Do you have $5 to restore the Indian River Lagoon?
This article by Charles Pope and John LaLime, Jr. originially appeared in the Indian River Press-Journal June 1, 2017 (click here).
Right in the middle of the nation’s most biologically diverse ecosystem, the Indian River Lagoon, lays Indian River County. For generations the residents of our area have counted on the lagoon as a defense from storms, protection from the mighty Atlantic Ocean and as an economic engine for the entire community.
The lagoon readily complied, providing our county and greater community with the natural resources and stability needed to grow and develop into a premier tourist and investment location.
In the seventies, residents and government officials began to worry about the effect chemical pollutants and various dike systems were having on the health of the lagoon. By the time government entities were paying attention, more than 75 percent of the lagoon’s salt marshes were dead, according to the St. Johns River Water Management District. The public took action to save the lagoon that underwrote the community’s growth and saw a rebirth of the ecology of the lagoon as thousands of stifling dikes were removed and sanctuaries for young animals were reopened.
If only that were the end of the story.
We’ve all seen firsthand how the lagoon has deteriorated over the past decade or so. The water has become murkier; a certain smell has overtaken the banks of the lagoon; florescent algae stretches across the surface of the water; photos of piles of dead fish frequent the newspapers. These are consequences of our inability to control what enters the lagoon.
For decades we have been clearing land for housing and commercial development. This means we have removed trees, grasses and other types of natural shrubbery that essentially (among other things) hold the dirt in place. As we develop the land we lose the natural stabilizers of the soil, meaning that after a summer rain, the soil runs off into our canals and therefore into our lagoon
The problems associated with runoff do not stop with the dirt and sediment entering the water. After a rainstorm, the water flows through the system of canals, eventually ending up in the lagoon. As it travels it picks up the chemicals we use on our lawns, especially our fertilizers. These chemicals are filled with nitrogen and phosphorus, two elements that feed the growth of algae. As nitrogen and phosphorus build up in the lagoon, algae begin to grow and other plants die, leading to the florescent green water colors that stick in our minds.
But the process is not over yet. As the algae dies it serves as food for different types of bacteria in the lagoon. The bacteria population explodes, using up the available oxygen in the water leading to consequences like the mass fish kills and the high risks of harmful bacteria.
This could all seem like an environmental mess — and no doubt, it is. But it is an economic disaster as well. According to a report from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the Indian River Lagoon produces $7.6 billion in economic value every year with more than half of that coming specifically from direct contact with the water and its resources.
Given all of this, where is the leadership from our local city councils and county commission?
A proposal was recently introduced to add $5 — just $5 — to every Vero Beach city sewage bill to build a system to treat water before it leaves our canal system and enters the lagoon. This would begin the process of removing sediment and chemicals from runoff and be a big step towards solving the problem.
The proposal was defeated 3-2.
I have my $5. Where’s yours?
After sailing the Caribbean for eight years, Charles Pope and his wife sailed into Vero Beach and founded the Youth Sailing Foundation. John LaLime, who graduated Saturday from Vero Beach High School, is a political and environmental activist.