In the western reaches of Port St. Lucie, the McCarty Ranch Preserve is a destination for locals seeking a quiet day of fishing at its picturesque lakes.
Or, perhaps, they come to McCarty Ranch for horseback riding and bicycling along one of its rugged waterfront paths. Local children will tell you it's the place to take a hayride among the pines during the City's annual McCarty Ranch Bonfire.
And while this 5,100-acre, City-owned property, is a recreational gem, it also has the potential to be much more. It could play a large role in protecting one of the Treasure Coast's greatest assets - the St. Lucie River and the Indian River Lagoon.
The health of our waterways has become a high-profile concern for many PSL residents, especially after last summer, when Florida Gov. Rick Scott issued an emergency declaration following massive algal blooms in the St. Lucie estuary. As the summer rainy season approaches once again -- and the potential rises for damaging freshwater discharges into the River - the health of our local waterways is at the forefront of the Port St. Lucie City Council members' minds.
And, they believe, a major water storage and treatment project at the McCarty Ranch Preserve should be an important part of the solution to keeping our rivers clean and healthy. The City Council unanimously agreed to make this project one of its top three priorities for this Spring's legislative session in Tallahassee.
The City Council has asked its legislative delegation to request up to $8 million needed to complete the McCarty Ranch Extension Water Quality Restoration project. When completed, this project will keep approximately 9 billion gallons of water from entering the North Fork of the St. Lucie River each year.
"The McCarty Ranch property is a win-win opportunity," said Port St. Lucie Mayor Gregory J. Oravec. "We can address water supply, water quality, withholding freshwater from the estuary, recreation and eco-tourism in one location as part of the same project."
Reduce polluted discharges by up to 21 percent
The project at McCarty Ranch would take about 1,871 acres of fallow citrus grove and convert it to a shallow water storage and treatment facility. Every year, this project is anticipated to keep up to 21 percent of nutrient-laden discharges from the C-23 Canal from entering the North Fork of the St. Lucie River.
"While we wait for the greater and more complex fixes to Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, we can take meaningful action to help the river at the local level today," said Jesus Merejo, Director of Port St. Lucie's Utility Systems Department, which is in charge of the McCarty Ranch water project.
The City appreciates the efforts of state leaders who also see the value in this project. State Rep. Gayle Harrell has agreed to present a request to the Florida House of Representative this session for consideration of funding for Area 2 of the water quality/ restoration/storage project. The City is seeking $180,000 for the design and $900,000 for the construction of Area 2. The South Florida Water Management District last year awarded the City a $200,000 construction grant for Area 1.
The design for Area 1 has been submitted to the water management district for permitting. Upon receipt of the permit, the project construction contract will go out to bid. Once the contract is awarded, construction of the Area 1 basin is projected to begin in September or
Ultimately, the entire project will consist of seven reservoirs that would remove up to 89,721 pounds of Nitrogen and 18,471 pounds of Phosphorous from the water annually. The water would be filtered of nutrients and sediments as it winds its way through the property, and would eventually provide the City with an alternate source of water for its drinking supply.
Searching for other solutions
Meanwhile, as the City seeks funding for the McCarty Ranch project, it is searching for solutions to the Rivers' problems in other ways. Last summer, the Port St. Lucie City Council authorized a microbial tracking study in the North Fork to find sources of pollution.
The City began this microbial tracking study in June 2016, after the Department of Health issued health advisories about the levels of microbial bacteria in the North Fork of the St. Lucie River. Water samples from the "wet season" were taken in June, July and August of 2016. The next phase of "dry season" sampling began in February 2017. More "dry season" samples are scheduled to be taken on March 16, 2017 and April 13, 2017.
This study is a collaborative effort between the City of Port St. Lucie, St. Lucie County, St. Lucie County Department of Health and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The goal of the City, with the Microbial Source Tracking Study, is to identify potential areas of concern, come up with a comprehensive plan and focus resources on special projects to improve water quality and preserve our rivers.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is currently reviewing the data collected last year. The results of the complete study are expected later this summer after all the water samples have been tested and analyzed.
"We need to truly know and understand the problems so that we can then tackle them with informed solutions," Oravec said. "The City has been fighting for our rivers at the local level for the last 20 years through one of the largest septic tank conversions in the country, building hundreds of acres of storm water treatment areas, and carrying out several other programs, and we are ready to do even more. We can't afford to wait any longer."