‘Muck’ mess threatens lagoon’s marine life

Mucked up.

That’s the crass, yet accurate summation given to the Indian River Lagoon by one of its most fierce protectors, the Florida Institute of Technology.

The more-than-150-mile coastal estuary is host to more than 3,000 species of plants and animals, though industrial and recreational impacts have led to what scientists have deemed a half-century of neglect.

Marine life is at risk, impacted by fertilizer run-off and planned emergency wastewater discharges required when the system becomes inundated with groundwater.

Hurricane Irma and the Oct. 1 floods resulted in nearly 20 million gallons of raw sewage being discharged into an Indian Harbour Beach canal, and into the lagoon, rather than having raw sewage back up into homes and neighborhood streets.

Over time, notes Florida Tech’s website, “there’s been a huge buildup of what FIT scientists simply describe as ‘muck,’ a blend of nitrogen and phosphorus that resembles tar.” As the muck builds, it kills seagrass beds, fuels algae blooms, suffocating seagrass beds and marine life.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, up and down the estuary system. A power outage at a sewage treatment center in Fort Pierce was responsible for a 1.25 million-gallon spill last October. And a broken wastewater pipe in Vero Beach is the culprit for a November spill of 3.1 million gallons of sewage. Those are the most recent episodes. In 2016 an algae bloom led to a massive fish kill in Brevard County.

The recent spills have prompted a fresh examination of how to clean up the Indian River Lagoon, but citizens aren’t waiting for the bureaucrats to act. Grassroots efforts have popped up, some by individuals and small groups, and even schoolchildren.

Marti Veatch is among those working to help improve the health of the lagoon. She’s a Melbourne Beach resident who is also a member of the town’s Environmental Advisory Board.

Veatch said she and a few friends have launched a grassroots effort, one that so far includes plantings near the town’s pier, installing bat houses to help control the mosquito population, and placing oyster mats to encourage new marine life in the lagoon.

The group is modeling its efforts after Satellite Beach, which in May 2017 adopted a nearly 50-page Sustainability Action Plan that focuses on five areas: Built Environment; Land and Water Systems; Energy and Transportation; Community Outreach; and Quality of Life.

For each category the plan identifies stressors that have a negative impact, and recommendations to remedy the problem.

“The simplest way to help is for people to pick up after themselves,” Veatch said. “Leaves. Debris. Garbage. It all leads to standing water. We’re trying to keep our community free of debris.”

In addition to awareness spreading about lagoon-friendly practices, there are at least 42 separate projects meant to help clean up the lagoon.

To do the work, the Brevard Board of County Commissioners approved $25.87 million from a special half-cent increase in the sales tax. Completing all 42 projects will cost $68.77 million.

Within Brevard alone, projects include muck removal, upgrades to waste water treatment plants, upgrades from septic systems to sewers, and storm water projects. In addition, the work is expected to reduce nitrogen in the lagoon by nearly 97,000 pounds annually, and phosphorous would be reduced by more than 10,000 pounds a year.

Meanwhile, Michigan-based Greenfield Resources launched a pilot program in Indian River County in July to show that it could remove pollutants from water entering the Indian River Lagoon by shocking it with electricity.

Greenfield tested raw water in Vero’s Main Relief Canal for 10 different contaminants, then treated it, then tested again.

In all 10 samples, the level of contaminants was reportedly reduced. In three of those samples the contaminants (aluminum, boron and nitrites) were no longer detectable. In others, the reductions ranged as high as 67 percent and as low as less than 20 percent.

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