Lagoon projects given green light by Commission

At a meeting this month the County Commission approved several elements of the Indian River Lagoon plan and voted to interview the top two executive search firms bidding for the contract to find a new county manager.

The Save Our Indian River Lagoon project grew out of a massive algae bloom and fish kill a year ago. The outcry over that ecological nightmare led to the successful referendum to add a half-cent infrastructure sales tax in Brevard County to raise money to mitigate pollution in the county’s long stretch of lagoon. The tax will raise $34 million a year over 10 years, according to a county report on the plan introduced at the meeting.

The referendum also led to a partnership between a volunteer Citizen Oversight Committee and the county Natural Resources Management Department to create a plan to fix the mess in the waterway. The County Commissioners last week moved the project along with the approval of plan updates and supplements and budget adjustments.

The revised plan includes 42 projects focused on muck removal, septic system reductions, cleaning up stormwater runoff and other projects aimed at reducing nitrogen, phosphorous and other pollutants in the lagoon. Almost half the 42 projects are ready to begin in the current fiscal year. The supplement contains the first set of substitute projects and their schedule.

The county report said if all the improvements are implemented, the county will gain $2 billion in economic benefits to tourism, real estate values and commercial fishing as opposed to a loss of $4.2 billion without any action taken.

“To accelerate the process, we reached out to municipalities for shovel-ready projects recommended by the oversight committee to replace less cost-effective proposals in the original plan,” said Virginia Barker, NRM department director. “We needed to amend the plan and approve changes to get started right away.”

Said committee member John Windsor, “I want to make sure the money is spent effectively.”

Based on figures released with the proposal, these plans will remove some 113,000 pounds of nitrogen a year from the Indian River Lagoon, along with more than 16,000 pounds phosphorus.

“Nitrogen and phosphorous are entering the lagoon from rivers, creeks, pipes, groundwater, storm water and even the atmosphere,” said Windsor, Professor Emeritus in Oceanography and Environmental Science at the Florida Institute of Technology. “It is mostly about prevention of nitrogen and phosphorous getting to the lagoon once the muck is removed.”

Windsor suggests holding the runoff water longer on the land to allow plants and the soil environment to absorb some of these nutrients. Removing septic tanks also helps, as does improving or replacing sewage lines and removing muck sediments.

“Filters like clams, oysters and mussels and living shorelines are being suggested as one way to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous and therefore reduce the frequency and intensity of [algae] blooms,” he said. “Reducing human impacts would be simpler if there were fewer humans. However that is unlikely in Florida where our entire economy is built on more growth.”

In public comments prior to the vote, residents urged commissioners to approve hiring six skilled employees needed to implement the program. The positions include three engineers, one each for muck removal, septic and sewer connections, and storm water control; two environmental specialists; and a fiscal analyst.

Based on a staff memo from Barker, the salaries of the new employees, totaling between $299,000 and $329,000 annually, would be paid for out of the Save Our Indian River Lagoon Trust Fund.

In other business, commissioners agreed to bring in the top two of six firms that submitted requests to handle the search for a new county manager to replace outgoing manager, Stockton Whitten. “It would be good for us to talk to both groups,” Commissioner Rita Pritchett said.

Commission Chairman Curt Smith agreed. He said each of the two top firms have their own strong points that make them worth considering.

But Commissioner Kristine Isnardi pushed to approve the top firm without delay, rather than drag the selection process out any further.

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