Cracking the case of who smothered a Florida river

June 24, 2021 7:00 am

This is a river. Really. Trouble is, it’s become clogged with sand and invasive plants. Credit: Friends of the Wekiva River

I grew up in a family of mystery fans.

My grandfather owned all the Perry Mason novels and never missed the TV show. My great-aunt was head over heels for John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. My mom read everything Agatha Christie wrote about Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. I started out with Encyclopedia Brown, then graduated to Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, and Phillip Marlowe (and yes, Travis McGee).

So when I heard there was a big mystery brewing in Central Florida, I got all excited. I donned my battered fedora, cued up a playlist full of mournful saxophone music, and began poking around for clues.

Call it “The Case of the Vanishing River.”

The victim here is Central Florida’s Little Wekiva River. It’s not as famous as the Suwannee, but it’s pretty special. The Little Wekiva is part of a Florida and National Scenic and Wild River, an Outstanding Florida Water, and a state-designated paddling trail. It runs for about 15 miles, flowing northward from Lake Lawne.

Jeanette Schreiber, a lawyer for the University of Central Florida’s College of Health, has lived on the river for 15 years. In the area of Longwood where she lives, it used to be four or five feet deep, she said.

The Little Wekiva River before it silted up. Credit: Friends of the Wekiva River

Paddling along back then, “you looked like you were in a completely untouched landscape,” Schreiber told me. She’d see wading birds galore, otters, turtles, alligators, even deer and black bear hanging out by the riverbank.

But folks living by the Little Wekiva started noticing something odd a couple of years ago, according to Jim Adamski, a Valencia College geology professor who’s president of Friends of the Wekiva River.

He remembers being at a dinner party where the hostess commented on “all the sand in the river, and how it hadn’t been there before.” Every time the subject came up after that, he said, people talked about how “the situation kept getting worse and worse.”

The sand kept flowing in and filling in the riverbed, displacing the water. By the end of 2019, Schreiber said, “you couldn’t get a motorboat through there, and by January 2020, you couldn’t even get a kayak through.”

Now the beloved waterway that once coursed through the neighborhood is gone. The sediment “filled every nook and cranny of the river,” Schreiber said.

In that clump of thick sand grew a thick patch of non-native grasses — Caesar weed and castor plants, according to Adamski. The riverbed would be completely choked with thick weeds “if we didn’t walk through there from time to time with a machete,” Schreiber said.

I guess you could say that a hike down the old riverbed is a sedimental journey. (Sorry.)

This is not just bad news for the critters that once called the river home.

“For the people who live there and are used to having a river in their backyard where they could put in a kayak, it sucks,” Adamski said. Schreiber used stronger language, calling it “a devastating tragedy.”

While we’re drawing a chalk outline around this section of the river, one question arises: Who’s the killer? Who could be the waterway equivalent of Col. Mustard with the candlestick in the conservatory?

One clue to the murderer’s identity would be to look at the murder weapon itself. Who had so much sand — thousands and thousands of pounds of it — that it could thoroughly smother a wild waterway?

One suspect seems as obvious as a butler with blood on his hands: a government agency that’s been doing work in the area. I’m not going to name names, but its initials are “DOT” and it’s been working on something called “I-4 Ultimate” that involves a lot of sand.

“The rebuilding of Interstate 4 began in 2015, costing $2.4 billion, spanning 21 miles in Orange and Seminole counties and is slated to end this year,” the Orlando Sentinel reported in March. “Piles and fields of construction dirt are above and within hundreds of feet of the river.”

The witnesses to the killing — the folks living along the river — say the sediment began appearing shortly after work began on a segment of I-4 that’s just 400 feet away from where the river began clogging up. The neighbors have even documented how the sand could have gotten from the construction sites over to the river.

“We have videos showing the sediment-filled water going under the road and into the river,” Schreiber said.

There’s the method and means of the murder, right there. Case closed, right?

Well, not according to the DOT.

Some other DOT did it?

During the 1990s, I covered criminal courts for four years. I became conversant with the special lingo of law and order, encompassing everything from the “perp walk” to the “pro se defendant” (who has a fool for a client).

When accused of straight-up murdering the Little Wekiva, the Florida Department of Transportation employed what I used to hear prosecutors call a “SODDI defense.” The initials stand for “Some Other Dude Did It.”

The Friends of the Wekiva River wrote a letter to DOT officials this year about the buried river, spelling out their suspicions.

“We understand that the stormwater discharge structures for seven major I-4 Ultimate construction sites in this area are connected through underground pipes, and it appears that several and possibly all of these construction sites have been discharging into the Little Wekiva River throughout the project,” they wrote.

