Since the late 1800s the Florida Legislature had the goal of draining the swamps in the southern area of the state and "reclaiming lands" for agriculture use and development. As time progressed, this dream became reality but turned into a nightmare particularly here, in Stuart, Florida…
In the 1920s and before, the local Chamber of Commerce had wanted the canal from Lake Okeechobee to attach to the St Lucie River and they fought for its location, as they saw it as an opportunity to build their local economy through the timber, cattle and agricultural industries, as well as giving boaters access across the state through Lake Okeechobee. Once this goal was achieved in 1923, there was even a celebration in Downtown Stuart, with the local marching band.
Within one year, the locals saw a change for the negative in their beloved river and its once "best in the state" fishing. Stuart News editor, Ernie Lyons had always been against the connection, but he now began prolifically writing about the "destruction of paradise," and a local group of business leaders and residents were formed to fight for change.
Unfortunately, there was no turning back and the Army Corp of engineers continued to enlarge the canal for flood control as well as add other canals. In the late 40s and 50s the C-23 and C-24 were added to drain what is now St Lucie county for the citrus industry. Ironically, these waters used to flow into the St Johns River basin. The problem was getting worse instead of better.
In the 1990s, the St Lucie Rivers Initiative presented a "St Lucie River Report to Congress" noting especially the toxic ooze a the bottom of the river that is up to 23 feet in some areas and begging the government for reform. In the end, after great hope and many promises, the document was basically ignored.
Today the St Lucie River is hit with polluted freshwater discharges in both its north and south forks with excessive runoff from both agricultural and residential development. This pollution includes fertilizers, pesticides, chemicals as well as septic runoff and other pollutants.
So it is clear that groups have been fighting for change since the 1920s to restore the health of the river, and the group that holds that baton today is the Rivers Coalition.
In May 1998, distraught business & environmental groups gathered and formed the Rivers Coalition knowing the importance of the estuary to the local economy. In 2004 and 2005 three hurricanes hitting the area caused extensive releases and again decimated the river. The Rivers Coalition responded to public outcry and made a determination that after 10 years of focus groups, committee participation, water quality reports, legislative initiatives and a dying estuary, it was time to consider a lawsuit.
The Rivers Coalition Defense Fund was formed as a 501c3 non-profit entity to raise the funds need for a mounting a lawsuit and to establish a core group of task force members to take legal action. The lawsuit against the federal government was filed in the mid 2000s by the Defense Fund. The releases from the lake were considered a “takings” of personal river front property. The Defense Fund did not win; in 2007 the judge handling the case cited the “statute of limitations.” The lawsuit was not in vain as unfortunately legal action is the mode of operates for change in our times and was the case highly publicized locally, and on state and national levels. The pressure was on for change.
Today, the Rivers Coalition continues to educate the public, exchange in dialogue with state and federal agencies, and advocate "sending the water south," so as not to waste the millions of gallons of fresh water that go to sea through our estuary and most important to send it south to the Everglades where it is needed and nature intended. This is complicated as the Everglades Agriculture Area is directly south of the lake. But we will prevail.
Currently, the Rivers Coalition represents 80 member organizations and is served by Co-Chairs Mark Perry, Nicole Mader, Darrell Brand, George Jones and Jim Moir.