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10 Acres In, Wetlands Restoration Project Near Flagler Beach Is Still Kicking Up Turbid Opposition

| April 11, 2019

So-called Section A of the St. Johns Water Management District's wetlands restoration project, under construction, a project one opponent is terming 'wetlands degradation.' (SJRWMD)

So-called Section A of the St. Johns Water Management District’s wetlands restoration project, under construction, a project one opponent is terming ‘wetlands degradation.’ (SJRWMD)

Construction on the controversial $516,000 Flagler County Coastal Wetlands Restoration Project began on Feb. 13 on 100 acres of decades-old dragline ditches in the area of the Intracoastal Waterway, parallel to Gamble Rogers State Recreation Area and parts of Flagler Beach.

Like the “turbidity” it produces when an excavator demolishes and rebuilds the ditches as wetlands to how they might have looked like before the 1960s, the construction is kicking up a new round of controversy and dissatisfaction from homeowners near the project, who say buffers are being violated and acreage is being demolished beyond the original scope of the project.

St. Johns River Water Management Officials, whose agency is sponsoring the project, say disruption to ecosystems and turbidity have been kept to a minimum, and the project is progressing at the rate of 2 acres a week without a hitch. They’re posting drone video that shows the project under sparkling light. Residents are posting their own videos that in their view tell a different story, as do their own in-person observations.

In one case, turbidity barriers are within 40 to 50 feet of a homeowner’s property, well past the permitted zone. In another, turbidity barriers are closing homeowners’ navigation lanes,  “which is a violation of the permit,” Elizabeth Hathaway, a homeowner in the construction zone and a leader of the opposition, said, “so this impedes our navigation, it allows all this debris and muck to do flow in our buffer zone.”

The two sides unexpectedly clashed again, as they had on several occasions before the project began, when the St. Johns River Water Management District Board met in Palatka on  Tuesday and included an update of the restoration project on its agenda. One of the “stakeholders” who addressed the board conveyed his perspective starkly when he described the project as a “degradation project.”

According to Dave Watt, the Dave Watt, the district’s supervising engineer who updated the board, grading work began in mid-February, completing work in so-called sections A and L2, totaling almost 10 acres. The contractor is progressing at the rate of 2 acres a week. “A primary indicator for permit compliance is turbidity, so we take frequent turbidity measurements at the perimeter of the work area to compare to ambient levels. To date, all turbidity readings are close to ambient levels and well below the permit-compliance threshold. In response to stakeholder concerns, we’ve directed the contractor to revise the turbidity curtain layout to avoid as much as possible any activities in the buffer zones that were approved by the board.”

Watt showed drone-video footage shot on march 29 that showed the completed A section of the project: sparkling water, lush-green vegetation rimmed by white sands and narrow water channels in some places, not so narrow in others. He showed a picture the water management district has been showing for a while: a fisherman holding up a colossal redfish “caught near worksite.” To press the point, an excavator is in the background, across a strip of water. So is the Flagler Beach water tower.

Homeowners’ Video: Section L1, as of April 3

“Water quality monitoring also began before the contractor started to provide data on nutrients, chlorophyll a and other parameters on a monthly basis at five sites spanning the area. Oyster viability monitoring also began before the contractor started. Fish sampling in cooperation with FWC has begun and will continue on about a monthly basis.” Bird use is surveyed by Department of Environmental protection staff and volunteers, and plants and soil characteristics and fiddler crabs will be surveyed later this year.

The monitoring data is posted here. “To date the monitoring data have given no cause for concern,” Watt said.

Wetlands restoration is taking place along vast stretches of coastline from Cape Canaveral to Jacksonville. It is ostensibly returning the wetlands back to their original state after the failed experiment of the 1950s and 60s, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer dug miles of draglines and built fate mud piles in efforts to fight mosquito infestations–but destroying the landscape as it did so, and damaging or demolishing up to 80 percent of Florida’s coastal wetlands. The aim of the restoration is high-minded, but government projects in that particular regard don’t have a stellar history, and this particular project was carried out–based on what water management district officials said–principally because some money became available, they hunted for a suitable location, and they settled on Flagler’s southern portion.

The Flagler project, in other words, began on a spoil pile of mistrust. {Project construction is not dissipating the mistrust as much as stirring it up.

Sandra Elliott relied on writings by Rachel Carson, who is credited with originating the modern environmental movement, to point out concerns about DDT. Elliott says the district’s contractor never properly tested for DDT, digging only about a foot for its samples (which returned negative findings), rather than four feet. “We ask you to take a brief pause and reassess what has already been completed,” she told the board. “You did five tests with little to none results of finding DDT. ‘Little.’ That means there was some out there. But you didn’t go but 12 inches.”

Ricker Alford lives in the 5200 block of John Anderson Highway, on the Intracoastal. He holds a general contractor’s license and a boat captain’s license. He’s often on the water, often in turbulent zones: he’s in emergency management and disaster relief, managing aftereffects of oil spills and hurricanes. He’s long opposed the wetlands project: he’s the one who calls it a “degradation project.” On Tuesday, he told the board that “now I have no doubt you’re destroying this diverse ecosystem.” He spoke of the restoration experts he and others opposed to the project engaged to analyze it. “They backed us up with science and education,” he said.

Click On:

“Now that you started the project, this degradation project, our worst nightmare has come true. It looks like it’s strip-mining out there. I don’t see how that’s going to do this ecosystem. I’m sure you’ve done projects in other areas, maybe where it’s needed. But this one wasn’t needed. I’ve never seen such mismanagement of a project in my life. Complete havoc on the wildlife. I think the board should come out and see for themselves as a new area is ripped into and see just how invasive this project is.”

