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After a mass manatee die-off in April, the NOAA declared the Indian River Lagoon, a 156 mile long estuary running along the Atlantic coast of Florida, an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) for marine mammals in the lagoon.  Last week, a second UME declaration was announced as a result of the mysterious deaths of 54 bottlenose dolphins since January, in a normal year the number would be around twenty-two.  These deaths represent close to 10 percent of the lagoon's entire dolphin population.  Since July of last year we have lost 112 manatees, around 300 pelicans and the 54 dolphins mentioned above.  

A sick dolphin in Indian River Lagoon found by a kayaker.
A sick dolphin found by a kayaker in the Indian River Lagoon in June of 2013.
The NOAA researchers will join scientists, biologists and other specialists associated with the St Johns River Water Management District, the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program and other state and local government agencies already working to determine the factor(s) in play that caused these die-offs and developing  efforts for improving the long-term health of the waterway.  As we all know sadly enough, politics plays a major role in the outcome.

Dead wildlife have been washing up on the west coast of the state as well, due in part by the Army Corps of Engineers' release of excess water (laden with agricultural runoff) from Lake Okeechobee in order to ease pressure on the aging Herbert Hoover Dike.  Currently the lake is two feet too high and still rising with the two most active hurricane months - August and September - bearing down upon us.  Here we have a perfect example of long overlooked and aging infrastructure creating an environmental hazard which will lead no doubt to the necessity of spending millions more than would have been necessary had our elected officials behaved in the fiscally responsible manner we expect of them.

Florida is one of 24 GOP state government trifectas in that the republicans hold the Governorship, a majority in the House (17/44) and a majority in the Senate (26/14) and the results of it shows as we vie among other GOP trifecta states for our share of epic failure. That the GOP in this state must be among the worst stewards of our land and waterways is glaringly obvious as more information is uncovered as to the probable cause(s) of the toxic conditions that not only threaten our wildlife, but our own health as well.

The Indian River Lagoon has long been called an "estuary of national significance" by the federal government due in part by its vast diversity of marine life, plants and animals, temperature climates and its accessibility and direct link to the Atlantic Ocean.

Indian River Lagoon in Florida
There are more than 600 species of fish and 300 kinds of birds located there along with salt marshes, mangrove swamps, oyster reefs, fish nurseries and one of the densest sea turtle nesting sites in the western hemisphere. The lagoon's 156 mile long estuary from Ponce de Leon Inlet in Volusia County to Jupiter Inlet in Palm Beach County encompasses 40 percent of Florida's eastern seaboard.  It represents an important commercial and recreational fishery with an estimated annual economic value of 3.7 billion and supports 15,000 full and part-time jobs with recreational opportunities for 11 million people per year.  The lagoon can boast of being one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America and now it is fast becoming a toxic killing zone.

Sometimes called red tides, Algal blooms have existed off and on as long as records have been kept in Florida.  These days the west coast of Florida sees one almost every year and the Indian River Lagoon, along with other waterways on the east coast, has been plagued by them for several consecutive years. These blooms kill off sea grass beds, the preferred food for manatees and 47,000 acres have been lost - what one scientist compared to losing an entire rainforest in one fell swoop - at the Indian River Lagoon.  (A graph and other maps of the algal blooms can be seen at this St Johns River Water Management District site)

There are several suspected causes for the algal blooms and superblooms among which are drought, which increases salinity; shifting biodiversity; unusually cold winters; chronic nutrient enrichment, which are pollutants in stormwater runoff and sewage; and as many believe, the flood control measures involving Lake Okeechobee.  

There are some 300,000 septic tanks in close proximity of the lagoon and certainly some have begun to fail.  In 2010 the Legislature approved a measure requiring an inspection of septic tanks every five years.  This inspection would have cost homeowners a whopping $30.00 and predictably there were complaints from the homeowners and even more predictably the legislature caved and repealed the law the following year.  Here in Jacksonville there are some 65,000 septic tanks that are likely responsible for turning the St Johns River green from toxic algal blooms.  So toxic that a scientist doing an aerial survey for manatees said he and his pilot suffered "respiratory distress" when they flew 500 feet above an algae outbreak.

When the Florida House and Senate passed their 2013-14 budget, it included $27.3 million in water projects of which $2 million was to be used by the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute for water quality monitoring equipment slated for use in Indian River Lagoon.  Governor Rick Scot vetoed not only the monitoring equipment, he vetoed the water projects in its entirety.  

In late June David Guest, the managing attorney for Earthjustice wrote a point of view column for the Florida Times Union entitled Green warning signs are on our rivers and streams.

Scott’s administration has also fired attorneys and staffers who dared to enforce laws at the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. Enforcement cases against polluters have plummeted.

Powerful agricultural corporations — many of them out-of-state — are now polluting Florida waters without consequence. The “rules” around agricultural runoff are particularly galling because they are — really! — on the honor system.

A big polluter like an industrial plant would be fined if it piled up a bunch of toxic stuff that washed into a river. But that’s not true for Florida agricultural operations.

Florida allows them voluntary goals called “best management practices.” All the corporation has to do it say it is implementing a plan to control pollution, and it is exempt from monitoring!

It’s as if a big trucking company were allowed to blow through speed traps so long as it submitted a “speed-limit compliance plan” to the Highway Patrol.

Fishermen watching the massive die-offs along the Indian River Lagoon — considered the most diverse estuary in North America — have little hope of help from Florida’s leaders.

Earlier in July, Senate President Don Gaetz announced an eight member select committee to review policies and spending related to Indian River Lagoon and the Lake Okeechobee basin. Gaetz released this statement:
“The federal government and the state of Florida have invested vast sums and spent a number of years developing water policies for the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin,” Gaetz said in a news release. “The purpose of this select committee is to determine what progress has been made and what changes in policy, if any, should be recommended to the Legislature and the Congress.”
But, as Margaret Leinen, executive director of the institute at Florida Atlantic University says:
But Leinen said flow from Lake Okeechobee affects mainly the St. Lucie River estuary in the southern portion of the lagoon. She said the wildlife die-offs have occurred in the northern lagoon, where fertilizer and septic tanks may be contributing to nutrient pollution.

"I don't think they've laid out exactly how extensively they will look at it yet," she said. "I hope they will broadly look at it to include the northern lagoon as well."

I have every expectation that what ever baby steps this Legislature takes will quickly be reversed either by a Scott veto or complaints from residents who most likely already know their septic tanks have failed and would rather poison our natural habitats and their neighbors than to pay for an expense that comes with home ownership.

There is a ray of hope, however.  Seagrass planting experiment aims to restore Indian River Lagoon

Manatees playing in Blue Spring, Florida
Scientists transplanted tufts of seagrass along an otherwise bald Indian River Lagoon bottom Wednesday in hopes of growing back the once-lush fish habitat that algae blooms doomed.

No one knows whether the $110,000 experiment will work or whether the cloudy waters that smothered seagrass during the past few years will return to do so again.

But researchers hope the grass transplants teach them the best ways to grow back a vital nursery habitat for fish and crabs, as well as the manatees’ favorite meal.

Originally posted to JaxDem on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 03:40 PM PDT.

Also republished by Kitchen Table Kibitzing and SciTech.

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