Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate what has caused the Little Wekiva River to badly silt up in Seminole County.
Murphy sent a letter Tuesday to EPA Administrator Michael Regan. She requests a federal inquiry similar to a state probe being triggered by a bill pushed through the Legislature this spring by Republican state Sen. Jason Brodeur and Republican state Rep. Keith Truenow. Their effort, which wound up getting approval in Truenow’s HB 727, calls for various state agencies to study the river’s problems.
Now a parallel probe is being sought from federal investigators.
“I respectfully request that the Environmental Protection Agency investigate the surrounding area for potential Clean Water Act violations,” Murphy submitted to Regan.
The Little Wekiva River and its sister waterway the Wekiva River run through western Seminole and Orange counties. Naturalists and kayakers flock to them. The rivers were designated national Wild and Scenic Rivers. They also receive special state protection designated under Florida’s Wekiva Aquatic Preserve.
Yet in the past couple of years, sediments have filled a stretch of the Little Wekiva north of State Road 434. Sediment and invasive plants choke the riverbed. Stretches once four feet deep are reduced to puddles. Blocked runoff swamps surrounding forest. Spreading water threatens nearby homes with flooding.
“The degradation of the Little Wekiva River hurts our local ecosystems, endangers the safety of our community, and threatens our economic future,” Murphy stated in a news release. “I asked the federal government to swiftly examine what is occurring, determine if federal laws are being violated, and take appropriate action to restore the river and hold those responsible accountable.”
Little Wekiva preservation advocates raised strong suspicions that the river was being wrecked by sediment runoff from the construction of a $2.3 billion overhaul of Interstate 4 through greater Orlando that the Florida Department of Transportation is overseeing. The river runs within a hundred yards of the construction site, and downstream from that point is where the river is most seriously suffering from siltation and invasive plants.
FDOT officials insist the project is not doing anything that would cause such problems.
Murphy’s letter to Regan suggests that someone other than Florida officials ought to check.
“Many local advocates believe that construction on a major, federally-supported highway project less than 100 yards from the Little Wekiva River could be the main source of severe sedimentation discharge into the river. The Clean Water Act and its implementing regulations require that operators of certain construction sites obtain coverage for their stormwater discharges under a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit; develop a Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan or a Stormwater Management Plan; and put measures in place to prevent discharges of pollutants in stormwater runoff,” Murphy wrote.
“However, the permits for this project indicate that several of the multi-acre highway construction sites are connected through underground pipes that discharge into the Little Wekiva River. Following various reports of discharge in fact flowing into the river, local authorities and residents have submitted various complaints to the permitting agencies. Although inspections have taken place, I believe the extent of the ecological damage warrants an investigation by the EPA,” she added.
Brodeur welcomed Murphy’s request for a federal probe, suggesting people have been waiting for Washington to respond.
“Our residents deserve answers and that’s what we’ve been able to accomplish here at home. Washington has kicked this can for a while now, so I’m hopeful they’re sincere in their effort and not just dangling campaign promises to folks who deserve more,” Brodeur said.
Brodeur’s legislation requires the Department of Environmental Protection, in consultation with the St. Johns River Water Management District, Seminole County, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and the Department of Transportation, to conduct a study and issue a report to identify the sources of the sedimentation and to detail water quality improvements that could be achieved. The bill calls for the report to be completed by the end of 2021.