Fight for our river… armed with knowledge.

The following is research compiled by Florida Today which is the best example I have seen of exactly what the problems and solutions are with the Indian River Lagoon.

The Problem – how did it start?:  The “perfect storm” began here, in the shallow waters that surround NASA’s premier launch pads. Extreme cold, drought and decades of pollution enabled a tiny algae to explode with cataclysmic consequences in the Indian River Lagoon.

Scientists first discovered the algae in the Banana River after heavy rains in March 2011. The plankton soon enveloped Merritt Island and spread beyond what biologists had ever seen, stretching 70 miles south to Melbourne.  They dubbed it a “superbloom.”

It was unprecedented. The bloom would nearly wipe out the lagoon’s seagrass, ultimately killing a combined 73 square miles of the vital bottom plant — the linchpin of the marine food web. Other casualties included hundreds of manatees, pelicans and dolphins.

Now an army of scientists, conservationists and volunteers are racing to restore the lagoon, a $3.7 billion annual economic engine, and to figure out what went wrong.

The answers, like the problems, are complex. There’s no one smoking gun, but a cumulative shotgun-blast of impacts from 1.7 million people who live in the five main counties along the lagoon — one of the most biologically diverse estuaries in North America.

Biologists say the lagoon can be rescued. They point to multiple efforts, including dredges, oysters, volunteers, tax dollars, but most of all — stewards.

Here’s what those who study and make their livings from the lagoon say must happen to heal the waterway.

1. Fix the stormwater system.

By the mid 1990s, a state law phased out most sewer plant discharges into the lagoon, solving one of the estuaries biggest problems, or so scientists thought. According to John Windsor, a professor of marine and environmental sciences at Florida Institute of Technology, it’s from the stormwater runoff from the mainland. Developments, farming and yard fertilizers all contribute via canals, ditches and stormwater pipes.

Now heavy rains send excess fresh water that dilutes salt content below what marine life requires. Runoff also carries fertilizers that spur fish killing algae, toxic heavy metals, pollutants and sediments that block sunlight from reaching seagrass.

What can be done about stormwater?  Brevard and other lagoon-area governments want more than $300 million in state money for lagoon cleanups next year. That includes $75 million to increase funding for competitive grants that pay for local projects that reduce pollution from stormwater runoff. They’re also asking for another $75 million to increase a state grant program that lessens water pollution from farms, using better water and fertilizer practices.

Studies show buying more conservation lands to buffer waterbodies from runoff is cheaper in the long term than new ponds, street sweeping and many other typical stormwater solutions.

A 2013 study of the Chesapeake Bay area in Maryland, found that when measured over 20 years, an acre of forest buffer costs about $88 per pound of nitrogen removed per year. By comparison, stormwater ponds can cost more than $1,000 per pound and street sweeping more than $6,000 per pound.

Conservationists are suing to force the state to use more money from taxes on real estate documents to buy green space, rather than for salaries, equipment and other uses.

2. Remove the muck.

Muck is the buildup of soils, rotted vegetation and clay that runs off yards and roads. Muck or “black mayonnaise“ is really rich in hydrogen sulfide. Nothing lives in it but bacteria.” Muck cloudiness is stirred up with every storm, blocking sunlight that seagrass needs to grow.

It took five decades for the estimated 5 million to 7 million cubic yards of muck to build up in the Brevard and Indian River County portion of the lagoon. That’s enough to cover a football field 1,000 yards high, Trefry said. Muck is 10 feet thick or more in some spots of the lagoon and its tributaries, such as Eau Gallie River in Melbourne.

What can be done about muck?  A locally driven campaign to dredge out the muck culminated with Trefry outlining the problem to Florida legislators in 2013 at the state capital, handing out small plastic bags of muck.

The Legislature responded, allocating $46 million over the past two years to Brevard County for lagoon restoration, most of which will go toward muck dredging. That included $20 million toward dredging the Eau Gallie River, expected to begin in mid 2016 and to be completed by the end of 2017 or early 2018.

The project will remove up to 750,000 cubic yards of muck from the Eau Gallie River and its tributary, Elbow Creek.

