.  “The river . . . has many stressors – stormwater run-off, septic systems, fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides. A lot of work needs to be done to restore water quality to have the St. Sebastian River a healthy river like we used to remember it.”

After the river was deemed impaired, the DEP set restoration goals aimed at raising oxygen levels and lowering nutrient loads. The agency worked with local governments and other stakeholders on restoration plans and projects to reduce the amount of nutrients flowing into the river – and ultimately into the lagoon.

St. Johns River Water Management District has reclaimed marshland, improved wetlands and created a series of ponds to capture and clean stormwater before it flows into the St. Sebastian, or into canals that empty into the river. Some of the cleaned water has been diverted to the St. Johns River.

Diverting water into ponds and wetlands and filtering it through marshes removes nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollutants.

The city of Sebastian, which manages drainage canals that empty into the St. Sebastian, adopted a master stormwater management plan and built a large stormwater park with ponds and marshes to reduce agricultural and residential discharges into the St. Sebastian and lagoon.

But members of Friends of the St. Sebastian River, the Clean Water Coalition of Indian River County, and other groups say the city’s efforts fall short – pointing in particular to the continued spraying of large quantities of harmful herbicides into drainage canals to control aquatic weeds.

Those groups recently convinced the Sebastian City Council to review its weed-killing practices – especially the use of sprays containing glyphosate – the active ingredient in Round Up, one of the world’s most popular weed killers that some experts say causes cancer in humans.

The groups urged City Manager Paul Carlisle, who’s conducting the review, to consider manual and mechanical cutting methods of keeping canals clear. Coalition president Paul Fafeita says the coalition plans to take its case to the Indian River County Commission as well.

Glyphosate has been deemed a likely carcinogen by the state of California, the World Health Organization, and scientists at the University of Washington. A California jury recently awarded a couple more than $2 billion in a verdict against Monsanto, the chemical company that makes Round Up, after they claimed using the herbicide caused their non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The massive judgment was the third big-money verdict against Monsanto since last year.

Thousands of similar lawsuits are pending in other states.

Nevertheless, glyphosate has been deemed safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Florida.