By Dan Harkins
DEBARY - A half-century ago, Interstate 4 was laid across Lake Monroe, shrinking the Padgett Creek tributary that feeds the verdant DeBary Bayou from 500 feet across to just a 30-foot-wide channel under a bridge.
For at least a decade, residents have complained about watching the 10.5-square-mile bayou's stagnant waters slowly becoming choked with muck and invasive plants. The ecological transformation caused by I-4 was responsible for how boating became restricted to just those late-summer months when the water was at its highest level.
But the highway's not the chief culprit. According to a recently released U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study, runoff from surface water, leeching from a preponderance of septic systems in the area and nutrient-loaded water gushing from Gemini Springs are the true culprits - making a solution to the problem a lot more complicated than earlier hoped.
"I wish it were that simple," said Sarah Miller, the Army Corps engineer who authored the report. "I wish I could say, 'Here's the problem. Let's remove it and everything goes back to its pristine condition.' But it's not that simple."
Ms. Miller presented the report to residents, elected officials and bureaucrats recently during a roundtable discussion about restoring the bayou at DeBary City Hall. Most in attendance were shocked by the findings.
"That's hard for me to accept," said DeBary Mayor Bob Garcia. "...To me, it appears the water there is very stagnant. It's not moving as quickly as it was. Forty years ago, you could see the water moving through there. Now I don't see it."
County Councilwoman Pat Northey said a report done before the county began restoring Rose Bay in Port Orange a decade ago discovered that Interstate 95 was just as responsible for stagnation and muck as runoff and septic tanks.
"It's hard to believe that there's not at least some impact from this highway," Ms. Northey said.
But Ms. Miller stuck by her study. DeBary went from being 10 percent urban and 60 percent forested in 1973, she said, to 40 percent urban and 5 percent forested today.
"That, in my scientific opinion would have much more impact," Ms. Miller said, than narrowing the channel that feeds the bayou.
The study recommends several general courses of action: redirecting stormwater runoff from 67 pumps leading to the bayou to clean it of sediment, pollutants and nutrients before it reaches the bayou; improving water quality and reducing nutrient counts on the bayou itself; addressing water quality problems at Gemini Springs to reduce bacteria; removing invasive plants from the bayou, instead of killing them and letting them form more muck; dredge the main channels in DeBary Bayou to levels that once supported a healthy fish and wildlife population.
Congressman John Mica, R-Winter Park, who convened the meeting, said he was skeptical about the study's findings but not surprised.
"I grew up in South Florida," he said, "and I saw what they did with urbanization. We paved everything down there and then everybody wondered what happened to the Everglades."
Rep. Mica urged the Army Corps now to study the effect and preponderance of septic systems on the bayou. He also urged county and city engineers to start discussing tangible ways to follow the report's recommendations over the next several months. He said the group would meet about in three or four months.
"We can't change the world," he said. "We can't alter the ecology, but we can fix small parts."
David Hamstra, DeBary's stormwater engineer, said after the meeting that of the 600 acres that feed into the bayou, about 75 percent of that is residential property using septic systems.
To divert stormwater and treat it before reaching the bayou would cost about $5 million. It would cost another $15 million or so, he said, to place the homes in the area on a central sewer system.
And even then, he said, DeBary contributes less than 5 percent of the runoff that makes its way to the bayou from the St. Johns River.
"Even if we cured the stormwater and spring water issues, the other impacts from the larger area would be so overwhelming that we couldn't resolve problem," he said.
Some residents believe much of the problem could be solved by simply dredging the vegetative muck that's been allowed to collect at the bottom over the decades.
Charles Gray, a retired attorney and long-time DeBary resident, said he's watched since 1969 as state wildlife officials have sprayed the invasive water hyacinths on the bayou, which then die and settle to the bottom.
"Dredge now and maybe 80 percent of your problem would be solved," Mr. Gray said.
Ms. Miller agreed that excessive vegetative muck is among the top five contributors to the bayou's problems.
Resident Steven Bacon formed the DeBary Bayou Restoration Committee shortly after he bought his home in the River Oaks development about six years ago, overlooking both the bayou and I-4 beyond. He'd hoped to further his love of boating, but it hasn't gone so well.
One recent afternoon, he stood on a landlocked dock that he says can only be used a few months out of the year.
"If I jumped in right now, I'd be up to my chest in dirty muck," he said. "It's just not navigable any more. Look at it. It's either all dried up or it's like quicksand."