Florida city’s sewer plant to save the Blackwater River may make pollution worse

Decision on site will affect both future development and leaping fish

December 29, 2022 7:00 am

Sunset over the Blackwater River in Northwest Florida. Credit: Pam Mitchell

The Blackwater River holds a special place in my heart, because it’s the one Florida river where I very nearly drowned.

I was a kid, and my Boy Scout troop was camped on the riverbank. I was wading across the river when the current snatched my feet out from under me.

At the last second, just before I was washed away forever, I grabbed hold of a rope that the troop had stretched across the river to mark the boundary of the swimming area. When my Scoutmaster heard what happened, he was horrified and immediately taught me the rudiments of swimming.

I was back up in the Panhandle recently, so I stopped off at the Blackwater River, the namesake of both Blackwater River State Park and Blackwater River State Forest. My tour guides were Pam and Jerry Mitchell, whose house overlooks those tannin-stained waters in Santa Rosa County.

They told me it’s the Blackwater River that’s now about to drown.

Drown, that is, in pollution from the city of Milton, Santa Rosa’s county seat, which has plans for building a new multimillion-dollar sewer plant near the river.  The Mitchells are leaders of a civic group that fears the plant will ruin the river and its inhabitants, which include an imperiled marine species.

Santa Rosa County environmentalist Pam Mitchell kayaks the Blackwater River. Courtesy of Pam Mitchell

The goal in building a new sewer plant is a worthy one, the Mitchells said.

“They want to get people off of septic tanks, which is a good thing,” Mrs. Mitchell told me as we jounced around the backwoods in her Ford F-150.

The problem, she and her husband said, is with the 24-acre site that’s been chosen for the new sewer plant. While it’s zoned for industrial use, the as-yet-undeveloped property lies on a serious slope that rolls down toward the river.

The city’s own engineering report says the elevation drops from 90 feet at the southeast corner to about 15 feet at the northwest corner. That’s the kind of a slide that a bobsledder would love.

Believe it or not, one city press release claimed the site was “on high ground, averaging 75+ feet.” That’s like shooting a movie with Dany DeVito (4-foot-10) and Shaquille O’Neal (7-foot-1) and saying the entire cast “averages” around 6 feet.

Much of the site is covered in clay that the Mitchells say is likely to erode come stormy weather. The couple showed me one nearby gully that’s about 30 feet deep. And according to the city’s own engineering report, about a quarter of the property consists of wetlands.

The Mitchells fear that in a heavy rainfall the sewer plant will fail and wind up dumping its nasty pollution load straight into the river they have grown to love.

The Mitchells’ civic group, Milton’s Concerned Citizens, has been raising a lot of sand about the clay, the erosion, and the possible damage to the river. They’ve got signs that say, “Save the Blackwater River.”

But when I talked to Milton’s city manager, he told me that that’s just what the new sewer plant will do: Save the Blackwater River.

Subversives versus the fugitive

Politics in Santa Rosa County tends to be rough.

I once interviewed a former Santa Rosa official who’d survived four attempts on his life. One involved a bomb that blew up his mobile home. He joked that he had no trouble getting life insurance because nobody could kill him.

I bring this up because the relations between Milton City Manager Randy Jorgenson and the Mitchells’ organization are not exactly cordial. I think Russian President Vlad “Bare-Chested Horseman” Putin and Ukraine comedian-playing-president-turned-actual-president Volodymyr Zelensky get along better.

Milton City Manager Randy Jorgenson. Courtesy Randy Jorgenson

In October, Jorgenson gave an 82-slide (!) PowerPoint presentation that attempted to refute everything ever said by the Mitchells and their allies. On slide 81, the city manager accused the Mitchells’ group of being “subversives” who are out to “sabotage infrastructure critical to our entire county’s future.”

“It made us sound like a terrorist group,” Mrs. Mitchell objected.

In response, the Mitchells and their allies dug up a 2003 Delaware newspaper story about Jorgenson’s brief tenure as the planning director for a city in that small state. The story was headlined, “Dover officials fire planning director,” followed by the startling subhead, “Police obtain fugitive warrant for Jorgenson.”

That is not the kind of headline you often see regarding municipal employees, even in Florida.

The Jorgenson version of “The Fugitive” was not as exciting as Harrison Ford’s. According to the story, Jorgenson had been charged in a domestic violence case but had failed to show up in court and thus faced a warrant. He turned himself in and pleaded guilty.

Meanwhile, he’d been fired after eight months on the city payroll because he hadn’t shown up at work for a couple of weeks. You can see why an employer might take a dim view of that kind of behavior.

Yet, somehow, he landed a position as the head planner in Milton and then became city manager in 2018 when his predecessor was fired.

A Milton’s Concerned Citizens member named Lauren Cooper — more about her in a minute — revealed Jorgenson’s Dover firing and arrest to council members during a meeting. She then outlined several other potential ethical infractions and demanded the city manager resign.

Instead of offering a defense, Jorgenson got up and walked out. Shortly afterward the city official running the proceedings adjourned the meeting early.

Jorgenson and I had a long talk on the phone this week, and at one point I asked him why he’d basically fled the council meeting rather than defend himself.

“I’m not going to be defamed for something that occurred decades ago,” he told me. “I won’t sit and allow them to do just that.”

I didn’t quibble with his use of the words “defamed for” when clearly what he meant was “reminded of.” Still, the past is part of the problem facing the sewer plant — not Jorgenson’s but the Cooper family’s.

Moonshiners and plumbers

Lauren Cooper, a former Milton police officer, is concerned about a different part of the sewer project. It’s the part she fears will tear up her family’s small cemetery.

