Vero residents living along Bethel Creek say water birds, marine mammals and other wildlife have vanished from the picturesque waterway in the aftermath of a 3.2-million-gallon sewage spill that occurred in mid-November.
They believe the pollution is lingering and fear that city and county authorities are not taking effective action to clean up the creek or warn fishermen and boaters about dangers posed by high levels of bacteria.
“It seems that the contaminated creek is not a high priority with anyone who doesn’t live along it,” said Mike Johannsen, who lives at 4506 Bethel Creek Drive. “That’s a shame. When I look out my window at the eastern edge of the creek where there is a seawall, all I can see at low tide is a 2-foot band of poop.”
Lou Dessart and Bob Prizito, who have homes on Bethel Creek Drive, took their concerns to the county commission, which told them it was an issue for the county office of the state Health Department. But when they went to the Health Department they were told by Environmental Specialist Charles Vogt that the department isn’t responsible for dealing with the problem because Bethel Creek is a “Class III” body of water, which he said means it is not for recreational use.
Vero Beach 32963 got the same response from Department of Health Media and Marketing Manager Devin Galetta – even though the waterway is used regularly by kayakers and fisherman and is lined by residents’ docks where expensive boats are tied up.
“I was rather insulted by that,” said Dessart, “considering they are responsible for health and the dangerous bacteria in the water.”
According to warnings issued shortly after the spill, the creek was so contaminated that anyone who touched the water was advised to immediately wash their hands to keep from being sickened by human fecal bacteria.
Two weeks after the spill, water from the creek tested by an independent laboratory found bacteria levels 100 times higher than what is considered healthy.
As a student volunteer with an environmental group, Lou Dessart’s son, Benjamin Dessart, has been taking Bethel Creek water samples for four years.
“I’ve never seen it like this,” he said, pointing out particles floating in the water and lack of clarity.
Following post-spill Florida Department of Environmental Protection requirements, the city is taking daily water samples at five spots in and near the creek, and Rob Bolton, head of Vero’s Water and Sewer Department, agreed water quality is still poor.
“We need to keep on testing Bethel Creek if people are using the water recreationally,” Bolton said. ”They should know the dangers are higher back here than in open water.”
After the spill, the city hung water quality warning notices on the front doors of people living along the creek and contacted nearby businesses, but since then no additional warnings have gone out.
After hearing about resident’s concerns, Bolton promised to post warnings at the Vero Beach Marina and behind Bethel Creek House, where there is a small beach on the creek bank within a few yards of where the sewage poured into the creek. People often launch kayaks and dinghies at that location and in October a local church held an hour-long service there during which children were baptized in the creek.
Bolton is also looking into aeration technology, which has revived “dead-end” bodies of water similar to Bethel Creek. He said aeration oxygenates the water, enlivening good bacteria that eat bad bacteria, and stirring up the muck so that bacteria-killing ultra-violet rays in sunlight further clear the water.
The sewage spill, which was the fourth largest along the Indian River Lagoon in the past two years, came to light on Thursday, Nov. 16 when residents complained of a foul odor along Bethel Creek, an inlet that connects to the lagoon near the city marina north of the Barber Bridge.
After a reporter called the city to check on the cause of the smell, Bolton investigated and discovered the broken line.
A repair crew of city employees and contract workers hired to help with the emergency managed to enclose the ruptured pipe in a sleeve that Bolton says is working well to keep most of the sewage in the pipe until a permanent fix can be engineered.
It is a challenging task. The corroded, 12-inch cast-iron pipe, which Bolton says is more than 50 years old, continues to carry sewage from thousands of households and the repair site is wedged tightly between Highway A1A and a massive retaining wall.
Bolton plans to wait until recent king tides recede and the water table drops before making a permanent repair so that excavation at the work site will not be instantly flooded.
“We only have four to five hours [to make the repair] before sewage starts backing up into people’s houses,” Bolton said, so it will be at low tide when only limited de-watering is necessary, allowing the work to proceed quickly.
The DEP sent the city a warning letter about the spill that requires Bolton to explain how the spill happened and what the city is doing to prevent another one. He said because the spill was due to an unforeseen accident and the Vero is not a repeat offender, the city likely will not be fined.