By Erika Webb
Whose pollution is it? And which level of government is responsible for the imperiled DeBary Bayou?
The need for cleanup has been the source of many discussions in recent years, but officials are hard pressed to determine who will pay.
At a DeBary City Council workshop Feb. 7, U.S. Rep John Mica, R-Winter Park, addressed local, state and federal representatives along with area residents, saying the city will have to take the lead.
The bayou, a channel running from Gemini Springs in DeBary to the St. Johns River and Lake Monroe, is choked with vegetation and mired in sludge, prohibiting boating, kayaking, swimming and resulting in diminished wildlife in the area.
Development-induced stormwater runoff is to blame, according to a 2012 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report, which highlighted the problems of water runoff from urban development and certain spring water elements.
Interstate 4 runoff was not identified as a primary source of the pollution, according to Rep. Mica's website where it also was asserted that no thought was given to long-term damage increased by original construction of the highway's berms and "earth structures that blocked natural flow to the bayou."
"The study did cite that a dramatic increase in surface water runoff was a major contributor to the deterioration of the water's quality," the website noted. "With these findings it is now important that local and state officials establish their priorities for both cleanup and restoration."
State Rep. David Santiago, R-Deltona, committed to try to solicit state funds in the amount of around $250,000 to contribute to a $1 million remedy study, but at the next rung down Volusia County Councilwoman Pat Northey said the county is not in a position to assure a contribution.
The rest of the money for the study, and the eventual remediation, will have to come from the city, Rep. Mica said.
Kenny Knapp, a real estate investor who lives in DeBary, called the workshop a dog and pony show.
"They brought maintenance people in to fill the chairs," he said in a phone interview after the workshop. He questioned why it was held at 8:15 a.m. when "most people are at work."
"I think they're trying to sneak it through on the people," he said referring to the burden of cleaning up the bayou.
He had words for the DeBary council members and Congressman Mica.
"I told them I didn't see where it was viable for the citizens of DeBary living in $50,000 houses to foot the bill for people who live in those condos," Mr. Knapp said, adding, "I told Mica you're a Republican, but you sound more like a liberal to me. I don't think he liked it."
Residents and conservationists feared escalated pollution when development near Gemini, namely the River Oaks Condos, was proposed in the 1980s.
A battle was waged and conservation lost.
"It was poor planning on the county's part," Mr. Knapp said.
His ancestors came to Volusia in the 1860s by way of covered wagon, he said. That and the fact he pays taxes on a primary residence and several rentals in DeBary makes him a stakeholder with a lot to lose if the bayou problem is bequeathed to taxpayers who had no hand in creating it.
"Whether it was a back door deal or what, I don't know," he said of waterfront development. "We've suffered the same thing with stormwater issues from Glen Abbey and DeBary Reserve."
Other residents have told Congressman Mica they want water pollutants, silt and debris removed, and these steps must be part of any restoration plan, his website states. He's also calling for the development of a long-term plan to protect and keep the bayou from future pollution.
In the short term, water management and new drainage systems must be reviewed, according to the website.
Following the release of the Florida Department of Transportation commissioned study of the area by the Corps of Engineers in 2012 several newspaper articles reported dialogue similar to that at this month's workshop.
The problem is well publicized. The pollution persists.
Mayor Bob Garcia, in a phone interview after the workshop, said he is more than willing to lead the crusade.
The city will submit a letter to the Corps of Engineers regarding the city's concerns about I-4's contribution to the problem.
"In their review, they say no; I say yes," Mayor Garcia said of I-4 culpability.
"I don't think the City of DeBary caused it," he added, opining the highway and the way the bridge was constructed restricted water movement.
Determining how to bring back the natural flow of water and whether or not dredging will be necessary to restore the area are the first steps.
County Councilwoman Pat Northey agrees.
"If you are familiar with the interstate as it crosses the bayou, and if you look at historic maps of the same area before the interstate was built, you can see that the water flow has been reduced to the creek that runs under the interstate," she wrote in an emailed response to questions.
"There is little flushing action. It will be important to address that as the ultimate widening plan for I-4 is crafted," she wrote. "Much like we did at Rose Bay, the causeway was opened up and allowed the bay to flush more naturally. That is part of a long term solution."
In the short term, she noted, cleaning out the muck and dredging will help.
Mayor Garcia is willing to discuss the issue with others, he said. "I personally believe the only way this project is going to work is with all partners on board -- federal, state, St. Johns (water management district) and Volusia County."
The mayor has been discussing the issue since 2002, he said.
"Restoration would be a huge economic boost to DeBary, which is considered 'the other river city,'" he said. "Back in the 80s, people were able to fish and there was plenty of wildlife out there at Gemini. There's none now."
The way he sees it, SunRail, the Spring to Spring Trail and the area's natural resources make it prime for opportunity, inviting bike shops, bait and tackle shops, restaurants and might even "entice corporations to come in from Orlando."
Mayor Garcia said the city cannot commit financially until the council and staff look more closely at what needs to be done and what other funds are available. But he's optimistic.
He pointed to federal funding for water restoration, corporate sponsorships for grant funding and other resources which are available, once a plan of action is devised.
"But there's a time line," he said. "St. Johns has a very narrow door for applying for funds."
As for the impact from residential development, the mayor acknowledged its effects.
"Whenever you develop next to environmentally sensitive land, you're going to have some impact no matter how careful you are," Mayor Garcia said.
With a "crawl before you walk" philosophy in hand his immediate priorities are to examine corrective measures, costs, funding sources and safeguards against further disruption of the ecosystem.
"We are moving forward," he said.
Councilwoman Northey explained nutrient loading is another long-term factor to consider.
At Rose Bay, the nutrient loading was reduced by eliminating septic tanks, she noted.
"The water coming out of Gemini Springs has some high nutrient numbers, but the springs are just the vessel for the water flow, they are not the cause," she wrote. "The issue of taking people off of septic and putting them on sewer, to affect long term change in the bayou, can't be overlooked."
No County Council discussion regarding its role in the solution has taken place, she stated.
"Once the city determines a course of action and how much they will commit to the project, then we can have a discussion at the council about any involvement or investment we would be willing to make on behalf of the taxpayers, city and countywide," she wrote.