Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Indian River Lagoon: Environmental Crime Scene

The signs of Florida’s ailing waters continue to mount. You need look no further than Florida’s Indian River Lagoon to see the mounting stress on our lakes and rivers. The lagoon watershed spans 2,200 square miles and seven counties.  The lagoons waters comprise a 156-mile-long estuary where salt water from the Atlantic Ocean mixes with freshwater from the land. As a spawning and nursery ground of many fish, the lagoon acts as a cradle of the ocean. Lagoon fisheries generate some $30 million in revenues each year and provide 50% of the annual fish harvest on the eastern coast of Florida. In total, the annual economic value of the lagoon was estimated at $3.7 billion in 2007, supporting 15,000 full and part-time jobs and affording recreational opportunities to 11 million people per year. Moreover, the lagoon is one of America’s most biologically diverse estuaries, home to 700 fish species and 400 bird species.

Despite Indian River Lagoon’s unique characteristics and economic value, the lagoon has fallen ill. In spring of 2011, an algal “super-bloom” covered 130,000 acres choking off 47,000 acres of sea grasses, a reduction of about 60% of the lagoon’s total grass coverage. Sea grass is critical to the health of the lagoon as it serves as a food source for manatees and a nursery and place of refuge for fish and other marine life. In August of 2012, a brown tide bloom swelled in portions of the lagoon. The loss of sea grass from the 2011 super-bloom alone represents a loss between $235 to 470 million in commercial and recreational fisheries value. Since then, sea grass coverage in the lagoon has slowly regrown, but locals say it could be close to a decade before the lagoon will recover, if it even can.

Now, for unexplained reasons, 46 bottlenose dolphins, 111 manatees, and 300 pelicans have died in the Indian River Lagoon over the last year. Simultaneously, large numbers of fish, crabs, and oysters have also perished. (NOTE: Since January of this year, 10% of Florida’s population of 5,000 manatees have died from red tide, boat accidents, and the mystery illness in the Indian River Lagoon!) This massive loss of marine life has confused scientists. Explanations for the deaths include fertilizer-laden storm water runoff, polluted water dumped from Lake Okeechobee by the Army Corps of Engineers, climate change and effects on acidity, changes in water temperature and salt levels, and overflow from contaminated mosquito-control ditches.

Scientists, citizens, and environmental groups across the state have reason to be alarmed by the tumultuous health of the Indian River Lagoon. As an “indicator species,” the plight of the manatees is a red flag for the health of the region’s broader aquatic ecosystem. The algal super blooms and massive loss of marine life should serve as a powerful impetus for state action in implementing stronger water quality laws and restoration efforts. But the ailing health of our state’s waters continues to take a backseat in Tallahassee. Since Governor Scott entered office in 2009, the state has gutted the budgets of the water management districts by $700 million, axed $150 million from the DEP budget, and terminated a 2001 initiative commenced by former Governor Jeb Bush to protect the state’s springs.

Is there hope for the future of Florida’s waters? This past March, the EPA approved the DEP’s proposed numeric nutrient criteria limiting the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus for the majority of Florida’s waters. Some conservation groups criticize the adopted “speed limit” standards as not stringent enough to protect Florida’s waterways. Florida Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam has defended the DEP standards as among the best in the nation but not so stringent as to make every wastewater-treatment utility in the state out of compliance and needing to spend billions of dollars in compliance costs. Only time will tell whether the DEP-proposed water standards will improve the health of our natural resources. But for waterways like the Indian River Lagoon, the need for relief is immediate.

-Stephen Holmgren, Legal Extern