March’s massive algae bloom and fish kill had everyone pointing fingers.
Taxpayers blamed lawmakers, inland residents blamed coastal, and protesters with signs on State Road 520 let their voices be heard.
Experts have been working nonstop to find out more about the causes, and solutions to prevent another fish kill. One of those experts is Dr. Duane De Freese, Executive Director of the Indian River Lagoon, or IRL Council. He holds a doctorate in Marine Biology and has been an avid surfer since the 70s. Obviously, De Freese knows water.
The Indian River Lagoon Council’s territory reaches from Ponce Inlet in Volusia County all the way down to Jupiter Inlet at the north end of Palm Beach County. It covers five counties and 50 cities.
The Indian River Lagoon is long, very narrow, and relatively poorly flushed. It’s a super shallow system that is very biodiverse. De Freese pointed out that all of the things that make the lagoon special in its biodiversity also make it very vulnerable to human impact.
“I’ve seen pictures on Facebook where people are blowing leaves and grass cuttings either into the lagoon or into a storm drain. So this idea that there isn’t a role for the citizen isn’t at all true. If every citizen would do the right thing it would actually make a difference.”
Since the 70s the lagoon has been in a state of environmental flux. Projects were created to improve water quality by removing some forms of point source pollution. The community stopped pumping directly from wastewater treatment plants. Procedures were created to deal with stormwater. But no one anticipated Brevard’s enormous population boom. Rapid growth brought heavily fertilized lawns, a number of new homes with septic, and runoff that affected the groundwater.
“We doubled our population and we’re now seeing the impact.”
State of the Lagoon
After the latest algae bloom and fish kill, many residents are concerned about the state of the lagoon.
“The scale is important to consider even in the fish kill situation. We’ve got Lake Okeechobee and the impacts of the discharges down in St. Lucie River coming in at the southern. We have this fish kill and algae bloom in the northern end. But it’s a really big lagoon. There’s a lot of places in the middle where water quality is looking pretty good right now. If someone says ‘oh, the lagoon is dying,’ you almost have to ask, what segment of the lagoon are you talking about?”
The exact origin of the brown algae and the trigger for the bloom however, remains a mystery. “We know they’re fueled by nutrients but maybe there’s some environmental trigger we don’t understand.”
Currently excess nutrients are trapped in the system in the form of muck deposits. Roughly fifty, sixty years of people throwing their grass clippings and vegetation down storm water drains have collected on the lagoon bottom. “The big issue is searching for a way to remove muck and decrease that nutrient load right off the bat. But it doesn’t make any sense to remove what’s there if we’re going to just put more stuff in. It’s like pulling water from one end of the hose and adding it to the other end. It never gets dry.”
De Freese also added that we have to change the way we deliver stormwater.
“We know we need to hold water back. We need to treat it before it gets released. We need to move it into the system more naturally so it’s not a giant bulk.” The combination of leaking septic, aging sewer systems, and other factors also contributed a nutrient load that chokes lagoon life. “All of those nitrogen and phosphorus loads need to get cut. If we did that we’ll start to see the system respond favorably.”
How to Help
The lagoon is finite and eventually the system is overwhelmed. Since you can’t change population density, each person must decrease their pollutant outputs significantly to get back to that natural baseline. There’s a lot of things that the general public can do to make a difference. “We’re applying fertilizer at levels that are higher than ever because we want that green yard and lush foliage. We put more than we need and often apply it incorrectly.” Avoiding rolling, green lawns that edge up to the lagoon would be a start. “I don’t fertilize my lawn. We’re in Florida. We need to redefine what’s good landscape for a coastal community.”
De Freese also recommends bagging your grass clippings or putting them in a trash can if you live along the water. The clippings may end up in the landfill but they’ll stay out of the lagoon. Another contaminate is old or failing septic systems. Many homeowners don’t know they’re failing or getting ready to fail. “We need to improve the wastewater system so those systems don’t contribute nitrogen and phosphorous to the ground. There’s only two solutions, you’re either going to take them to an advanced septic system or we need to connect them with the city.”
De Freese named the four main components needed to move the needle toward recovery. Remove the excess nutrients, reduce nutrients we’re adding, restore and recover. The council is working in partnership with state and local governments and nonprofit organizations to better inform our citizens, remove excess nutrients, and use the best science we have to protect the system and generate funding. De Freese added that St. John’s River Management and South Water District and various state agencies and local governments are aggressively finding solutions to the problem. It may seem that nothing is happening but there’s a lot of work already underway. “By October, we’ll be administering 38 projects…But the response of the river is going to be slow.” Muck is an important removal that requires big dredges. The dredge head hydraulically brings muck off the bottom and it’s forced through a pipe that runs a half a mile and spills it out into a spoil site. “They’re hoping to take that super high nutrient muck out of the system. We’re pretty sure that it’s that muck is fueling some of these blooms.”
There are projects that are categorized in ranges of big regional scale to smaller projects. Muck removal is considered a big scale project. “We have large stormwater conveyances like Turkey Creek, and all the watershed that drains into Turkey Creek. That can be a large project or multiple small projects.
The Cost of Ignoring the Problem
There’s a popular saying, “When you point a finger, there are three fingers pointing back to you.” It’s a gentle reminder that when you point out someone’s mistakes remember you’re also highlighting your own. It’s time residents and lawmakers decide what’s important. Daily activities and choices made by millions can make or break this delicate ecosystem. The choice is ours.
Dr. Duane De Freese is the Executive Director of the Indian River Lagoon Council and Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program. For more information about their mission visit itsyourlagoon.com.
By Nataleigh Palmer