SEBRING — Joe DeCerbo finger-scrolled through the photos on his electronic tablet.
“Remember those?” It was September 2006, after Tropical Storm Ernesto had sloshed through Florida.
For most of Highlands County, Ernesto wasn’t much more than a day-long storm, but it dumped almost a foot of rain. The result was that silted-in Spring Lake canals overflowed, the pumps couldn’t work fast enough, and areas flooded along Duane Palmer Drive. Fish swam out of their canal banks and trapped themselves on the golf course and the streets.
“Dead fish,” DeCerbo shook his head at the memories with Brian Acker, board of supervisors president then and now. “And those vultures. And the smell!”
That was the old Spring Lake, DeCerbo wants Highlands County to know. He became the district executive that December, and the community Westinghouse built in a swamp on U.S. 98’s curve between U.S. 27 and Lorida changed.
Spring Lake has changed so much, in fact, that DeCerbo was named manager of the year in 2012, and last week Spring Lake was picked the District of the Year at the Florida Association of Special Districts state conference.
Spring Lake won the award for five reasons, DeCerbo said.
First, the special improvement district saved its taxpayers millions of dollars by certifying its levee. When New Orleans levees broke during Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Department of Environmental Protection had demanded that levees around the nation undergo rigorous inspections. Instead of paying the millions that he was told it would cost, DeCerbo found local engineers to do the job.
Second, Spring Lake applied for and got its first federal and state funding since it was created in 1972. “We had never used public funding before,” DeCerbo said.
Third, the district developed a model storm water treatment project. More than a decade ago, when DeCerbo was a member of the board of supervisors for two three-year terms, and the district had battled with neighbor Sandy Tyrell because it had been pumping its storm water onto her land. Tyrell sued for an injunction and won. Spring Lake could pump a limited amount of water, which is why the 2006 flooding occurred.
He was one of two supervisors who realized the district was in error; the other three were determined to fight. When he became the district manager, he corrected the problem with a new pump station, and the suit was settled.
Fourth, the district has provided clean, safe water to its residents. “We haven’t had a community-wide boil-water order in over 20 years,” DeCerbo said.
And the fifth reason for winning the award was that the district was once known for always being flooded.
“I’m tired of real estate agents telling people, ‘Don’t buy in Spring Lake. They get flooded all the time. Why do you think they call it Spring Lake?’”
Spring Lake has also saved money for its residents with lower fire ratings, said Clay Shrum, assistant district manager. “It’s been a team effort.”
Sixty percent of Spring Lake’s stormwater comes from Sebring Regional Airport to the west and U.S. 98 from the south and east, said DeCerbo, citing the district engineer.
Using a $1.2 million state grant DeCerbo attributed to help from Sen. Denise Grimsley and Rep. Cary Pigman, Spring Lake will build an 82-acre stormwater retention pond at the southwest corner of the housing addition.
“Retention, storage and water quality,” DeCerbo said. “You’re going to hear that a lot.” Governments will be required to hold stormwater far longer, which will give heavy elements like phosphorous a chance to settle.
Spring Lake’s stormwater feeds into Arbuckle Creek, which dumps its water into Lake Istokpoga, which is transported to Lake Okeechobee, which is moved to the Everglades and Florida’s sensitive Atlantic estuaries, and both the federal and state governments have committed billions to cleaning up water that is moving through the River of Grass.
“We’ve spent a lot of our own money,” DeCerbo said. That’s one reason why he thinks a Miami developer is building 300 golf villas at Spring Lake, even though the course has reverted to Wauchula State Bank.