Smithson retiring, but he’ll always be worked up over water issues

Soon-to-be-retired Marty Smithson is planning to hit the road with his wife in a brand-new RV, but not before sharing a thought or two about the future health of troubled local waterways.

Smithson, 63, will end his 14-year tenure as executive director of the Sebastian Inlet District on March 31, topping an accomplished career that included a long stint as executive director of the St. Johns River Water Management District’s former Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program.

Smithson is one of those guys who knows tons about our waterways and wildlife, the area’s history … and fishing. But he had to learn to drive one of the largest classes of motorized RVs, one capable of pulling a compact car plus two kayaks. “The RV dealer kept asking me if I was moving up from a smaller model. He told me I skipped all the small ones and went right to the top,’’ he said.

In between short, ‘practice’ RV trips, he will spend the next three months helping the transition for the new district leader, former Indian River County natural resources manager James Gray Jr., 40.

“It’s going to make for a seamless transition. We’re more involved with Indian River County because the natural drift of sand moves south, so it’s all southern-influenced,’’ Smithson said.

Gray will report to the five-member Sebastian Inlet District Commission, which includes recently-elected commissioners Chris Hendricks of Indian River County and Lisa Leger Frazier, a former Indialantic deputy mayor.

“Indian River County and the Sebastian Inlet District have worked together collaboratively for many years, so I’m very familiar with district operations,” Gray said. “Marty and the commissioners have completed a number of important and noteworthy projects, and I hope to build on that legacy.”

One of Smithson’s favorite projects in the district was working with Florida Tech to collect data annually to create a coastal model to better manage sand placement along the beach about three miles south of the inlet. Excess sand collected in an inlet sand trap is stock-piled on land just north of the inlet.

“Because of the concern about reefs, instead of dumping all our sand in a big chunk, we stretched it into a long, thin distribution,’’ he said.

His other top accomplishment was the 2008 completion of a 3,120-foot, 9-foot deep, 15-foot-wide channel extension connecting the inlet to the Intracoastal Waterway in the Indian River.

Water quality in the Indian River Lagoon – and what is needed to bring it back to good health – has become a hot topic that Smithson has experienced first-hand. He was the author of “Indian River Flats Fishing Guide” published in 1994, which sold more than 20,000 copies. He also served as director of the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program and as Indian River Lagoon program manager for the St. Johns River Water Management District.

The recent alarm over water quality and resulting fish kills, and the political nature of some of the discussions, concern Smithson greatly.

“This is where I have strong opinions. I think one of the most disappointing things about the crash that we’ve had is it has brought out too many agendas,’’ he said.

Smithson believes a “legacy load” of muck accumulated from 1950 to 1989 still hurts the lagoon. “There’s not near as much muck or sediments going into the system now,’’ he said.

In addition, the freeze in 2010 and related kill-off was catastrophic in terms creating a biomass “that turned into a huge release of nutrients that created a bloom in Mosquito Lagoon. We had a lush system up until them. The bloom kept spreading,’’ he said.

“It was a meteorological catastrophe. It wasn’t caused by septic tanks, runoff or sewage spills. It was a natural event,’’ he said.

On the positive side, the attention on the lagoon prompted “Brevard County to set the model as far as how to establish a science-based plan,’’ he said.

“They have to guard the money that’s piled up and I believe they should put it toward broad-scale habitat enhancement projects’’ like larger versions of the volunteer oyster mat program, he said.

Smithson says, given time, changes in regulations, and a successful restoration project, he is optimistic about the natural systems’ ability to recover. “Let’s go at it in a serious approach,’’ he said.

Beachsider correspondent Sue Cocking contributed to this report.

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