Saving the Indian River Lagoon

The President’s Hoot
Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
November 2005

Our Indian River Lagoon is dying. This is true in spite of the many government agencies involved in trying to protect the lagoon– two water management districts (St. Johns River and South Florida Water Management Districts), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, National Marine Fisheries, a National Estuary Program, many buffer preserves, state parks, and aquatic preserves, six county governments (health and environmental departments), six mosquito control districts, and numerous local water control districts.

Signs of impending death abound. Muck averages 4-5 feet in some areas of the St. Sebastian River and is growing deeper in places. Shrimp and crabs are dying in the muck. While some of this muck will be removed next April after much delay and there are some efforts to control silt, many of the root causes are not being addressed. Controversial septic tanks, some of which are damaged or aging, are not all being tested for compliance by county health departments. Garbage and human waste are common on our islands. One cannot legally harvest shellfish from the St. Sebastian River and parts of the lagoon since 1997 because of dangerous levels of fecal coliform bacteria. Silt-laden fresh water from major canals and developments is still being released. Many drainage canals still need retrofitting to incorporate water retention, water storage, and pollution control devices so that runoff can be slowed and cleaned up throughout the lagoon area. The St. Johns River Water Management District has done this for the St. Johns River basin. However, we are losing our seagrasses from fertilizer and sediment pollution and damage from boat props. Our mangroves are being cut down or trimmed severely. Our dolphins, turtles, and fish are sick. Our birds are dying from fishing lines and power lines.

Government organizations are concerned and do contribute, in part, to protecting the lagoon, but no one is in charge or responsible for its overall health or future. Our Lagoon cannot be replaced easily like a disposable diaper, or cleaned up with a good flushing. It cannot survive with occasional and uncoordinated care from government or private agencies all working independently, focusing exclusively on their own domain and not on the big picture.

We need one government organization, headed by one person, perhaps a “Lagoon Czar,” to be responsible for coordinating the policies, resources, and activities that hopefully lead to the recovery of our Lagoon. Perhaps, a new water management district should be established for the entire Indian River Lagoon system and its tributaries, to include the Banana River and the Mosquito Lagoon to coherently coordinate drastically needed actions. This new district could be carved out of both the St. Johns River and South Florida Water Management Districts that are, at present, principally responsible for the Lagoon (together with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers). However, a bold but needed change would require action from our State legislators. They will only act under strong pressure from the citizens concerned about the Lagoon, who recognize that the old ways of “protecting” the Lagoon are clearly not working.

We need to get the attention of the two existing water management districts, which receive tremendous tax support from us – tax paying citizens and residents all living up and down this valuable Lagoon. Our neighbors to the south along the St. Lucie River and southern Indian River Lagoon are extremely upset with the smelly and toxic discharges coming from Lake Okeechobee into the Lagoon, which kill aquatic life with no end in sight; their threatened lawsuit with local county governments against South Florida Water Management District is an effort to halt these discharges. Volunteers from the Marine Resource Council are now doing water testing for fecal coliform bacteria in the St. Sebastian River and Lagoon, but additional tests including nitrogen and phosphorous levels are also needed. How bad do things have to get in the St. Sebastian River and Indian River Lagoon to galvanize us into action?

If we all want to save our dying lagoon, we need a coalition of citizens and interested organizations to organize and take action SOON. Please call our PIAS office 772-567-3520 if you want to work towards this goal.

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