With the national focus on the mess in South Florida, particularly the Stuart area, it’s important to remind everyone that the ills of the northern Indian River Lagoon are not from Lake Okeechobee outflows. Granted, the IRL’s problems are also the result of poor policy and water mismanagement at the state and local levels, but the northern IRL is in a different watershed than Lake O with home-grown problems. This post gives a brief overview of the problems causing the death of the IRL and solutions to those problems. If you live near, depend upon, or just love the IRL, this has to become THE NUMBER 1 ISSUE for the coming elections. This post is longer than the standard 3-line social media post, but this is about the life or death of the Indian River Lagoon, our economic engine, so it’s worth taking a few minutes to read.
Altered Freshwater Flows
• Decades ago, flows of freshwater that naturally flowed into the St. Johns River were re-plumbed to flow in to the Indian River Lagoon. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. This did two things: First, it changed the salinity (salt content) patterns in the IRL. Changes in freshwater flows – the amount, timing, and location – cause death. Period. Altered flows and dramatic changes in salinity and turbidity kill seagrasses, oysters and other shellfish, and kill or displace small organisms like fish and shrimp. This happens even if the water is pristine. Fish, shellfish, and mammals (e.g. manatees and porpoises) with less to eat and fewer habitats to use have poorer health, lower survival, and population declines.
• More funds are needed to fix the plumbing – to increase the rate of restoration and to add more projects.
• The good news is that the St. Johns River Water Management District has been working to fix the plumbing, sending the freshwater back to the St. Johns River. The problem is that this is not happening quickly enough, due in part to insufficient funding from the State. The longer it takes to fix the plumbing, the longer the damage of altered flows into the IRL continues. And the longer it takes, the more chances that development plans will focus on land that should be used for water restoration and management.
• Some say that money from Amendment 1 can’t be used to fund the restoration of freshwater flows to the St. Johns River. We say it can – Amendment 1 funds are for the purchase and maintenance of conservation lands. You can’t get any more conservation oriented than acquiring and using land to restore natural freshwater flows.
• The runoff from lawns, agriculture, golf courses, athletic fields, parking lots, etc. carries a lot of pollutants into the Indian River Lagoon. Chief among them are nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorous. Too much nitrogen and phosphorous fuel planktonic algae and benthic (living on the bottom) algae blooms. The algae blocks sunlight from reaching seagrasses, which kills the seagrasses. The benthic algae will also grow on and smother oysters and other bottom organisms. The countless organisms that depend on seagrass and oyster habitats – from shrimp to gamefish – suffer. When the algae dies, the decomposition consumes most of the oxygen in the water, which causes fish kills. Other organisms (e.g. crabs) in the water that also need oxygen to survive also die.
• Stormwater runoff into estuaries contains the remnants of herbicides and pesticides that are used on lawns, in agriculture, on golf courses and athletic fields. They are also used by state, county, and municipal agencies for weed control on water canals.
• Runoff also contains the remnants of animal wastes including those from horse farms, and household pets (e.g. dogs and cats).
• All of these and other contaminants remain in the ecosystem for long periods of time, and cause health issues for organisms that live in the IRL as well as humans.
• The amount of nutrients and chemical pollutants entering the India River Lagoon has to be dramatically decreased. This means less fertilizer being applied. The recent ban on use of fertilizers on lawns during rainy season helped, but is not sufficient. This source of nutrients can be reduced by an increase in education and additional regulations. Commercial properties must also greatly reduce or eliminate use of fertilizer.
• Laws regulating agriculture need to be changed. At present, counties and municipalities are unable to regulate fertilizer and chemical use by agriculture. This law has to be changed. It makes no sense for a source of a significant portion of the excess nutrients entering the Indian River Lagoon to be exempt from regulation. Already, current regulation makes it impossible to know how much fertilizer agriculture uses.
• Water should not be allowed to run into the IRL without treatment. Simple filtration and settling tanks are a minimal treatment that would help. But the water needs to be treated in a more significant manner.
• Nutrients and some contaminants can be removed from the water entering the Indian River Lagoon via numerous methods.
• Marshes should be constructed that will naturally filter the water as it flows toward and into the Indian River Lagoon. In addition to filtering the water, marshes will also provide habitat for fishes, birds, and other wildlife. In addition, once constructed, filter marshes require not maintenance, which is an advantage over engineered solutions like water filtration facilities.
• Baffles, containment ponds, and other standard methods that store water or slow the movement of water allow nutrients and contaminants to settle to the bottom.
Waste Water Treatment
• While many improvements have been made, many of the waste water treatment facilities in the Indian River Lagoon are inadequate. The flows from inadequate facilities introduce significant nutrients into the Indian River Lagoon.
• Although many municipalities use treated reclaimed water for irrigation, often the reclaimed water has nutrient concentrations that are too high. This can cause nutrients to leach into the groundwater and enter the IRL in this way.
• Wastewater treatment facilities must be upgraded to handle more wastewater (e.g. increase capacity) from peak events and to increasing the ability of these facilities to remove more nutrients. This will allow reclaimed water to be used for landscape watering, far away from the IRL. Facilities also need to increase capacity so they can handle the additional water that results from rain events – at present, such rain events can overrun the system capacity, causing facilities to release incompletely treated effluent.
• Septic systems in the Indian River Lagoon watershed introduce excessive amounts of nutrients as well as human and other animal pathogens into the groundwater, which then enters the IRL. This may be due to the type of soil, older systems, poorly maintained systems, locations where heavy rain events create a head pressure that speeds the exit of fluids (and thus more nutrients) from the tanks.
• Septic systems in many locations around the Indian River Lagoon have to be removed and the homes converted to sewer. This should be done in a stepwise fashion, with areas of most urgency addressed first. If this is not immediately possible then old septic systems must be replaced by modern and improved septic systems where appropriate.
• Muck (sediment, water, and some organic material) represents the legacy of past and ongoing inadequate management. Muck contains high levels of nutrients. When the muck is disturbed, such as from windy days or strong currents, it gets re-suspended in the water and nutrients are available to be used which contributes to algae blooms. The increased turbidity (murkiness of the water) blocks sunlight from reaching seagrasses and they suffer and often die. Muck results from things in stormwater runoff like sediments from erosion, grass and other leaf clippings, soil from sod, and from the decay of algae and seagrasses in the lagoon. The algae blooms that are caused by too many nutrients contribute significantly to the muck.
• The muck has to be removed. It contains such high concentrations of nutrients that it can significantly increase nutrient levels in the Indian River Lagoon when it is disturbed by winds or currents. This will address the muck that has been deposited over the past decades.
• It is essential that programs to reduce muck accumulation from this point forward are implemented. However, this must be done in an intelligent way as it is not practical to remove the relatively thin layers of muck that occur in some locations without causing ecological harm. Muck removal should focus on the areas where the muck is recoverable. In some areas it may be necessary to have a maintenance removal station in place as it appears that the muck returns and re-concentrates in certain areas due to the circulation and bottom topography.
It is important to note that when and only when these actions have shown a positive long term effect on the health of the IRL should we then think about restoration projects. There is no point spending funds and time restoring seagrass, oysters, fish, and other organisms until the causes of their declines have been addressed. If the water quality will not support these organisms, then we will be wasting money and actually contributing to the increase in nutrients, rather than removing them.