Sand buries Little Wekiva River, residents suspect I-4 construction

Emptying into the main Wekiva River, the north-flowing Little Wekiva is beset with chronic pollution and now, erosion troubles from housing and road construction in Seminole County.
The Wekiva River system, including springs, tributaries, wetlands and forest, has been crowded by metro Orlando and suburban Lake County, making it one Florida’s most costly and challenging environmental treasures to protect.
The Wekiva River system, including springs, tributaries, wetlands and forest, has been crowded by metro Orlando and suburban Lake County, making it one Florida’s most costly and challenging environmental treasures to protect. [ HELLE, KEN | St. Petersburg Times ]
Published Feb. 21, 2021

ORLANDO — Just where it begins to blossom as a treasured wilderness waterway, the Little Wekiva River is being obliterated by invading dirt.

The onslaught for at least a couple of years has clogged the Little Wekiva’s channel near the residence of the former owner of Katie’s Landing canoe outpost, who had used her waterfront home to launch thousands of paddlers.

With the channel completely blocked, river current ladened with sediment is threading outward in countless rivulets and torrents, depositing sandy soil in wetlands of cypress and sweetgum forest, home to black bears and barred owls.

“It’s really a travesty,” said Deborah Shelley, who was the manager of the state’s Wekiva River Aquatic Preserve from 1987 to 2017. She noted that pollution from sewage and fertilizer holds the river system’s health under chronic distress. But the mass of eroding soil gorging and displacing the Little Wekiva is unsurpassed in her memory as a single act of harm.

“It is one of the most devastating events that has happened to the Wekiva over the years,” Shelley said.

The Wekiva River is one of two rivers in Florida with a federal Wild and Scenic designation. The Wekiva system, including springs, tributaries, wetlands and forest, and crowded by metro Orlando and suburban Lake County, has been one Florida’s most costly and challenging environmental treasures to protect.

Eventually flowing into the main Wekiva River, the north-flowing, 15-mile-long Little Wekiva River has been beset with erosion troubles from housing and road construction in Seminole County and as far upstream as far as Pine Hills in Orange County. Sections of the river have been channelized, adding to erosion woes.

The state, counties and cities acknowledged those problems decades ago and have cooperated extensively to address the wandering river’s vulnerabilities.

What triggered the sudden erosion assault on the Little Wekiva – after so many years of prevention measures – has been linked by residents using stormwater maps, aerial images and video recordings to the adjoining overhaul of Interstate 4.

After a year of those residents and the Friends of the Wekiva River environmental group sounding the alarm, state agencies have been begun to marshal what so far is a tentative and limited response to what could turn out be significantly or largely the fault of a state construction project.

The $2.4 billion rebuilding of I-4 in Seminole and Orange counties began in 2015 and has been marred by worker deaths, cost overruns, a year of delay and builder infighting.

Construction left an expanse of bare earth and mounds of fill dirt about a football field’s length away from the Little Wekiva River northwest of the I-4 and State Road 434 interchange.

“I don’t think it’s going to be hard to demonstrate where the sand came from,” said Jeanette Schreiber during the few minutes it took to hike from the edge of I-4 construction along a steep drop to the river.

Schreiber has lived next to Little Wekiva wetlands for 13 years and watched the river degrade from barely able to float a kayak a year ago, to having almost no flow by last summer to being essentially a barren hiking trail by fall.

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“It had been a full-blown, wide, flowing river 5 feet deep” at the end of a walk leading to what had been the water’s edge, Schreiber said. “It’s definitely quiet now. None of the birds want to be here, with the river and their food sources gone.”

Much of the Little Wekiva, from its source in Orange County to S.R. 434 in Seminole County, is sandwiched by subdivisions and roads. From S.R. 434, the river passes a scattering of rural homes — Schreiber’s is 600 feet away — and rapidly becomes swaddled with heavily forested, deeply shadowed wetlands as it plunges into the greater Wekiva River wilderness.

Seminole County is attempting to launch a $1.7 million restoration project to clean out more than mile of clogged river channel where it begins its emergence as a wilderness.

“I was shocked,” said Kim Ornberg, manager of the Seminole County Public Works Watershed Management Division of her inspection of the Little Wekiva.

Ornberg said county staff is working with state agencies to determine funding and methods to repair the river along 7,000 feet of channel and across a total area of 20 acres.

The clogging of the river has been accompanied by explosive growth of invasive plants, which often occurs with insults to Florida’s natural environments. The repair is to remove dense patches of para grass, wild taro, primrose willow, water hyacinth and others.

The effort does not hinge on determining what caused or how to stop the incoming flood of sediment. “I don’t think we can really wait until a study is done.” Ornberg said.

An aggressive state probe and possible penalties over the smothering of a river and its wetlands would have been more likely up until a decade ago.

Under Gov. Rick Scott during his two terms from 2011 to 2019, the state’s water regulation districts and environmental agency were diminished in will and ability to enforce wetlands violations.

