So-called Section A of the St. Johns Water Management District’s wetlands restoration project, under construction, a project one opponent is terming ‘wetlands degradation.’ (SJRWMD)

10 Acres In, Wetlands Restoration Project Near Flagler Beach Is Still Kicking Up Turbid Opposition

FLORIDA - Construction on the controversial $516,000 Flagler County Coastal Wetlands Restoration Project began on Feb. 13 on 100 acres of decades-old dragline ditches in the area of the Intracoastal Waterway, parallel to Gamble Rogers State Recreation Area and parts of Flagler Beach.

Like the “turbidity” it produces when an excavator demolishes and rebuilds the ditches as wetlands to how they might have looked like before the 1960s, the construction is kicking up a new round of controversy and dissatisfaction from homeowners near the project, who say buffers are being violated and acreage is being demolished beyond the original scope of the project.

St. Johns River Water Management Officials, whose agency is sponsoring the project, say disruption to ecosystems and turbidity have been kept to a minimum, and the project is progressing at the rate of 2 acres a week without a hitch. They’re posting drone video that shows the project under sparkling light. Residents are posting their own videos that in their view tell a different story, as do their own in-person observations.

In one case, turbidity barriers are within 40 to 50 feet of a homeowner’s property, well past the permitted zone. In another, turbidity barriers are closing homeowners’ navigation lanes,  “which is a violation of the permit,” Elizabeth Hathaway, a homeowner in the construction zone and a leader of the opposition, said, “so this impedes our navigation, it allows all this debris and muck to do flow in our buffer zone.”

The two sides unexpectedly clashed again, as they had on several occasions before the project began, when the St. Johns River Water Management District Board met in Palatka on  Tuesday and included an update of the restoration project on its agenda. One of the “stakeholders” who addressed the board conveyed his perspective starkly when he described the project as a “degradation project.”

According to Dave Watt, the Dave Watt, the district’s supervising engineer who updated the board, grading work began in mid-February, completing work in so-called sections A and L2, totaling almost 10 acres. The contractor is progressing at the rate of 2 acres a week. “A primary indicator for permit compliance is turbidity, so we take frequent turbidity measurements at the perimeter of the work area to compare to ambient levels. To date, all turbidity readings are close to ambient levels and well below the permit-compliance threshold. In response to stakeholder concerns, we’ve directed the contractor to revise the turbidity curtain layout to avoid as much as possible any activities in the buffer zones that were approved by the board.”

Watt showed drone-video footage shot on march 29 that showed the completed A section of the project: sparkling water, lush-green vegetation rimmed by white sands and narrow water channels in some places, not so narrow in others. He showed a picture the water management district has been showing for a while: a fisherman holding up a colossal redfish “caught near worksite.” To press the point, an excavator is in the background, across a strip of water. So is the Flagler Beach water tower.

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