by Jeremy Morrison
As an August rain blankets Pensacola, the waters of Carpenters Creek race by muddy and wide, rifling past logs and debris. Briefly pooling at a dam made from a naked Gatorade bottle, faded Whataburger cup and collection of other upstream drifters.
“It smells like sewage,” comments Brenda Kenimeh, as she surveys the creek running through her backyard.
The property owner describes how Carpenters Creek is eroding her yard. She tells Emerald Coastkeeper Laurie Murphy how the water has munched into her property seven or eight feet.
“Did you have land all the way out to where?” Murphy inquires, cataloging the scene on her clipboard.
“Oh, past this tree right here,” Kenimeh points a little ways into the creek. “And when it rains it just gets eaten away.”
This has been a problem for a while. Especially since land upstream in the Carpenters Creek watershed has been cleared to make way for development. Since then, more stormwater runoff has been rushing into the creek, increasing the flow and raising the levels of sediment, nutrients and pollutants washing into the water.
“Turbidity, the color of the water, and the fact that you can’t penetrate down, that’s a problem,” points out Barbara Albrecht, watershed coordinator for the University of West Florida’s Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation, motioning to the chocolate milk-colored creek.
A few days later, Murphy, who heads up the local branch of the larger Waterkeeper Alliance environmental organization, discusses the underpinning issues impacting Carpenters Creek. She points out that the surrounding area, the watershed, has seen considerable development in recent years. Land has been cleared, natural buffer zones have been disappeared.
“Over there at Bayou and Davis,” Murphy explains, “you have had tremendous construction over the last couple of years.”
This development has come at a cost. Carpenters Creek is losing its natural buffer, a buffer which previously served to filter stormwater before it entered the creek.
“There’s no other place for the water to go other than the watershed,” Murphy says, offering a quick primer on stormwater, describing how the runoff gathers steam as it washes into local waterways — “the water is cohesive, it looks for its little brothers and sisters, other water.”
The coastkeeper details a few measures she feels could improve the current situation. Like amending local development codes to protect such watershed areas with off-limits riparian zones. And requiring larger developments to implement a buffer zone. Or broadening the types and sizes of trees that are currently offered protections, or encouraging the reduction of impervious surfaces such as the fields of parking lots in the area.
A few conversations with local officials within the city of Pensacola and Escambia County haven’t been entirely encouraging. While the county does have designs to tap some oil spill funds for restoration work on Carpenters Creek, Murphy says she found local governments tend to focus on “a lot of constraints on solving the problem” — constraints like private property rights along the creek — and lean toward economic development interests over environmental concerns.
“They do not understand when you develop you have to take several things under consideration, and that includes the watershed,” Murphy said.
In an effort to spur a conversation about the condition of Carpenters Creek and the under lying issues feeding that condition, the coastkeeper wrote to city and county officials this week.
“This is not the first letter,” Murphy’s laughs the morning after firing off her Sept. 7 missive.
The coastkeeper’s recent letter details the condition of Carpenters Creek. It dives into the clear-cutting, the logjams, the flooding, the erosion, the increased risk of mosquito-borne illnesses thriving in the stagnate pools.
It also recommends potential remedies. Like creating an environmentally protected riparian zone that extends up to 300 feet from the water’s edge. And offering financial incentives for developments to install pervious pavement.
Murphy also waded into the realm of economic development, and how such interests sometimes collide with environmental concerns. She referenced Mayor Ashton Hayward’s 2012 Green Initiatives report and requested clarification about how the report, as well as the city’s tree ordinance, which serves to protect certain trees, played into urban development.
“We all like economic development, we all want to make Pensacola great,” Murphy explains after sending her letter. “But there’s got to be a balance.”
The coastkeeper sent this week’s letter in the afternoon. That evening she heard from both Hayward and Escambia County Commission Chairman Grover Robinson.
“Grover has been very helpful,” Murphy says, explaining that the chairman is pushing a county RESTORE project, which uses oil spill penalty money, aimed at restoring Carpenters Creek.
But the chairman also told her that much of the multi-jurisdictional watershed fell to the city of Pensacola. On that front, Mayor Hayward was apparently politely vague.
“His response was ‘thank you very much, I’ll have my team look into it,’” Murphy says.
Hayward has yet to reply to a request from this publication for comment about this issue.
One city official that is anything but vague when it comes to the issues surrounding Carpenters Creek is Pensacola City Councilwoman Sherri Myers. She’s been concerned for quite some time.
“We have allowed development along that creek that should never have been allowed,” Myers says. “And people wonder why we are flooding, why won’t the creek cooperate?”
After a recent clearing in the watershed to make way for another development, the councilwoman joined Murphy for a walkabout. They surveyed the site of Airport and Davis Development, Phase II.
“It’s just horrible. It’s just horrible, that’s all I can say,” Myers relays. “It’s just a lot of clear cutting.”
The project site was an expanse of dirt. Bales of hay lined the parameter, serving as a buffer between the development and the creek. Trees — some protected, but mitigated — had been cleared away, ripping out the mature filtration system naturally in place.
“I don’t care how many new trees they put in, you and I will never see the restoration of Carpenters Creek within our lifetimes,” Myers says. “The problem is we allow people to clear cut within 15 feet of the creek.”
The councilwoman, like the coastkeeper, would like to see the city adopt more progressive policies governing watershed development. She’d like to see less impervious surfaces, a protected riparian zone, an expanded tree ordinance and perhaps the purchasing of some easements along the creek’s path.
“We need some new Land Development Codes to protect the creek,” Myers explains.
For now, Myers and Murphy are attempting to increase the public’s consciousness about the ills of Carpenters Creek with the hope that the spark of awareness might ignite more municipal action. The two are teaming up next month to host a community meeting focused on the issue.
“Let’s all get together, let’s figure this out,” Myers urges. “I basically want to get people organized. So that we can be a voice for the creek — the creek will have a voice, it will have political muscle.”
The Carpenters Creek community meeting planned by Myers and Murphy is scheduled for Oct. 25, at 6 p.m. at the Cokesbury United Methodist Church in Pensacola.
To read the Sept. 7 letter sent by Coastkeeper Laurie Murphy, click here.coastkeeper-letter-sept-7-2016