Florida rivers' low profile puts them at risk

paddle down the Wekiva River in Longwood, Fla. ( Gary W. Green/Orlando Sentinel Photographer)

For an imaginary moment, swim with Hueland Todd Brown as he descends into a deep, caramel-colored river, feeling his way with his hands and hoping nothing bites.

Brown lives by the Choctawhatchee, a wild river that coils through remote forests in the Florida Panhandle and is so much a part of him that he can taste its freshness in the meat of its fish.

Many Floridians, however, don't know what the nearest river even looks like, which rivers their septic tanks bleed into, which ones gag on our lawn fertilizers and dog messes, and which must swallow our storm water. That disconnect, say environmental scientists and advocates, is killing Florida's rivers.

"Informing people about fertilizer on their lawns, about cleaning up after their pets, would be really good," said John Fauth, a wetlands scientist at the University of Central Florida. "But that's hard when the river's not right where they can see it."

Brown is not disconnected. The 44-year-old is from a family of river people, and he resents the houseboats that flush their toilets into the "Choc" and despises the loggers who cut timber right up to the water's edge, so that tan mud washes into the river.

His welding shop overlooks river wetlands where he hunts boar. He's also a "deadhead logger," salvaging trees felled by ax as far back as the Civil War. Most were floated to a sawmill when first cut, but some sank, are still well-preserved and now worth quite a lot as lumber.

He finds such trees 10, 20 and 30 feet down in the river while tethered to a rope and breathing from a tank. Brown subconsciously monitors the push and pull of currents, registers light and dark while seeing little detail, notes temperature undulations, ignores the tickle of sand in his ears and generally knows the underwater environment with all of his senses.

In more-populated places, Floridians often don't realize that rivers run beneath their feet every day — mangled, confined in concrete and steadily gathering pollution.

Waging war on trash

Through much of the 20th century, many Florida rivers were turned into canals to whoosh away rain runoff, also known as storm water. Feeding those canals are drainpipes running under neighborhood streets.

One such pipe, 8 feet in diameter, collects storm water from 539 acres in a part of Orlando that includes Colonial Drive, Fern Creek Avenue, a shopping center and the city's Colonialtown North neighborhood.

The storm water ghosts along that pipe 24 hours a day — because Florida is wet, rain or shine — but it is often a slop of cigarette butts, plastic bottles and other trash, including, for a while, brightly colored balls escaping from a McDonald's PlayPlace about a mile away.

Like many cities, Orlando wages ongoing war on such filthy water, financed largely by a $120-a-year stormwater fee paid by each of its homeowners. The city has installed more than 100 serious contraptions to remove such trash, including centrifuges, sand filters, baffle boxes and the Lake Rowena Screening Facility.

Built in 1994, it's an enormous bunker 24 feet deep. At the bottom is that 8-foot-diameter Colonialtown drainpipe, built in the 1970s. The bunker's builders cut it open and fitted it with a conveyor belt of screens and combs.

Every year, the conveyor rakes up 200,000 pounds of "anything and everything" that drops into gutter drains, said John Evertsen, a city stormwater manager. After passing through the screening facility, Colonialtown's storm water spills into Lake Rowena at Leu Gardens, then goes on to the Winter Park Chain of Lakes, Howell Creek and the St. Johns River.

That's just one route Orlando's storm water can take. The city takes in the beginnings of four other waterways: Wekiva River to the northwest, Econlockhatchee River to the east, Boggy Creek to the southeast and Shingle Creek to the southwest. There's a place along State Road 408 where rain falling on the north side of the expressway drains to the Wekiva River and could go all the way to the Atlantic Ocean at Jacksonville — while rain on the other side flows south to Shingle Creek and could wind up in the Miami River.

Pollution you can't see

So what begins in Orlando has a snowball effect: Storm water progressively gains volume and contamination.

Few people know that better than Deborah Shelley, manager of the state's Wekiva River Aquatic Preserve. In the early 1990s, she led volunteers in tearing down 36 squatter cabins on islands in the Wekiva. The nice ones had balconies and buried steel drums for sewage.

The motivated volunteers in that hand-labor demolition restored the river's scenery so remarkably that Shelley now needs old photos to find where cabins once stood. But she and others feared even then that bigger challenges "you can't see" loomed ahead.