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Lagoon on the Brink

By Charlotte Varnes, Online Editor, The Growl
Calling the Indian River Lagoon a vital part of life in Brevard County is an understatement. Its tranquil, blue-green waters dividing the mainland from the barrier island play a variety of roles in locals’ lives, whether it be enjoying a peaceful sunset on the water, running commercial fisheries, exploring the ecosystem on kayaks, or heading to a waterfront restaurant via boat. 

The lagoon, also known as the IRL, not only provides a wonderful opportunity for residents to explore diverse wildlife, but is also an important part of the economic sector, with the tourism industry and many local businesses dependent upon it for financial success. 

It’s no secret that the IRL is threatened by a variety of environmental issues, and many of them man-made. Now, it is man’s time to fix the damage. 

Dr. Duane DeFreese, executive director of the Indian River Lagoon Council and Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program, has played a crucial role in speaking out in support of the estuary and monitoring its health in recent years. He noted 2011 as a key year in the changing health of the lagoon. Before then, there had been some signs of issues with nutrients, but the estuary was overall healthy — seagrasses were healthy, fishing was good, and with occasional algal blooms, which occur naturally in coastal ecosystems. 

“It looks like in 2011, we hit a tipping point,” DeFreese said. “The system got to this point where we are in this recurring algal bloom cycle. What fuels those blooms is nutrients- from septic tanks, from run-off, from stormwater. Really, the only tool that we have to decrease those harmful algal blooms is to decrease the fuel, or the food, that keeps those blooms going, which is nitrogen and phosphorous.”

The bloom in 2011 is known as the Superbloom, and was a massive bloom of a type of Cyanobacteria, which is a miniscule, primitive prokaryotic organism. Although somewhat similar to algal blooms, Cyanobacteria and algae are completely different organisms, and therefore, different conditions cause their blooms. Since the Superbloom, which continued into 2012 and 2013, Brevard County has experienced frequent algal and cyanobacterial blooms that have wreaked havoc on the health of the IRL. 

Various factors have contributed to these blooms and the overall declining health of the ecosystem, but DeFreese describes nutrients as the first and foremost cause, with groundwater pollutants as a close second.

“None of our wastewater systems treat what we call dissolved organic pollutants well,” DeFreese said. “We’re beginning to see this in a lot of water bodies — pharmaceuticals coming through the waste drain, even hair products and cosmetics can have chemicals that disrupt endocrine systems. They can really alter how the reproductive systems of fish and other species work.”

DeFreese acknowledged that these recurring blooms and the factors that cause them, clearly did not happen overnight. 

“If you look at the last 20 years and think how did we get in this much trouble with water quality? It’s not just the Indian River Lagoon, but nationwide,” DeFreese said.  “A lot of it is that we didn’t do the things we should’ve done to improve infrastructure, wastewater, stormwater, road runoff, and even the things we control in our backyard, like fertilizer.”

In response to these negative changes, in 2014-15, the five counties that border the IRL (Brevard, Volusia, Indian River, St. Lucie, and Martin counties) came together and planned to restructure the already-existing Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program. Dr. DeFreese was selected at the executive director of the organization then and has remained in charge since. 

“The idea was to get the six counties and 38 cities and the people in the watershed of the lagoon, which is around 1.6 million residents, more engaged at the local level because many of these problems are going to be solved at the city and county level,” DeFreese said. 

The organization has completed 20 projects since October of 2015, and has 20 ongoing projects as well as many others moving to contract. These projects differ in nature, but all work to rebuild the IRL’s health.

“We have projects that focus on restoring clean water and also restoring habitat,” DeFreese said. “Because of our federal funding, we also fund some scientific research where it applies to restoration, and also citizen engagement and education.”

Another important task the National Estuary Program is faced with is developing a comprehensive conservation plan for the lagoon every 10 years. The last plan was created in 2008, so the group is creating a plan right now in order to identify various needs and ways to restore the lagoon. The group came up with a vital signs wheel as a way to organize the many needs of the IRL. 

With this many objectives, the organization clearly needs plenty of funding in order to complete projects and work towards a healthy lagoon. Among the five counties along the lagoon, Brevard County has been important in generating funding through taxes- partially through the tourism industry, partially through general taxes.

“Brevard County is leading the way with its half-cent sales tax, which is generating $40 million a year for 10 years,” DeFreese said. “Estimates that we’ve put together suggest that for the Lagoon itself, we’re probably looking at at least $2 billion dollars worth of improvements in order to see full restoration, and that’s over five counties. Over the course of a decade, while it’s a lot of money, it really isn’t if you think about the value of the lagoon. Right now it’s estimated at $7.6 billion a year.”

The lagoon has also received plenty of funding from the federal government in addition to local taxes, which DeFreese emphasized as highly important.

“Political support is essential,” DeFreese said. “Clean water is not a partisan issue- it’s not Democrats vs. Republicans. It’s a people issue. We’ve had really strong support in the House and the Senate up in Washington, both from Democrats and Republicans, and it’s been the kind of support that has kept the National Estuary Program alive.”

When securing this funding, DeFreese stressed the importance of everyone working together, whether it be cities or counties along the water. 
“It’s not a Brevard problem, or a Satellite Beach problem alone, or a Martin County problem alone,” DeFreese said. “If all five counties get together for a healthy lagoon, we have power in numbers. We’re almost 40 percent of the East Coast of Florida. If we’re trying to do it alone, it just doesn’t work, especially up in Washington. This is a state-wide issue, but has national implications.”

This funding is clearly very important to restoration, but there are still many ways the everyday citizen can help rebuild the lagoon’s health. DeFreese listed out several actions homeowners on the lagoon can take in order to help the IRL, including rethinking how often they fertilize, use pesticide, and use herbicide, as well as their backyard landscaping. 

Aside from those living on the lagoon, DeFreese also identified a key problem that any citizen can solve: littering.

“We have litter along the shorelines — plastic, everything you can imagine, bags, cigarette butts,” DeFreese said. “People don’t realize that these all endanger dolphins and sea turtles; the very health of the system. If people would just not litter, especially along the shorelines. It doesn’t cost anything to take a little time and put it in the proper receptacle and dispose of it properly.”

DeFreese is optimistic, yet realistic, that all of these changes, whether as big as the millions generated through tourism taxes each year or as small as changing a fertilizing routine, will eventually lead to a healthy lagoon.

“The Indian River Lagoon isn’t going to be healthy in a year or two,” DeFreese said. “It’s going to take many years of committed resources, including funding, to do the projects. The good news is that we know this works — the National Estuary Program is what we call the business model of working together in a management conference.”

Although the IRL’s health seems dismal right now, with the committed resources of five counties, and the support of the state and federal government, the future for the ecosystem looks bright.

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