The top DOT official in the region, Jared Perdue, wrote back to say the sand must be coming from some other dude, or development, or agency, because it could not possibly be his agency’s fault.

It’s true, Perdue admitted, that the I-4 construction site has caused multiple sand-related violations, although he didn’t say it that clearly. Instead, he wrote, in the passive voice of someone trying to avoid blame, “There have been instances where turbid discharge has occurred.”

“Turbid” means “cloudy, opaque, or thick with suspended matter” — as in, full of sand and sediment.

Despite those instances, Perdue wrote, “Based on our observations and inspections we do not believe that the relatively small amounts of turbid water that was discharged from the project are the primary cause of the significant amount of sediment that has been observed in the Little Wekiva River.”

In other words, the DOT says the agency and its contractors only wounded the river. They’re not total villains — somebody else must have done the dirty deed. Well, gosh, what a convincing argument!

I contacted the DOT to question them further about this. I received an emailed reply from spokeswoman Allison Colburn that said:

“While the I-4 Ultimate project is currently compliant on environmental requirements, the department is committed to environmental preservation and will continue working with the various government partners and local entities to implement protection measures and monitoring practices that keep preservation of the Little Wekiva River a priority. The department stands ready to assist should any additional efforts be needed.”

It’s not as if the I-4 Ultimate project has been the ultimate in smooth-running operations, noted Charles Lee of Audubon of Florida. Workers have died in construction accidents. A major contractor went belly-up, causing a lengthy delay. The project has been plagued with cost overruns and disputes among the builders.

“It’s an Ultimate Transportation Nightmare,” said Lee, who was driving on I-4 while we talked.

As for the inspections cited by DOT, Lee said, a review of the quarterly reports shows that their checks have been spotty. Never do they inspect right after a hard rain, which is when a cascade of sediment goes tumbling into the Little Wekiva. When local residents complained about “turbid” runoff going into the river, inspectors showed up the next day — well after the event ended.

On second thought, maybe we should call this “The Case of the Missing Inspectors.”

Legally, though, the DOT may be on solid ground.

“They say they followed all the processes and procedures they’re supposed to follow,” Schreiber said.

But what if, she said, the procedures are so full of holes that they still allow harm to befall an innocent waterway?

It goes all the way to the top!

While I’m playing at being “Nick Danger, Third Eye” over here, the real investigators of this crime scene are supposed to be the St. Johns River Water Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. They should have been on top of this massive, and massively troubled, construction project all along.

But those two agencies’ enforcement staff and budget were slashed to the bone by former Gov. Rick “Jack the Ripper” Scott, whose focus was on promoting industry at the expense of everything else, especially the environment. They have become like the watchdog in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of Silver Blaze” — the one that fails to bark.

For those state agencies to get to the bottom of whose sand filled up the river bottom would require “DOT to grow a conscience and the DEP and the water management district to grow a backbone,” Lee said.

All of those agencies report to one person, Gov. Ron DeSantis, and most of the river-killing has occurred during his term in office. (In a movie, this would be the scene where the detective gasps and says, “This case goes all the way to the top!”)

DeSantis has never been a “buck-stops-here” kind of guy, so he’s unlikely to take the blame for what went wrong. Still, it would be nice if, instead of focusing on own-the-libs legislation that helps him run for national office three years from now, we could persuade our Fox-obsessed governor to jump on this important issue that’s going on right now.

The Legislature recently passed a bill that orders the state agencies to “study” the Little Wekiva’s cause of death without necessarily holding anyone to account for it. So far, DeSantis has not signed that bill into law, or even mentioned it in his various speeches about critical race theory and whether university leaders are all pinkos.

In the meantime, Schreiber and her allies are more focused on reviving their river than slapping the cuffs on the DOT.

Seminole County officials have put together a plan for dredging the sand out of the 7,000 feet of channel now clogged with sediment and non-native plants. The cost: $1.7 million. In the Friends of the Wekiva letter, the group invited DOT to help out.

“If FDOT can participate in a solution that helps improve the Little Wekiva River, we would welcome the opportunity,” Perdue wrote in his March letter.

I suppose signing a full confession and promising to help pay for the dredging would be too much to ask. But, as Schreiber pointed out to me, the state does need to figure out what went wrong or dredging the channel will just open the way for more sediment to clog it all over again.

After all, if it happened to the supposedly protected Little Wekiva, imagine what’s going on with other water bodies all over the state near construction sites governed by the same rules. This isn’t just a single murder — it’s one in a series of slow-moving crimes against nature.

“Once you’re tuned into this,” she said, “you drive around and see these big piles of sand at construction sites all over the place.” <Cue the mournful sax solo, fade to black.>

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.