By Estella R. Fullmer
For Hometown News
The St. Johns River Water Management District updated area residents Wednesday, Aug. 21, on efforts to combat environmental problems in Indian River Lagoon, Mosquito Lagoon and Banana River Lagoon.
About 45 concerned citizens attended the meeting at Edgewater City Hall.
William J. Tredik led off the seminar with an overview of the condition of the various lagoons in Volusia and Brevard Counties. The Indian River Lagoon, Banana River Lagoon and the Jupiter Inlet Lagoon have all been declared "impaired." The district has found evidence the plant, fish and animal life in those areas is declining and will likely not be able to restore balance to the eco-system on its own.
"Man has created some of the problem and it took a long time to get to this state," Mr. Tredik said. "It is going to take a while to get it back."
He pointed out there were more places in the barrier islands to allow the sea into the lagoon to flush out the toxins, but with the development of the islands and closing up of some of the inlets during the past 80 years, there is less natural flushing.
The problem, explained Troy Rice, director of the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program, is the nitrogen and phosphorous levels build up in the water. As those levels build and with drier weather conditions, the water becomes the perfect environment for blue-green algae to bloom. Perfect conditions have caused some algal "superblooms" recently and when the blue-green algae dies off, it leaves a by-product that is perfect for brown-tide algae to bloom and that makes the water murky and interferes with the sea grass growth on the bottom.
The sea grass is vital to the lagoon's eco-system. It provides a habitat for fish, oysters and clams, and manatees feed off the sea grass. When it dies out, the wildlife moves to a new area and the entire balance of the lagoon is thrown off, according to Mr. Rice.
In 2011, an algal "superbloom" spread across much of the northern Indian River Lagoon while at the same time a lesser bloom covered 47,000 acres from Eau Gallie south to Vero Beach. Scientists have been collecting data for several years on the density and rate of growth of sea grass up and down the entire bay and determined about 47,000 acres of sea grass died as a result of those algal blooms. These phenomena far exceeded any previously recorded or remembered bloom in intensity, scale and duration.
The dying sea grass is not the only death occurring in and around the lagoon. Earlier this year more than 100 manatees died near the Banana River Lagoon. There were also 250 to 300 Pelican deaths and more than 50 bottlenose dolphins perished in the central and southern areas of Brevard County in the lagoons. The causes of these wildlife deaths are still under investigation.
The cause of the superblooms is already known and a result of large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus being dumped into the water system. These elements come from lawn fertilizer, pesticides, detergents, pet waste and human waste. The rain washes the nitrogen and phosphorus off lawns and roadways and into the stormwater system, which then flows right into the waterways that feed the various lagoons.
The water management district is spearheading a plan to combat the damage and develop a plan to turn around the environmental situation. They are joining the estuary program and several other organizations to investigate the current state of the lagoons along the east central shore of Florida.
Within that plan, they have already developed and implemented some projects geared toward collecting data and improving the sea grass growth. One of those programs is sea grass transplants. Volunteers are collecting sea grass from certain areas where there is healthy growth and transplanting them to areas where the sea grass is dying out or has died out. They also are monitoring levels of sea grass and collecting data on the lagoons. They hope to determine why the sea grass is not returning after the brown-tide algae dies off and the water clears.
The conservation efforts are being funded from a variety of sources including grants from state and federal sources. In the last 20 years the district has spent $80 million on projects, such as conservation, construction projects, planning and stormwater projects and community environmental educational projects. Mr. Rice and Mr. Tredik know that it is going to take a lot more to meet their goals and prevent the lagoons from dying.
"The stakes are high. The total estimated annual economic value of the Indian River Lagoon is $3.7 billion, supporting 15,000 full and part-time jobs and providing recreational opportunities for 11 million people per year," states a district document.
Mr. Tredik said they were still conducting studies on what individual septic tank systems were doing to lagoons in response to a question from the audience. "The city sanitation systems are highly regulated and have good filtering systems in place for the most part," he said, "but we haven't really studied the impact of private septic tank systems. We are just starting to take a look at that, but I am sure there is some impact."
"Most Americans don't like to have this conversation," said Christopher Byrd, an environmental lawyer from the Orlando area, "They don't want to talk about fishing, swimming or boating in their own poo." He feels the conversation is important and people need to realize their actions every day have an affect on the quality of the water around them.
Another member of the audience felt that taking up to 5 years to collect more data was dangerous. "What if we take so much time to figure out what is happening that it becomes too late to do anything about it?" he asked Mr. Rice. "Why don't we just do something now? You already know what is causing it."
Mr. Rice answered that some things can be implemented right away, like the grass transplant program, but more research needs to be done before jumping to a solution that could cause more problems for future generations.
"We need to let them do their work," Edgewater Mayor Michael Thomas said. "We don't want to make mistakes because this is our life out here." He agreed with another attendee's suggestion that the local governments need to set up ordinances against the use and practices of pesticides, fertilizers and detergents that are high in nitrogen and phosphorus. "It's up to the people to turn this around."