Leadership Palm Beach County Report on Environmental Day
November 13th, 2013
By Tom Kodadek
Environment Day was fraught with challenges. Dodging rainstorms, steering canoes, refraining from inhaling at the dump and, most seriously, making the left hand turn across Northlake into the Grassy Waters parking lot. But it was worth it. An informative and enjoyable day.
After catching the bus at Grassy Waters, the first stop was MacArthur Beach State Park on Singer Island, the only state park in Palm Beach County (PBC). The park, established in 1989, is a beautiful oasis of unspoiled beach and lagoon between the high rises to the south and the (lovely) sprawl of Palm Beach Gardens to the north. It is comprised of about 438 acres of land and a similar amount of territory underwater. John D. MacArthur and the State of Florida donated much of the land, but we also learned that the city and county paid $11M for the western part of the park.
Despite threatening clouds, most of us set out across the boardwalk that spans MacArthur Park’s lagoon to hit the beach. We learned about some of the many species of plants and animals that inhibit the park. One cool story had to do with strangler figs. A bird that has eaten the seeds of this plant deposits them the top of another tree by pooping there. Over a long time the fig grows down the original tree and eventually encompasses and kills it, resulting in a fig tree with a hollow core after about 500 years. This is apparently part of the plant’s adaptation to the intense competition for light in a dense forest.
MacArthur Beach State Park is also a major nesting destination for turtles and this was a record year. Over 2600 nests were marked on the 1.2 mile beach this year! While no one yet knows if this trend will continue, the ranger told us that many people believe that conservation events initiated 20-25 years ago may be coming to fruition. The turtles are remarkable. When they return to nest, they come back to a point no more than 100 yards from where they were born after wandering for years in the ocean. They probably have a good GPS program on their iPhone. He also told us the other interesting life form attracted by the Park’s beach are illegal aliens, who land there from the Bahamas with some frequency. It is the closest point on the Florida coast to the islands.
Our time in the park concluded with a presentation from Cheryl Houghtelin, the Chairperson of Friends of MacArthur Beach State Park. Her organization is responsible for administrating and paying for many of the things that go on in the park including the wonderful educational programs. The dedicated volunteers put in over 20,000 hours a year!
From there we headed to the Solid Waste Authority. Talk about a jarring transition. From the pristine beach at MacArthur to… well, the dump. Our excellent, energetic host, Lana Blackman introduced us to this remarkable operation. The scale of trash in PBC is just unbelievable. They pick up more than 11 million pounds of trash each day according to ???. This involves picking up trash and delivering it initially to six transfer facilities where it is collected into bigger trucks and brought to the massive facility on Jog Road. There all of the garbage is eventually burned, but only after magnetic and other processes are employed to extract metal and aluminum for the garbage. In fact, they recover about $100,000 in coins per year form the waste, which is put into their operating budget! Everything there is designed for efficiency. The burning trash is used to make electricity, enough to power the plant and 37,000 homes. The operation is about to get even larger with the completion of a new incineration facility in 2015. This will allow the county to make significant money by importing garbage from other counties if they wish, though the decision has not yet been made to do so.
The trash that isn’t burned goes into landfills, but this is a minority of the garbage. PBC has two landfills and these are going strong and likely won’t be filled until 2050. These landfills are far and away the highest points in the county, with a full landfill topping out at about 165 feet. Even more energy is harvested from this garbage by tapping the methane gas produced by bacterial decomposition of the trash in the landfill. Once these landfills are mature, they can be converted into parks or other public space.
Finally, we also toured the recycling center and received a primer on what to recycle and what to keep out. No Styrofoam, unfortunately.
After a tasty BBQ lunch, the rest of the day was spent at Grassy Waters. This huge, 23 square mile preserve is actually the major source of drinking water for PBC! Historically, Grassy Waters was the headwaters of the Loxahatchee River, though you can’t make from there to the Jupiter Inlet today in your kayak. The preserve is a beautiful remnant of the Everglades that is within the West Palm Beach City limits. It is home to a large variety of plants and animals, including the endangered Snail Kite, a bird that will eat only a single kind of snail found in the preserve. This bird is the official logo of the park.
Our time in the preserve was split into three portions. First was a presentation by Bill Lynch and members of the Miller Foundation about efforts to restore the original flow of water in the so-called River of Grass. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to dig very deep into this topic or to hear much of a debate on the best way to achieve this, given current agricultural use of much of the land. We then set off a short way into the preserve on canoes. Our guide talked to us about some of the plant and animal life to be found there, including how to strip the saw grass to find pure water in its center if you are ever lost in the swamp and thirsty. The last leg of the trip was a boardwalk tour of the plant life by one of the volunteers. He was an interesting fellow who spoke his mind and posed interesting questions. Such as: “what would happen to you if your heart was ripped out?” This turned out to be a leader for a lecture on the evils of eating hearts of palms in salads, which apparently is a dietary practice of evil women. Between editorial comments though, we learned a good deal about some of the flora in the preserve.
The class would like to thank the organizers of the day for a job well done and we look forward to Arts & Culture Day in December.