Florida’s building boom threatens wildlife-rich lagoon

algae bloom5

The most biologically diverse waterway in America is seriously ill.

The Indian River Lagoon is repeatedly being choked with oxygen-robbing algae, its surface increasingly dotted with thousands of dead fish, manatees, birds and other creatures.

The culprits: farm runoff and a huge influx of people that has sent lawn fertilizer and other pollutants into the lagoon, which runs 156 miles along Florida’s Atlantic Coast, almost to Palm Beach, and includes the Cape Canaveral area.

“It’s the death by a thousand cuts,” said Bob Knight, an environmental scientist with the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute who has studied Florida’s waters for 40 years.

The lagoon’s woes threaten the region’s $2.5 billion recreation, fishing and tourism economy, alarming kayak tour operators, charter boat captains, restaurateurs and organizers of bird-watching festivals.

Environmentalists are distressed to see the lagoon’s rich variety of life threatened in a crisis similar to what has happened in recent decades in such places as the Chesapeake Bay, Lake Erie and the Gulf of Mexico.

The map above highlights the population increases around the Indian river lagoon. Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Although the federal and state governments have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to heal the lagoon in recent years, an Associated Press examination found that pollution spiked, algae blooms spread and fish kills worsened over the past decade and a half as central Florida’s population swelled faster than that of anywhere else in the state.

Water quality data analyzed by the AP showed that the average level of phosphorous — a byproduct of fertilizers and human waste that algae thrive on — rose nearly 75 percent between 2000 and 2016. Average chlorophyll readings, used to measure the presence of algae, almost tripled.

Home to more than 2,900 species of plants, birds and fish, the waterway has been polluted since the mid-20th century by fertilizer runoff from the sugarcane fields and other farms around Lake Okeechobee, which drains into the lagoon during heavy rains. Nevertheless, parts remained largely healthy until the recent building boom.

Since 2000, more than 1.5 million people moved into the six counties along the lagoon and three Orlando-area counties that drain into Lake Okeechobee or directly into the lagoon. More than 500,000 new homes were built in those counties over the same time period.

Source: Florida Fish & Wildlife

Paved-over expanses such as roads, driveways and parking lots have allowed runoff to make its way into the lagoon more easily. It has also been fouled by wastewater treatment plants that discharge into the lagoon, sewage spills from the plants during heavy rains, and leaky septic tanks.

Source: St. Johns River Water Management District

In 2011, an algae “super bloom” killed more than 1 million fish and other animals there, according to state data. Intense algal blooms have returned each year since then. Last year, toxic algae killed more than 100,000 creatures, including manatees, or sea cows.

Now the increased algae are inflicting new types of damage, researchers say. Last year, baby oysters died en masse for the first time because of the brown tide. That is doubly alarming, because oysters filter the water.

Last year “was the icing on the cake because the fish kill didn’t happen in remote parts of the river where people don’t see it,” said Laurilee Thompson, whose family owns the 465-seat Dixie Crossroads, a seafood restaurant on the Space Coast, as the Cape Canaveral area is known. “So now you have a very upset, influential populace that’s going, ‘Do something. Do something.’”

The reported number of marine creatures that have died spiked to 1.2 million in 2011, compared with 7,000 in 2000, and experts blame the algae.

“In 2011, the world seemed to shift and we suddenly got chlorophyll levels we’d never seen before,” said Charles Jacoby, a water scientist with the St. Johns River Water Management District, a state water agency. “The system has been overloaded.”

The housing boom was made possible by state water agencies and other state and local authorities that permitted development and allowed the filling in of wetlands.

“Going forward, our permits aren’t going to repeat mistakes of the past,” Jacoby said. “If you build something, you have to hold water on that property … so it doesn’t just flow everywhere.”

Water full of algae laps along the Seweall’s Point shore on the St. Lucie River, Fla. (Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post via AP, File)

In the past 20 years, the annual value of the clams, oysters, crabs and shrimp caught along the lagoon has dropped from more than $20 million to $4.3 million, according to regional planners. The lagoon’s problems, along with a voter-approved ban on large nets, played a big role in the disappearance of commercial fishermen.

Gloopy green algae often surround Capt. Rufus Wakeman’s charter fishing boat at the dock. He said the sight scares off customers.

“When I first moved here, the river was a pristine environment that was pretty much second to none on the planet,” said the white-bearded fisherman. “Over the last 30 something years, the degradation of the Indian River Lagoon has just been horrifying.”

“The fish we see suffering here the most is the speckled sea trout,” he said. “We used to be able to go out and catch 20, 30 a day, and now if you catch one or two or three you’re doing really well.”

