The Indian River Lagoon has lost 89% of seagrass cover and restoring the waterway will cost $5B

Indian River Lagoon fish kill (Large)
It's deadly news for Florida's dwindling manatee population.

Last year was the deadliest on record for Florida’s beloved manatees, with more than 1,000 dying. Most starved thanks to the disappearance of seagrass that lines coasts and estuaries providing nutrition for the aquatic mammals.

And 2022 could shape up to be worse. Data shows those seagrass numbers are continuing to trend downward.

“We’ve lost 58% of the acreage we had in 2009 and we’ve lost about 89% of the cover,” Chuck Jacoby of the St. Johns Water Management District said. “If you’re a hungry manatee looking for seagrass, you’re gonna be struggling.”

Seagrass restoration is just one of the hefty challenges Florida faces as climate change, pollution, excess storm and wastewater runoff and coastal development erode the state’s waterways. A bill making its way through the Legislature this Session would actually make it easier for developers to destroy more seagrass with the promise that hypothetical mitigation funds would install new seagrass somewhere else. 

But the science behind seagrass restoration is costly and hasn’t proven successful.

During a meeting of the Harmful Algal Bloom Taskforce Wednesday, scientists and conservationists discussed what’s needed to save Florida’s waters.

And aside from time and effort, restoring the Indian River Lagoon alone carries a hefty price tag.

“We’re in effect looking at a $5 billion restoration need,” Marine Biologist Doug De Freese of the Indian River Lagoon Council said. “You can imagine if delivered in a relatively timely fashion — let’s say 20 years — that’s $250 million a year.”

De Freese said that includes public and private investments. And though projects currently identified are still underfunded, he said public investment has ramped up. A Brevard County sales tax has funded restoration at about $40 million per year. In 2021, the Legislature funded $53 million for wastewater and septic-to-sewer projects, including 13 in the Indian River. And the Joe Biden administration’s bipartisan infrastructure law allotted $4.5 million for Indian River restoration over the next five years.

A lot of factors go into that restoration. Conservation and restoration groups are pushing for more septic-sewer conversion to ease wastewater issues, but local governments keep approving projects with septic tanks. As it stands, De Freese said about $3 billion alone could go to septic-sewer conversions.

Then there’s the extensive amount of research in further understanding what steps to take to support plant cultivation and animal recovery, increase water quality and reduce the prevalence and persistence of harmful algal blooms. Each offers its own set of complications. So far, about 1,000 projects have been identified to complete restoration in the Indian River Lagoon.

De Freese said after five pilot projects, seagrass is a great example.

“What we’ve learned to date is not only that it’s expensive, not only that it’s complicated, but it’s not just about water clarity,” he said. “Sediment quality, sediment instability, wave action: There is a whole slew of issues that makes seagrass restoration difficult.”

But De Freese also said it’s important to not look at cost alone, but benefit. Snalysis from Brevard County estimates every dollar spent on restoration could return $20$ to 33. But the benefits go far beyond the monetary as well.

“Almost every one of these projects builds coastal resilience from storms, from climate change, from sea level rise,” De Freese said. “Almost every one of these projects, especially the infrastructure projects, position our community for future growth.”

Daniel Figueroa IV

Bronx, NY —> St. Pete, Fla. Just your friendly, neighborhood journo junkie with a penchant for motorcycles and Star Wars. Daniel has spent the last decade covering Tampa Bay and Florida for the Ledger of Lakeland, Tampa Bay Times, and WMNF. You can reach Daniel Figueroa IV at [email protected].


  • Lou

    January 27, 2022 at 6:21 am

    It’s hopeless. The leadership of every Florida branch of government is run by developers stooges


    January 27, 2022 at 2:02 pm

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  • Patrick Adam Tedder

    February 2, 2022 at 5:09 pm

    I love the lagoon. I have voted for every fix, supported it with my money and time but I’m coming to an end working with people on this. Nobody wants to use practical solutions to quickly give triage to the lagoon while conducting the long term projects. I’m also highly skeptical of anyone and any organization who uses climate change when referring to the lagoon. Like many environmental issues especially concerning water climate change a long term slow rolling event that is largely out of public control is a screen that has allowed corporations and govt to return to the pollution of the 70’s and 80’s while keeping the conversation on something nearly nobody is doing anything about but talking. Largely because normal people have no part in climate change it is world govts and corporations involved in it. That said the lagoon needs oysters, seagrass, enforcement in no wake zones, septic removal, fertilizer bans permanently as long term work. Immediately we need to clean the toxins out of the lagoon system. It is a relatively cheap thing to do. The narrow strips between the lagoon system and the ocean can temporarily have exchange pipes installed with pumps to start pumping out the lagoon water and pumping in ocean water. This is neccesary and has immediate benefit. The fact that this is well within our technological capability and fairly inexpensive is a shame we haven’t done it. Additionally it’s a shame that everytime this has been mentioned people have put it down because it’s not a long term solution or because they are invested in another project that by the way is lucrative for some. This needs to be an all solutions approach and it needs to have immediate and long term projects. It’s great we are planning to have it clean in 20years for our children and grandchildren. Too bad you want my money and time so I can die never having seen or enjoyed the lagoon I’m paying for. Either let’s be genuine and go all in or I’m gonna head out. You people play your politics and money making schemes at the lagoons and our expense. I won’t be voting to extend the taxes for the river as of right now because I’m ten years I have seen half hearted approaches and the lagoon has gotten worst despite hundreds of millions spent. At this point without getting the toxic water out and the muck that keeps fueling it we are wasting our time.

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