Indian River Lagoon Ecosystem Disaster and Education

March 29, 2016

Dear Editor:

Indian River Lagoon Ecosystem Disaster and Education

We have a three billion dollar ($3.7B) ecosystem economic machine called the Indian River Lagoon (IRL) in Brevard County, central east Florida, as part of the Space Coast. Unfortunately we (the public and managers) have not done enough to maintain its health as we have an over abundance of nitrogen and phosphorus in our estuary system, along with algae blooms and dead sea grass. The result has been a substantial brown algae bloom and when the algae dies and/or respires at night under warming and low wind conditions, the dissolved oxygen levels approach zero. The result has been a tremendous and extensive fish kill. For more details see the short video “Fish Kill in Banana River Lagoon” below:

Above: Fish kill in the Banana River lagoon that happened over the weekend due to high nutrient levels feeding an ongoing brown algae bloom, that depleted the dissolved oxygen. Video Courtesy: cnc66 | YouTube

This has received moderate national media attention. But we think it needs greater attention and action. We are concerned about this due to the poor long-term prospects of this estuary’s ecosystem services since it is in our backyards. But we are also concerned that this is a growing trend in the United States and it seems that most people do not understand that the causes are preventable and even reversible if caught in time. Estuaries are critical for providing fundamental life-support processes, including filtration and fish nurseries, as well as, habitats for birds, non-human mammals and human recreation. Estuaries are nurseries for many offshore species such as tarpon, snapper and grouper. See more on why estuaries are important online at NOAA’s

For us (and many other educated people) we see that investment in protecting our estuaries is at a minimal level and has been for too long a period. People assume that the our waters will automatically be clean and that the ecosystems will be healthy by default. We expect and plan for the tourist and use dollars as a major tax base. Many businesses and communities depend on healthy estuarine ecosystems. Well, maybe 500 years ago one could expect that the estuaries would be clean by default with no protection needed. But our estuaries appear to be more like a valuable car that one does not do enough servicing on until a hose breaks. Then one realizes that the engine and transmission are blown too. It hurts to pay the bill, but you have to.

Yes we have not been paying to maintain and protect the IRL in a significant way. Sure some money is going for very minimal scientific research and sub-par monitoring. This lack of attention is not a new problem. This degradation has been going on for at least 30 years without significant investment. One asks: Why hasn’t anyone really done anything significant to protect the ongoing demise of the IRL?

The answer is simple. The lack of education of the importance of estuaries as providing ecosystem services and as a strong economic engine. We thought that hard working people involved in the education and outreach programs would have reached everyone. But obviously not as behaviors have not been changed. For evidence see this short video by Dylan Hansen on Youtube below and ask yourself if this person understands the relationship between fertilizing his lawn and the dead fish in his backyard. Another example of the apparent lack of education was seen today by the Brevard County Commissioners who had the opportunity to call for a “state of emergency” and request special assistance including money from a variety of sources. Whether it was smelly state politics at work or lack of education on the importance and dire need for the lagoon I can not clearly say since they all said that they were “environmentalists.” See for more details. I prefer to think that it was lack of education based on the comments that the commissioners provided to us in the audience. Instead of action we received, once again, empty promises. Two counties south of us (Martin and St. Lucie) passed similar resolutions. Perhaps they are better educated on the issues?

Above: Please help stop this! Thank YOU! Video Courtesy: Dylan Hansen | | YouTube

For me the press releases that I have read from certain government state offices are a sad joke that insults my intelligence. If water quality was such a “top priority in the state of Florida”, then why are we in this situation? In my opinion the IRL has been under managed, understudied, and under-monitored. We really still do not know with precision what the sources of the excess nutrients are due to the lack of scientific monitoring the last 20 years. Protection has been negligently weak in the past and only now, as the tragic disaster is unfolding, has there been any additional money for the work that needs to be done. Yes some results are finally coming in as to the sources and sinks of the nitrogen by some respectable and hard working scientists. I am hopeful for the future as there now are opportunities to for a recovery, albeit very slow and one that could have been prevented with more care and significantly more financial investment. Remember that the estimated economic value of the IRL to county and state is $3.7Million, not to mention the quality of life issues.

So now, like an unmaintained car, prepare to pay. Yes, be prepared to pay on the order of 500 million dollars to clean the muck, rebuild infrastructure and to restore the ecosystem to some resemblance to what it was. It can never be the same.

In my opinion we must act now, not next month or next year. We must declare a state of emergency that will help educate the public on estuarine healthy practices and so that we can:

  1. Get rid of the muck within five years by reducing the paperwork to get permits to dredge;
  2. End the residential use of fertilizer other than on small potted plants;
  3. Removal of all septic tanks in primarily sand environments where flushing carries the nutrients into the lagoon and testing of all septic tanks every five years and prior to home sale;
  4. Remediate the surface water and ground water entering the IRL;
  5. Mandate the reduction of nutrients coming from agriculture including farms, citrus and cattle;
  6. Increase the number of and improve existing water treatment infrastructure to modern tertiary and quaternary treatment, as well as, stopping sewage spillage during rain events;
  7. Ban the use of glyphosate based herbicides;
  8. Restore the ecosystem through sea grass planting, oyster and other bivalve culture; and fish restocking;
  9. Improve the monitoring and science.

There are more actions that can be taken sooner, but I will leave that up to the engineers and other scientists involved. How about putting giant bubblers or other systems in your backyard canals and waterways when the oxygen levels fall?

Yes we now need state, federal, regional and local money. Public and private money included. It all can’t be handouts so I think we need a large bond issue. Interest rates are low, so now is the time to do this.

With this letter I am hoping that the public awareness will result in positive action. I am asking you to act. Educate your family, neighbors, representatives and managers of the importance of the estuary system here in the Indian River lagoon and elsewhere. Tell them about the problems resulting from runoff from nutrient filled lawns and gardens. There are plenty of grasses and plants that do not require artificial fertilizer. Just search on the internet. There are positive examples of estuary restoration near us across the state in Tampa. They had this nutrient pollution situation and their community and elected officials chose to invest in their estuary and restoration has been successful.

This is everyone’s problem. Act now to either prevent this in your backyard or to stimulate the proper response to the degradation of our natural and important resources.


Mitchell A. Roffer, Ph.D.
President of ROFFS™

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