The sewer site is in a section of the Blackwater River known as Cooper’s Basin. That area was once so full of Cooper family members that it was known as Cooperville. There’s a Cooper cemetery there with 32 graves, some dating to the Civil War.

“I come from a long line of moonshiners,” Ms. Cooper told me the day I saw the cemetery. “Then they became plumbers. They decided to use their copper tubing to make a more legitimate living.”

Building the sewer plant won’t require digging up the cemetery, which sounds like a plot that part-time Florida resident Stephen King might dream up. But the plant isn’t the only thing that will be under construction in Cooper’s Basin.

As part of its sewer project, the city is planning something called Rapid Infiltration Basins, or RIBS for short. I personally prefer my ribs barbecued. These RIBS are basically big ponds where the treated effluent from the plant will wind up.

The RIBS for Milton’s plant will be scattered around the Cooper Cemetery, and so Ms. Cooper is worried about how they might affect her family’s last resting place.

In case you were wondering, RIBS are A-OK with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. But one study done in Delaware (hello again, little state!) showed that RIBS didn’t stop the pollutants nitrogen and phosphorous from winding up in nearby waterways.

Which brings us back to the pollution of the Blackwater River, which is generally regarded as one of the most pristine rivers in the Southeast.

Maybe that’s what attracts the sturgeon.

A leaping prehistoric fish

If you like your fish big and scary looking, you should take a gander at a Gulf sturgeon. They’re armored like a prehistoric creature and grow to be 9 feet long.

They’re classified as a threatened species thanks to overfishing, dam construction, and loss of habitat. While they live part of the year in the Gulf of Mexico, they swim upstream into eight rivers every spring to spawn. Like Goldilocks, they wait until the temperature, flow, and pH levels are juuuust right.

An unidentified NOAA scientist holds a Gulf sturgeon. Courtesy NOAA Fisheries

Their best-known spring spawning site is the Suwannee River, where nearly every year you hear about a leaping sturgeon knocking some speeding boater silly. (I picture manatees hanging near the riverbanks, cheering them on.)

But it turns out Cooper’s Basin on the Blackwater River is a spawning site as well. Federal biologists have counted up to 700 of the armor-plated fish in the basin in one season.

And that’s 4,000 feet from where the sewer plant is slated to be built.

For now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has classified the sewer project as “likely to affect, but not adversely affect” the sturgeon population.

What that means is that they don’t know enough about sturgeon to say that the effluent will be bad for them, according to Mrs. Mitchell, who has spent some time catching and tagging the massive fish with one of the biologists.

Instead, the feds are requiring the city to monitor the water quality in Cooper’s Basin for 10 years to see if the Milton Citizens’ Council’s dire predictions come true. If they do, then the plant must be shut down.

Of course, if that happens, it will likely be too late to save the sturgeon.

Tossing a lifeline

Although they’re now bitter enemies, Jorgenson once advised Mrs. Mitchell to run for mayor. But they differ on how it happened.

Mrs. Mitchell says Jorgenson had a city employee drive him out to her house so he could lobby her to run, hoping to turn her into someone he could manipulate. She declined because she had already committed to backing someone else.

Jorgenson, on the other hand, says Mrs. Mitchell asked him if she should run and he said yes, but only because that’s what he says to everyone interested in becoming a candidate.

Although they disagree on everything, possibly including the color of the sky, they both expressed a similar goal: A clean river.

Milton’s existing sewer plant was built some 60 years ago, when the city’s population was about 4,000 people. Now it’s home to more than 10,000 and still growing.

The sewer plant has the capacity to treat 2.5 million gallons of waste a day. It sits downtown, 100 yards from the Blackwater River. That’s where it dumps its treated effluent, too — right in the river.

The Mitchells don’t think much of the DEP (“useless,” according to Mr. Mitchell). But Jorgenson cites the DEP as a driver for the city’s plant plans. Milton is under orders from DEP to remove 50 percent of its effluent from the Blackwater River by the end of 2023 and the rest by the end of 2025.

But the city doesn’t need to build a new, 8 million-gallon-a-day sewer plant to obey that order. It could simply redirect the effluent to some RIBS and meet the DEP requirement.

Here’s what’s really going on. The existing plant is nearly at capacity. That means it can’t accept any sewage connections from new development. And heaven knows we can’t disappoint the developers in Florida!

The city has been acting like the DEP deadline for ending its effluent-dumping means there’s no time to give careful consideration to an alternate site for its sewer plant. But that’s not the case.

There’s another publicly owned 100-acre parcel that the Mitchells contend would make a more appropriate site for a new sewer plant. Jorgenson contends that site has too many potential problems to take the suggestion seriously.

The city manager argued that the city knows how to counteract the erosion problems in the area. And he said the city wouldn’t have gotten grants from federal and state agencies to build its new plant if those agencies weren’t OK with the chosen site.

But when I asked him if anyone from those state and federal agencies had actually visited the site, Jorgenson said he didn’t know.

It seems to me that Milton’s drive for a new sewer plant at this site is being rushed along by big developers who are more worried about their bottom line than about the future of the Blackwater River.

I think the city should look for a way to quickly comply with the DEP order to revamp where it disposes of its effluent. But then it should also look for a better, less-sloping, less-likely-to-erode site for its sewer plant. Maybe pick one that’s not going to threaten either the river or its leaping, armor-plated inhabitants.

And if the developers don’t like it, urge them to put up the millions of dollars needed to cope with the growth they’re generating. Right now, Milton seems to be drowning in new development. Maybe some of the people causing that could toss the city a lifeline.

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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. 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.