Dredges will pump the watery muck to containment areas on public land, where it dries out and remains or is hauled off and used to cover trash heaps at landfills.

Brevard plans to ask the Legislature for more than $30 million for muck dredging, according to a county document of legislative priorities. Research is underway to identify and map the worst muck deposits in the lagoon.

Combined, Brevard’s five priority dredging projects will remove 1.4 million cubic yards, enough muck to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool 437 times.

3. Flush the waterways.

These waters surrounding the Canaveral National Seashore and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge are a baseline by which to gauge the health for the rest of the lagoon.

Some 140,000 acres of undeveloped land buffers rocket launches from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Usually, lush seagrass nearby fosters more sea trout, red fish, oyster larvae and other marine life that migrate into surrounding, more urbanized areas of the lagoon, increasing fish and crab populations there beyond what they otherwise would be.

Not so much anymore. Even the lagoon’s most pristine regions couldn’t withstand the algae onslaught of the past four years. Fishermen want the Port’s locks opened to flush the waters. That’s been tried before, with costly consequences. To reduce flooding during Tropical Storm Fay in 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers left open the locks, which connect the Banana River to the Atlantic Ocean via Port Canaveral. The port’s main shipping channel filled with sand and had to be dredged.

At 72 miles long, Florida’s Space Coast encompasses almost half the lagoon’s length and 71 percent of its surface area. But Brevard lacks sufficient outflow into the Atlantic Ocean that other counties get from large inlets.

The main risk of new inlets with jetties is down-drift beach erosion that results in costly beach renourishment projects.

So what’s being done?  Florida Tech researchers are exploring ways to improve flushing of the lagoon via weirs, small inlets or culverts and pump systems. Recent research at Florida Tech showed that simply keeping the lock open wouldn’t do much to improve the lagoon. But small inlets or culverts along the most narrow strips of barrier island, coupled with pumping stations, seem to work best.

A pump or baffle system in the area of the port and Banana River Lagoon would be the more likely option for any future project to improve water quality near the port, scientists say. Another idea would be a weir, or low dam structure, at the port that lets the tides do all the work in cleansing the lagoon.

4. Work with natural solutions.

Algae blooms that killed more than half the lagoon’s seagrass in recent years only reached as far south as Fort Pierce. Here, another menace plagues the lagoon. In 2013, local urban runoff from heavy rains and large releases of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee sent huge pulses of nutrient-rich water into the St. Lucie River, which flows to the Indian River Lagoon.

Excess fresh water reduces salt content in the lagoon to levels far below what seagrass, fish larvae and other marine life need to survive. In general, levels of about 2.5 percent salt are ideal for seagrass growth and fish larvae. Ocean water is around 3.5 percent salt.

So what’s being done?  State and federal agencies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to store Lake Okeechobee water in large reservoirs, instead of sending it to coastal waters east and west, and to mimic the natural north-south flow of the Everglades.

Efforts to use oysters to help cleanse the lagoon in St. Lucie tie in with similar restorations in Brevard. Volunteers in St. Lucie use oyster shells from local restaurants, seed them with baby oysters, put them in mesh bags, then place the bags in the lagoon. Brevard County and Brevard Zoo officials hope the filter feeders can naturally restore water quality in the lagoon. Each adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons per day.

So far, more than 900 oyster gardening volunteers have helped to raise more than 180,000 oysters, building 60 sections of oyster reef and 15 control areas at reef sites in Port St. John, Melbourne Beach and Merritt Island.

In Brevard, volunteers also grow live oysters at their docks, to put later on pilot reefs throughout the county. They hope oyster larvae will settle out onto some hard surface, preferably other oysters, creating reefs.

Brevard wants $1.2 million from the state in 2016 to develop a “living shoreline” master plan, including $700,000 to build living shorelines of oysters and natural vegetation.

5. Transplant the seagrass.

Biologists run into a Catch-22 when trying to grow back seagrass. The plant needs clear water so that sunlight it requires to grow reaches the bottom. But without seagrass, more sediment stirs up from the bottom, clouding up the water and blocking sunlight.

So what’s being done?  A three-year, $110,000 experiment by the water management district has offered hints of hope that the lagoon’s seagrass can recover.

