By Hans G. Tanzler III
The Indian River Lagoon needs our help. This remarkable estuary provides a livelihood for commercial fisheries, recreational opportunities for the public and vital habitat for plant, animal and marine life. The lagoon also generates billions of dollars for the local economy.
Over the past couple of years, the stretch of the lagoon in Brevard and Volusia counties has experienced severe algal blooms that have degraded water quality and reduced seagrass coverage. In addition, a brown tide algal bloom appeared this past spring in the northern lagoon.
Gov. Rick Scott, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the St. Johns River Water Management District are concerned about the health of the lagoon and committed to finding out why the blooms occurred in the northern reaches and how we might reduce the chances of similar events in the future. We are partnering with local governments, educational institutions and many stakeholders in this work. The Florida Legislature is also focused on the lagoon with the formation this summer of a Senate Select Committee that is looking at water quality and quantity issues in the southern lagoon region.
Natural factors may have contributed to the appearance of these massive algal blooms, with a 2011 "superbloom" being the most likely perfect storm of occurrences. The cold waters during the extremely cold winters of 2009 and 2010, which many anglers remember killing large numbers of game fish, may have also killed much of the naturally occurring large tumbleweed-like algae, causing them to decay and release nutrients. The increase in nutrients caused by the decaying tumbleweed-like algae in the warmer spring and summer waters in 2011 may have helped facilitate the superbloom that created conditions for the brown tide bloom that exists today in the lagoon from New Smyrna Beach in Volusia County to Titusville in Brevard County.
State agencies charged with protecting our natural resources and wildlife are addressing various lagoon-related issues and sharing their expertise with one another. While this immediate crisis may be naturally occurring, we continue to look for methods to improve the health of this wonderful ecosystem. Researchers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are studying the impacts to wildlife from the algal blooms. Many of Florida's best and brightest scientists began gathering data and conducting research following the superbloom, and every aspect of the lagoon -- its fish, its plant life, its water quality -- is being scrutinized to better understand the waterway's complexities.
The District launched an initiative that more than doubles our lagoon research and restoration work. We are enhancing our ability to monitor water quality changes and trends, and we are continuing to collaborate with partners to pursue algae studies, as well as transplanting seagrass to revitalize its coverage.
The Department has recently adopted new rules and regulations for the northern and central Indian River Lagoon and Banana River Lagoon to mandate the reduction of nutrient intrusion. The goal is to reduce nutrients from washing into the estuary to reach the level needed to promote and maintain healthy seagrass growth. The adopted action plans identify additional projects to further reduce nutrient loadings.
We are building upon years of research and are proceeding with "turn dirt" restoration projects aimed at helping the lagoon. More than 100 projects have been implemented to provide long-term protection of the lagoon. State and local officials have worked hard and invested millions of dollars to address the lagoon's health, which had led to dramatic declines in harmful nutrient levels of phosphates and nitrates that feed algae. These trends coincided with work among many partners to decrease the land-based nutrients from flowing with storm water into the estuary. Much more, however, needs to be done.
There are no simple answers. We are striving to better understand the factors -- whether naturally occurring or manmade -- that contribute to dramatic changes in the lagoon and how these changes will affect the health and future of this rare and special place. Many biologists and scientists with historic knowledge of the lagoon's health and years of water quality and seagrass data continue to identify additional opportunities for progress.
Please visit itsyourlagoon.com to stay informed about our progress.
Mr. Tanzler is executive director of the St. Johns River Water Management District.