Dead fish clog the Banana River in Cocoa Beach, Fla. (AP/Malcolm Denemark/Florida Today via AP)

In Brevard County, which stretches along nearly half of the lagoon, the fish kill in March 2016 prompted voters to approve a sales tax to raise more than $300 million over 10 years for cleanup efforts, including upgrading wastewater treatment plants and removing thousands of old septic tanks. Florida environmental officials say they are pitching in $24 million in grants.

Local governments and universities are trying to restore mangroves to help filter the water and reduce erosion. And authorities are considering constructing several reservoirs that would hold polluted overflow water from Lake Okeechobee and keep it from flowing into the lagoon.

A group of kayakers explore a canal in the Indian River Lagoon, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

“The things we saw last year, that was a wake-up call,” said Austin Mahan, who owns A Day Away Kayak Outfitters in Titusville. His business gets as many as 9,000 customers a year for kayak tours to see manatees and glow-in-the-dark plankton.

Mahan said he hasn’t seen many cancellations, but for the first time last year customers from around the world called to ask about news reports of the algae and the fish die-offs.

Thompson, the restaurant owner, is embarrassed to no longer serve Florida oysters.

“I’m serving Chesapeake oysters in my restaurant,” she said. “I would love to sell Florida oysters … but I can’t get them.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Associated Press


2 comments

  • Dr. Reid Friedson

    May 6, 2017 at 9:59 am

    Decades of taxpayer sham clean ups costing billions of dollars. Fat cat donors funding environmental and political front groups and both party ma Hines. Real problem is dark money.

    We need open primaries and public campaign finance. We need enforcement of clean water laws. Fishing and real estate values plummet. Our drinking water is the second worst on the nation.

    The result is ecocide. It’s a corrupt racket and only one thing would cause this: personal greed by insiders evading trabsparency.

    Enforce the clean water laws and prosecute corrupt racketeers violating basic civil rights and interests of the People of Florida’s Treasure Coast.

    This Florida problem is symptomatic of the national plague of corrupt racketeering. Look at Indian River State College (IRSC) naming a campus after the worst Florida environmental legislator of the 90s. The last Florida Senate President was the mentor of the current Florida Senate President from my hometown of Stuart.

    The Florida Supreme Court found recently Florida’s districts were gerrymandered at a cost to taxpayers of more than $11 million.

    Corrupt racketeering is the scourge of Florida and America. Let’s see your taxes Trump and Rick Scott. Remember when Florida Attorney General Bondi dropped Trump’s fraud charges after receiving a check.

    Sign and share the People of Florida’s July 4, 2016 petition. Trump has cost Palm Beach millions and with no living wage, no right to utter climate change, union busting, failed privatized education with masses of the nation’s worst treated teachers and professors, violation of basic constitutional rights, the People should have been expected to rebel and organize the Resistance against this corrupt machine.

  • Dr. Reid Friedson

    May 6, 2017 at 10:07 am

    Decades of taxpayer sham clean ups costing billions of dollars. Fat cat donors funding environmental and political front groups and both party machines. Real problem is dark money.

    We need open primaries and public campaign finance. We need enforcement of clean water laws. Fishing and real estate values plummet. Our drinking water is the second worst on the nation.

    The result is ecocide. It’s a corrupt racket and only one thing would cause this: personal greed by insiders evading transparency.

    Enforce the clean water laws and prosecute corrupt racketeers violating the basic civil rights and interests of the People of Florida and its Treasure Coast.

    This Florida problem is symptomatic of the national plague of corrupt racketeering.

    Look at Indian River State College (IRSC) naming a campus after the worst Florida environmental legislator of the 90s, its last Senate President.

    This last Florida Senate President was the mentor of the current Florida Senate President who is from my hometown of Stuart.

    The Florida Supreme Court found recently Florida’s districts were gerrymandered at a cost to taxpayers of more than $11 million. That should be prosecuted and all involved should be impeached.

    Corrupt racketeering is the scourge of Florida and America.

    Let’s see your taxes Trump and Rick Scott. Remember when Florida Attorney General Bondi dropped Trump’s fraud charges after receiving a check. Rick Scott helped Trump become president and Trump is facing corrupt racketeering charges in New York where his foundation is banned from conducting business for fraud.

    Sign and share the People of Florida’s July 4, 2016 petition.

    Trump has cost Palm Beach millions. Florida has one of the lowest minimum wages, no right of state employees to utter “climate change”, union busting, failed privatized education with masses of the nation’s worst treated teachers and professors, violations of basic constitutional rights. With all this, the People should have been expected to rebel and organize the Resistance against this corrupt machine.

Comments are closed.


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