In still-barren spots where scientists transplanted seagrass from healthier areas of the lagoon, grass grew back, but often, not for long.

By 2013, seagrass acreage had grown back 12 percent since the 60 percent loss from the previous two year’s algae blooms, on average spreading 82 feet farther from shore. The seagrass beds maintained those gains through this past summer.

6. Wean off septic tanks.

Laura Herren, a biological scientist at FAU-Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce are sampling the water and phytoplankton to search for the chemical hallmarks of human waste. They find the markers of that waste here and at 19 other sites they test in the lagoon, but worse near Merritt Island than elsewhere.

The St. Sebastian River also delivers a heavy dose of nitrogen and phosphorus from septic tanks along the watershed.  Septic tanks contribute an estimated 2 million pounds or more of nitrogen per year to the lagoon.

There are 67,000 to 95,000 septic tanks in Brevard. Thousands of those are more than 20 years old, the average lifespan of a septic tank. Most of Brevard’s oldest septic tanks are in the outskirts of Palm Bay, Port St. John, Merritt Island and other places lacking sewer lines, such as most of the homes south of Melbourne Beach.

Palm Bay is at the center of the problem, with 27,000 septic tanks. Almost 2,000 of the tanks fall within the city’s sewer service area, so those homeowners could get hooked up to sewer. But in most cases, cities can only force new homes to do so.

Sewer systems aren’t a cure-all. In many sewage spills, groundwater and sand infiltrate and clog old cracked pipes, leading to overflows elsewhere in the system. Or roots intrude. Saltier soils — especially beachside — tend to wear more on sewer pipes. Joints of older clay pipes pull apart.

So what’s being done?  Several counties are pursuing local and state money to ease the cost of hooking up to sewer.

Rockledge plans soon to use $775,000 from the Legislature to take 154 homes off septic tanks in one of the city’s oldest subdivisions, Breeze Swept, just off U.S. 1. The entire project will cost close to $2 million.

St. Lucie County wants $4.75 million from the state next year to switch 578 septic tanks on Hutchinson Island to sanitary sewer. And Brevard plans to spend $110 million over five years on sewerage improvements, including upgrades to sewer plants, replacing old pipe and making other improvements.

The county also plans to ask the Legislature for $1.7 million next year to identify critical areas of septic tank groundwater pollution. They’d use the money to launch a $2.3 million program to help homeowners pay to upgrade their septic systems to advanced aerobic treatment. The volunteer pilot program would pay half the cost to install upgraded systems, which can run up to $12,000. Some of the funding could also be used for repairing or extending sewer lines.

But it will take much more than new sewers, dredging and other government approaches, experts say. The long-term fixes fall mostly in our own backyards.

7. Become an advocate of our waterways.

Limit your fertilizer use and lawn and landscaping watering.

Keep storm drains clean.

Blow grass clippings back into the yard, instead of into the street. Don’t let any grass clippings or pet wastes get into the water.

Maintain a 10-foot “maintenance-free zone” from the water, where you don’t mow, fertilize or apply pesticides.

To prevent soil erosion, which contributes to muck buildup, follow Florida Friendly Yards landscaping guidelines.

Get you septic tank inspected every three to five years and consider hooking up to the sewer system if available.

Get involved. Volunteer to become an oyster gardener through Brevard Zoo’s oyster gardening program. For information, visit http://brevardoystergardens.org.

The Marine Resources Council also offers volunteer opportunities to help monitor lagoon water quality, plant native shoreline plants and remove invasive plants and trees. Contact them at 725-7775 or visit http://www.mrcirl.org.

The Florida Oceanographic Society also has a volunteer oyster restoration program in the St. Lucie area and southern lagoon. For information, call 772.225.0505 ext. 104 or email kgeorge@floridaocean.org.

Contact your state legislators and push for stronger water quality policy and programs.

Report sick, dead or injured wildlife. Sick or dead birds or other wildlife should not be handled. Instead, report them by calling the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Wildlife Alert Hotline at (888) 404−3922 or visiting the FWC website. Entangled, injured or dead manatees can be reported by sending a text to Tip@MyFWC.com.

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