Alford addressed the board on Tuesday. On Thursday, construction workers altered the turbidity barrier’s boundary, moving it to within 40 to 50 feet of his property line.  “They’re supposed to stay 500 feet outside of our property. They might not be doing construction there in this turbidity barrier, but they do have a new map showing where they were supposed to be put,” he said. The barriers were to be much further out. The timing of the barrier’s move made him suspicious.

“They may be trying to intimidate, harass me, that’s possible,” he said, describing boats used by the contractor idling and revving their engines in front of his property line. But he also thinks that the barriers are being moved for a different motive: to stop people like him and others from getting closer to the project and shooting video.

“I think you really made a mistake here and I don’t think you guys will ever admit to making one mistake,” Alford told the board. “I just wish you took a good look at what’s going on here and at least had more supervision at the site.”

Five people,  all opposed to the project, addressed the management board on Tuesday. But the project hasn’t been without its ardent supporters outside of the management district, among them the Friends of Gamble Rogers. An email from Paul Haydt, president of the Friends organization, written last week, made its way to Interim County Administrator Jerry Cameron’s inbox. Haydt was “aware of the continuing efforts to discredit the Flagler Saltmarsh Restoration and halt the project,” he wrote. “After almost two months of active management efforts the project has produced none of the turbidity plumes, algae blooms, fish kills, crushed oyster beds and clam habitats, toxic DDT releases and bird kills that were forecast by a small group of private interests and propagated by a disturbingly effective Facebook social media scare effort.”

Haydt added: “As deeper dragline ditches are shallowed up and spoil is returned to saltmarsh elevation there is a resulting significant increase in marsh and wading bird habitat.  This is directly related to increased estuary productivity, particularly fisheries production. […] Quite frankly I believe we need respected environmental voices in the community to have first hand knowledge of what is going on rather than just taking my word or accepting ‘Facebook science.'”

Opponents, however, contend that they have not based their concerns on whims but on analysis by experts of their own–and on first-hand observation. (The full response to Haydt from the “Concerned Flagler Beach Saltmarsh Community,” with attachments, is here.)

Open Waters Created By the Project, as of April 3

Property owners have also been troubled by what they describe as the elimination of their navigation channels, now that the project has buried former islands. That’s striking property owners as contrary to the project’s aims, since one of those aims is to rebuild wetlands and create more robust barriers to flooding.

“One of the main topics of this restoration was to eliminate open water. I get it, eliminate open water because that can become a concern for flooding,”  Matt Hathaway said. “Less open water, less filtration. I understand that concept. When you go to section L1, the east side, all the vegetation has been removed. We sent you guys a video. I can show you guys pictures as well. There’s nothing. On a high tide, it is nothing but open water. And I thought the goal here was to eliminate open water. I get it. If vegetation grows back two years from now, three years from now, four years from now, we may have less open water in that area. But for the time being, high tide, specifically flood tide, heaven forbid a weather event, there’s nothing but open water in that specific area. And that’s just a little fraction of this area.”

Hathaway acknowledged that other areas approximate wetlands better. But not in L1. “The whole concept of this it’s almost like archaic, was destroy it and then hope it grows back,” Hathaway said, unwittingly rephrasing an American major’s famous phrase after the military’s 1968 leveling of Ben Tre in Vietnam: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” (The town was ultimately lost.)

There’s another consequence to the wetlands re-construction.  “Our channels aren’t marked anymore,” Alford said. “We can still get around on the highest tide but even then it’s impossible not to be hitting aground on the islands that they took away, that aren’t marked.”

Betty Ledyard summed up the state of the project from the two perspectives–that of the water management district, and that of the homeowners: “It was a pretty good looking video you showed us, but I have to tell you: we are living it, and it doesn’t look that pretty. You have your truth, and we have ours.”

The board had no questions or comments after the half hour of discussion and public comment.

6 Responses for “10 Acres In, Wetlands Restoration Project Near Flagler Beach Is Still Kicking Up Turbid Opposition”

  1. Hammock Bear says:

    Where does the EPA stand on this issue?

  2. Elizabeth Hathaway says:

    They are currently reviewing things. They were out at the project site yesterday and said they have a lot to look into.

  3. Fredrick says:

    So we screwed it up once now we doing again. And why are we wasting the money. According to the liberals the world is ending in 12 years and because us humans have ruined the climate the entire county will be under water soon anyway.

  4. Sandra Elliott says:

    My concern is man is destroying mankind. They did find DDE but they only went down 12 in and only on five locations. They need to retest now and do it according to environmental study recommendations of 4 feet and do several locations. They are supposed to protect our waterways not destroy them and all I see is destruction. They are not replanting. That is a fact. All we ask is that they slow down and retest because if there’s DDT there then we all are going to have problems with the wildlife. Especially are beautiful birds. Write a letter to DeSantis. Ask him to look into this. Also, the latest findings on global warming is stated that the scientific studies done on Antarctica have been completed and they are suggesting that the rising water level will be five times greater than originally thought. You can do that on PBS the entire series. We’re all going to have to build stilt houses.

  5. Edman says:

    Fredrick, sarcasm about climate change and thinking it is a liberal only issue shows how very little you know about it. Will you be as amused when we have to spend trillions of dollars to stem the impacts? Why can’t we heed the facts and start rationally addressing the inevitable problems of climate warming?

  6. Beach bum says:

    Yes the A.C.E. Messed up in the 50s with there mosquito control ditches, it’s taken almost 70 years of natural tidal flow to make a makeshift thriving ecosystem and now you destroy that in hopes of returning it to a more natural state? News flash it will never go back to a natural state, there is one giant ditch they dug your leaving out of the equation, it’s called the innercoastal waterway! Stop this madness

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