Mayor sees water quality project as Everglades model

Port St. Lucie Mayor Gregory Oravec is promoting the city’s $22.5 million McCarty Ranch water quality project as a model for Everglades restoration that could be replicated to address South Florida’s water pollution woes.

Oravec encouraged dozens of local government officials on the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council to consider investing in water quality projects within their boundaries to help fill the void left by the federal government.

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was enacted in 2000, but South Florida residents are still waiting for the federal government to catch up on $8 billion worth of projects, Oravec said March 15 during a planning council meeting. The Everglades restoration projects include several large reservoirs in Martin and St. Lucie counties along the C-44, C-23 and C-24 Canals that would store and clean polluted water before it flows into the St. Lucie River.

Lake Okeechobee discharges and stormwater runoff into the river have been blamed for toxic algae blooms that killed marine life, sidelined water sport enthusiasts and damaged waterfront property values.

The toxic algae crisis in the St. Lucie River last summer and fall made national headlines and dominated state elections.

But Congressional funding for the CERP projects has lagged, so Florida and local governments have been initiating their own water quality projects.

“I don’t think we can count on the feds rescuing us,” Oravec said. “Cities and counties are going to have to rise to this challenge … and if we’re going to win this fight, we’re going to have to do a lot more.”

Port St. Lucie spent $10.7 million in June 2014 to acquire 1,940 acres of the old McCarty Ranch property along the north side of the C-23 Canal, west of Rangeline Road, city records show.

Rangeline Road is the western boundary of the massive Western Grove, Riverland and Wilson Grove development sites.

The city plans to spend another $11.8 million to construct six reservoirs and an impoundment area along the C-23 Canal that will divert fresh water flowing toward the St. Lucie River and remove pollutants like phosphorous and nitrogen, city records show.

The city recently completed the first reservoir, which cost $1.7 million, city records show. Work is about to begin on the $3 million second reservoir.

The state provided $625,000 for the first reservoir and $2.7 million for the second, city records show. The city is also seeking money from the state Legislature to help pay for future phases.

The reservoirs will set the stage for the development of a new water treatment plant that will cleanse water from the C-23 Canal to meet drinking water standards, city records show.

Some of that water will be distributed for public consumption, city records show. The rest will be pumped into deep aquifer storage and recovery wells for future consumption.

Meanwhile, the CERP projects designed to remove pollutants from the C-23 and C-24 Canals in St. Lucie County are not up for construction until 2030, Oravec said. And even that date is not firm.

The city’s McCarty Ranch water quality project will treat only about 20 percent of the water flowing through the C-23 Canal, Oravec said. That means four more comparable projects will be needed to clean up all the pollution flowing in the C-23 Canal water.

“It’s not enough,” Oravec told the planning council members. “We’re going to have to do more of it. We have to do that in all of our basins. That’s the scale of this problem.”

Doug Bournique, an Indian River Citrus League official who serves on the planning council, said some of the 160,000 acres of former citrus groves on the Treasure Coast could be converted into water farms like the city’s McCarty Ranch project.

“The best crop we could put on that (citrus land) for the future of our Treasure Coast and on this peninsula is water,” Bournique said.

“We need to really be aggressive with doing projects just like this to keep the water out of the lagoon and provide a future water supply.”

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