By Dinah Voyle Pulver
A long-awaited study on water quality and flow problems in DeBary Bayou shocked Congressman John Mica and local officials and residents Friday by concluding Interstate 4 is among the least of the bayou's problems rather than the chief cause.
The major source of the muck that lines the bottom of the bayou and makes it difficult for boats to navigate between Gemini Springs and Lake Monroe is pollution from development and stormwater runoff, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported in a study released during a meeting in DeBary Friday afternoon.
"It was pretty surprising that Interstate 4 doesn't appear to be the source of pollution," said Mica, R-Winter Park.
Larry Cain, a resident of River Oaks, a tree-shaded community nestled along the bayou, put it more bluntly.
"Everybody was blown away by that," Cain said.
The River Oaks Homeowners Association and others have voiced concerns about the bayou for more than a decade. River Oaks residents and others have maintained -- and those at the meeting Friday continue to believe -- that I-4 and later modifications to a highway ramp cut off the water flow and allowed sediment to build up.
But Sarah Miller with the Corps said their study found that was not the case. Among the other problems she mentioned were the spraying of invasive water hyacinths along the bayou and the high bacteria counts in water flowing from Gemini Springs, the same problems that forced the spring to be closed as a public swimming area years ago.
DeBary Mayor Bob Garcia said considering all the vehicles on the highway and all the stormwater runoff from the road it was "very hard to believe" I-4 wasn't more of a problem.
Miller said the land around the bayou went from 60 percent forested in 1973 to 5 percent forested in 2004.
The report presents a list of recommendations community officials could consider to try to rectify some of the problems. The list includes dredging to remove the muck on the bottom of the bayou, improved treatment of the abundant storm water from the city that flows into the bayou and different treatment of the water hyacinths. Miller suggested the hyacinths could be removed rather than sprayed with herbicides, which kills the plants and causes them to sink to the bottom, creating muck that competes with fish for oxygen in the water as it decays.
The storm water is a particularly vexing issue for Mica because millions of federal and local dollars have been spent in the community in recent years to get floodwaters out of the landlocked city and into the bayou as fast as possible.
Now, if it appears that storm water adds to the bayou's problems, Mica said maybe something can be done to clean up the water more before it is released into the bayou.
"If it's only a couple million we ought to do it and do it right so we're not adding to the problem in the future," he said.
Septic tanks from homes in the area could also be contributing to pollution in the spring water, Miller agreed when asked, in addition to any lingering remains of the cattle farming that once took place on the land before the county and state bought it and created the park at Gemini Springs.
A variety of city and county officials and others in attendance Friday pledged to investigate potential solutions and ways to pay for those solutions and meet again in three or four months.
Mica and Volusia County Council members Frank Bruno and Pat Northey compared the problems in the bayou to the problems that occurred in Rose Bay. In that case, engineers concluded the construction of U.S. 1 was a major problem. Over more than two decades the city of Port Orange and other local and regional officials worked with Mica and the federal government to replace septic tanks, improve stormwater treatment, realign U.S. 1 and finally dredge the bay. That work was completed last year.