INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — Michael Gallarano doesn’t understand why a state agency plans to dredge a section of the Intracoastal Waterway — one that appears to be deep enough already — and to pump the sediment into a seemingly oversized earthen basin under construction next door to his Sebastian area business.
“Why are we spending millions upon millions of dollars to develop something that apparently isn’t needed?” said Gallarano, owner of a health and education center on U.S. 1. “Why are we funneling money into dirt and not into our people, especially since we apparently don’t need the dredging?”
Gallarano is among dozens of Sebastian area homeowners who have questioned the need to spend nearly $5 million for the sediment processing facility and the dredging project at a time of financial stress for many taxpayers and governments agencies.
But David Roach, executive director of the Florida Inland Navigation District, which is working on the sediment facility and the dredging project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said both are necessary to keep the Intracoastal Waterway safe for boaters. Sand has washed into the waterway from the Sebastian Inlet causing the build up of shoals that threaten to impede navigation.
“We only dredge on an as-needed basis,” Roach said. “(The Intracoastal Waterway in) Indian River County is fairly stable except this north end that experiences input from the inlet as well as from the Sebastian River. Around ocean inlets it’s a hard sand shoal. Boats run aground. People get injured. Boats get damaged. It’s not a safe thing.”
The sediment facility known as IR-2 is one of three FIND plans to build in Indian River County, district records show. The others are on Indian River Boulevard, a half mile south of the city of Vero Beach; and at 4290 81st St., east of 43rd Avenue, near U.S. 1, south of Wabasso, FIND records show.
Neither of those other facilities are in FIND’s 5-year plan, Roach said. They will be built when the Intracoastal Waterway needs dredging in southern and central Indian River County.
But the Sebastian area homeowners argue the IR-2 sediment facility should not have been undertaken now either because a 2010 Army Corps survey shows the Intracoastal Waterway is at least 10 feet deep in northern Indian River County and doesn’t need dredging.
FIND’s report on channel conditions in the Intracoastal Waterway lists 12 locations where the minimum water depth is eight feet or less. None of them are in Indian River County.
“There are 12 areas where there are very, very shallow waters,” said Frank Marshall, another Sebastian area homeowner. “I don’t know why they’re not doing the areas of high priority dredging. That’s what bothers me. Why are they doing this dredging in the first place? It doesn’t make sense. Why pick on an area that’s pretty deep already?”
FIND and the Army Corps started construction on the Sebastian area sediment facility in February and expect to complete the nearly $3.2 million project this coming February, district records show. The $1.6 million dredging project is expected to start in late 2012, or in 2013, depending on whether the federal government helps pay for it, Roach said.
Here is a look at some common terms used by FIND and in Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers articles about the agency:
Dredged Material Management Area: A property used to process a mixture of sediment and water removed from the waterway during the dredging process
Shoaling: A buildup of sand on the bottom of a body of water that poses a hazard to navigation
Draft: Depth of the part of a boat that sits below the water
Containment basin: An earthen dike that receives a mixture of water and sediment dredged from a waterway, and allows the sediment to settle and the water to flow back into the waterway
Several members of the Concerned Taxpayers of Indian River County, a group of Sebastian area homeowners fighting the sediment facility, questioned how FIND determined the waterway needed dredging in northern Indian River County and why IR-2 is the largest sediment basin planned for the Treasure Coast.
They fear the sediment facility will smell bad, hurt property values and pose a threat to public safety if a major storm breaches the dike and sediment spills into the neighborhood, several homeowners said. They point to a 2006 spill in St. Johns County that covered a 54-acre wetland with arsenic-laden mud.
FIND is building a 46-acre basin on a 179-acre property, district records show. That’s nearly 50 percent larger than the 32-acre sediment basin FIND plans to build in 2012 or 2013 near the Okeechobee Waterway in Martin County.
“They bought a big huge place and in the end they don’t need that much,” said Hal Goforth, a Sebastian area homeowner. “It’s another waste of taxpayer dollars to overbuild something like this that costs millions.”
The Intracoastal Waterway in Indian River County hasn’t been dredged since 1957, district records show. The navigation channel is supposed to be 12 feet deep and 125 feet wide.
The homeowners argue the residential and commercial development that has sprung up since FIND bought the old Vickers Grove property in the late 1990s makes the location inappropriate for processing dredged sediment.
The homeowners have gone so far as to petition state lawmakers to halt the construction of the sediment facility and change state navigation laws to give local governments more say over the where the facilities are located.
The IR-2 site was relatively isolated when FIND bought it, Roach said. But the Indian River County Commission included the sediment facility in the county’s growth plan so the Sebastian area homeowners should have realized it would eventually be built.
The homeowners’ concerns about quality of life issues are unfounded, Roach said. And FIND has updated it’s basin design to prevent another spill.
“We’re going to be a good neighbor. We’ve always been a good neighbor,” Roach said. “We’re spending a lot of money to do this the right way. Our buffer areas exceed by 10 times what’s required in the code for industrial/commercial areas.
“What we find, even after we build these sites and use them, is our neighbors like the park-like atmosphere of the FIND properties with the buffers and the fact that we don’t use them much,” Roach added. “And when we do use them, all that’s in here is a pipe just with water running. It’s not construction equipment. So it’s really a quiet activity, and we find our neighbors for the most part just thankful that they don’t have other neighbors back there.”
FIND created spoil islands from material dredged during the creation and dredging of the Intracoastal Waterway in the Indian River Lagoon. Here is a look at the number of local islands:
Martin County: 4
St. Lucie County: 34
Indian River County: 49
After the upcoming dredging project is completed, the IR-2 facility is not expected to be needed for another 20 years, Roach said.
“It’s just a very slow sedimentation,” Roach said. “And with better storm water control that’s been occurring here in Florida, that sediment is not being flushed out through the Sebastian canal system from all that farmland out there or upland development. So we’re hoping that we’re going to have even less sedimentation going into that area.”
Roach said the size of the site is justified.
“We try to, if we can, get enough property to have the site big enough to handle 50 years of dredging before it becomes full,” Roach said. “So these are recycling facilities that will be there permanently.”
There is a three-mile stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway in northern Indian River County where build ups of sand shoals have rendered the navigation less than eight feet deep, the threshold for putting an area on the five-year dredging plan, Roach said. The rest is about 10 feet deep.
“We always knew from surveys just that northern three miles was the problematic area,” Roach said. “When the waterway is 8 feet we start cranking it into the plan because we don’t want to wait until it gets to 6.5 (feet) and the bigger boats start getting impacted. A tug boat requires 8 feet to push a barge.
Find out about dredging in the other
Treasure Coast counties:
Martin County – St. Lucie County
“If it’s not necessary to dredge, then we won’t,” Roach added. “We thought we were going to have more continued impact from the Sebastian River and the Inlet. There’s been some sea level rise and that helps us out. … So things aren’t as bad as we initially thought.”
Gallarano, who bought his property near the sediment facility 21 years ago from the Vickers family, said he’s among the Sebastian area residents that think too many things about the sediment facility seem fishy.
“I think most people are scratching their head saying, ‘It doesn’t add up,’” Gallarano said. “If the Intracoastal truly needed it, I know the people would be behind it, but apparently it doesn’t. If you’re squandering cash that way, then I think the public needs to know about it because we need to get a hold of our government representatives and make sure that we are not squandering money continually or in the future, especially at a time like now.”
Staff writer Alexi Howk contributed to this report