The Little Wekiva River disaster also means the Florida Department of Environmental Protection or the St. Johns River Water Management District may find wrongdoing on the part of their sister agency, the Florida Department of Transportation, as it struggles with I-4 construction, its most costly job ever.

Saying the problem should have been fixed already, the chairman of the Florida Senate’s environment committee, Sanford Republican Jason Brodeur, has offered an alternative approach, one that would de-emphasize traditional regulatory investigation.

He filed a bill that would require the state’s environmental department to join with the state’s water and wildlife agencies to “study” and “consult” over what he described as an ecological disaster.

“It’s obvious that the situation requires immediate action,” Brodeur said in a statement.

“The quickly accumulating sediment appeared after construction began on a portion of I-4 less than 400 feet from the Little Wekiva,” Brodeur said. “While the cause is still unknown, the bill directs the Department of Environmental Protection to consult with the Department of Transportation to identify the source of the sediment and report on potential means for remediation of the waterway.”

The legislative session for considering Brodeur’s bill starts in a month. While passage is uncertain, the bill states that a report is to be written by the end of this year. Whether a legislatively ordered study would derail traditional investigation is unclear.

“Since it’s a collaborative effort between agencies, and not criminal matter, ‘study’ is the more appropriate term from a statutory perspective,” Brodeur said of his approach.

Officials at the St. Johns River Water Management District, which regulates drinking water and wetlands protection, said their agency is probing the I-4 builder’s adherence to environmental permits.

Brad Purcell, an environmental manager at the St. Johns River Water Management District, said the investigation concerns the performance of erosion-prevention measures and does not encompass a larger quest to comprehensively document the source of the enormous amount of sand clogging the river and to determine who should be accountable.

The Friends of the Wekiva River sent an extensively detailed letter to state authorities in January about the plight of the Little Wekiva. Many state and local officials have since visited the river and noted the damage from invading sediment.

But Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Alexandra Kuchta said her agency was only “recently notified of possible sediment accumulation” in the river.

“When conditions will allow, DEP will be conducting an inspection to determine the source of the sediment. Any non-compliance issues identified will be addressed through appropriate enforcement,” said Kuchta, who added that allowable conditions meant during a future storm when I-4 erosion controls will be observed.

But much of the bare-earth conditions of construction, along with stockpiles of sand and fill, are coming to an end as the project nears completion at the end of the year.

Asked if the I-4 project was the source of sediment damming the Little Wekiva River, Florida Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jessica Ottaviano issued a statement, saying her agency “is currently reviewing the newly filed bill regarding the Little Wekiva River. At this time, FDOT has not been made aware of a connection with this bill and the I-4 Ultimate project.”

The interstate’s building team, I-4 Mobility Partners and SGL Constructors, said the department of transportation was responding on its behalf.

Schreiber, who can no longer launch a kayak near her home, said action is urgently needed to stop the swift clogging of the river and adjoining wetlands as soon as possible.

Schrieber, the chief legal officer for the University of Central Florida College of Medicine, said a lawsuit is one option for fixing the river. “I definitely think there is a legal path here but think about how long that takes,” she said.

She led a walk along the sand-packed channel – an unsettling sight that is difficult to register as the remains of the Little Wekiva – to where the blockage relented somewhat and current was still knee deep at the edge of the home of Katie Moncrief.

With her now-deceased husband, Moncrief owned and operated Katie’s Landing off State Road 46 at the Wekiva River from 1974 to 2001. The canoe outpost is now part of Wekiwa Springs State Park.

Moncrief glanced down from her deck at the increasingly shallow river. “I used to be able to dive in,” she said. “We aren’t blaming I-4 as the source of the sand. It just is.”

Seminole County Commissioner Lee Constantine and Audubon Florida’s Charles Lee, both members of the Wekiva River Basin Commission, are cautioning that a deep understanding of what’s causing the invasion of sand should be a top priority for a successful rescue of the river.

Lee said an unwanted outcome of a less informed approach could usher sand farther downstream to the Wekiva River.

“We do not want to cause any unintended consequences,” Constantine said.

Audubon Florida owns a 650-acre mosaic of Wekiva River basin parcels called the Wekiva Buffer Conservation Area.

Nearly 50 acres of Wekiva Buffer are within a parcel closely connected to the Little Wekiva. It had belonged to Russ Fisher, a founding member 40 years ago of the Friends of the Wekiva River who is now deceased.

His daughter, Julie Fisher, lives near Moncrief and across from the 50 acres of wilderness that her father acquired in the early 1970s. Since before the purchase, there has been a weathered, wooden footbridge between that parcel and the family’s home property on the east side of the river.

For the nearly 50 years of the Fishers’ presence, water beneath the bridge was always about 6 feet deep, enough for kids and adults to jump in. About three years ago, sand began a noticeable onslaught, Fisher said.

The river beneath the bridge is inches deep now.

“I can’t believe there is no river,” Fisher said. “You have to see it to believe it. It’s so disturbing.”

- Kevin Spear, Orlando Sentinel