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Kids to help map pollution in lagoon

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of May 17, 2012)
Photo of Edie Widder of ORCA

The bad news is many first-born baby dolphins in the lagoon are dying from toxins built up in their mothers’ bodies while the County Commission refuses to pass a common-sense ordinance to reduce the worst source of pollution.

The good news is Edie Widder and her colleagues at ORCA – the Ocean Research and Conservation Association – are gearing up to continue mapping pollution in the lagoon to make it more visible to policymakers and residents as a first step to reverse the estuary’s  downward ecological spiral.

The great news is that Widder and Nicole Moreaux, the marine science teacher at Indian River Charter High School, will train and deploy 20 high school students to do the bulk of the sampling and research, creating a cadre of citizen scientists knowledgeable about the plight of the lagoon to spread awareness throughout the community.

The project, which is funded by a $100,000 grant from Impact 100, will get underway in July and continue for one year, mapping pollution in the area between the Barber and Wabasso Bridges.

“The impact of pollutants in the Indian River on the dolphins is startling, but even beyond that, the health of the lagoon clearly affects the overall quality of life in Indian River County,” says Sue Tompkins, president of Impact 100. “A polluted lagoon will limit our recreational opportunities, damage our fishing industry, and create health issues for our residents, ultimately affecting real estate values if water quality continues to decline. That ORCA can identify the sources of the pollution, and show positive change by implementing immediate solutions speaks to the effectiveness of investing in this type of research for the environment.”

Impact 100 is a group of 416 woman engaged in what Membership Chairwoman Jane Coyle calls “team philanthropy.” Each member donates $1,000 to a pool of grant money and then votes on which projects receive funds.

“It is a very rigorous grant process,” says Beth Falls, a research scientist at ORCA who led the organization’s application effort, beginning last November. “You have to provide a lot of information and there was a site visit where a team of woman came to our laboratory and asked some very penetrating questions.”

“We look at three things,” Coyle says. “Is this project a high-impact transformational project? Is it sustainable? And is the organization strong enough to carry out its plan?”

ORCA met all three criteria and was selected by members from among 18 vetted applicants as one of four organizations to receive $100,000. Two other groups received $8,000 grants.

“Certainly our members felt ORCA’s project would be transformational for the community because of the ecological effect,” says Coyle. “Mapping pollution in the Indian River is so important. We saw an immediate effect last year.”

Using a smaller Impact 100 grant awarded in 2011, ORCA mapped nitrogen pollution between the Barber Bridge and 17th Street Causeway, creating a color-coded graphic overlay for a Google earth map of the area. The massive nitrogen pollution caused by excess fertilizer ORCA discovered in that stretch of the lagoon led the cities of Vero Beach, Indian River Shores and Sebastian to pass fertilizer regulations to reduce the amount of poisonous chemicals entering the lagoon – action the County Commission rejects.

Fertilizer contains nitrates and phosphates that feed grass and help it grow. When fertilizer is over-applied and during rainstorms, dissolved nitrogen and phosphorous run off lawns and fields directly into the lagoon or into gutters, sewers and canals that lead to the lagoon.

Instead of feeding lawns, the nitrogen and phosphorous feed the growth of algae that consumes oxygen and makes lagoon water murky and slimy, cutting off sunlight to sea grass and starting a domino effect of ecological degradation.

“Until people see the impact of their behavior they are not willing to change,” says Vero Beach Mayor Pilar Turner, a member of Impact 100 and ORCA. “People tend to think someone else is causing the problem or wild-eyed liberals are making it up.

“Once you can see it, you have to acknowledge it is happening and that something needs to be done about it,” she says.

“If we don’t take steps to correct this, we will be leaving a terrible legacy for our children. As the nitrates build up, you have a mucky mess and a health hazard instead of a beautiful lagoon. Unless pollution is stopped, you are not going to be able to catch a fish or eat it or even go sailing or swimming.

“I went down to ORCA’s lab and looked at the oysters they found between the bridges. Those are the animals that are supposed to be filtering our water and they were sick and full of mucus and tumors. If that doesn’t get your attention I don’t know what will,” Turner says.

“We found incredible levels of heavy metals in oysters collected between the bridges,” says Widder. “Some had actually changed color because of the amount of toxins in their system and were bright green.”

“The lagoon is at a tipping point right now. Pushed any further, it will collapse into an algae-dominated pollution-laden system that is unhealthy for fish, dolphins and humans alike.”

Members of the marine science 2 class at IRCHS will spend an average of four hours a week working on the project, according to Falls, who will teach the class along with Moreaux and Widder.

“There will also be a number of daylong field-trips on the lagoon and afterschool activities,” Falls says.

After a period of classroom instruction, groups of five students will take sediment samples on the lagoon, following a grid pattern they help plot.

“They will take five sediment samples from each location and one water sample,” Falls says. “They will also collect oysters.”

Trained by ORCA scientists, the students will then analyze the samples to determine toxin levels using a revolutionary assay devised by Widder.

A MacArthur Genius Award-winner and world-renowned expert on bioluminescence, the phenomenon of sea animals producing light, Widder created a method to quickly and inexpensively determine overall toxicity of sediment samples by liquefying them and passing them through a medium containing bioluminescent bacteria. Toxins of all types interfere with bacteria respiration and cause their light to dim. The dimmer the light, the more toxic the sample.

Next the students will learn how to create a color-coded map showing degrees of pollution in various areas between the Barber and Wabasso bridges.

When the map is created, making pollution a graphic reality for riverside residents in Grand Harbor, John’s Island and other communities, students will develop a multimedia campaign to spread the word about the estuary’s damaged ecology and ways to repair it.

“We have an awarding-winning University of Miami filmmaker who will make a documentary about our project and show students how to use short films to spread the word about saving the lagoon,” Widder says. “He will also help them make brief 5-minute documentaries showing each stage of the mapping process so other communities can use our methods to learn about and protect coastal waters.”

Students will use printed material, the internet and public presentations to educate the community. They will also train other student scientists and invite policymakers to join them on the lagoon and in the laboratory at ORCA to see firsthand the effects of excess fertilizer and other pollutants on the economic and aesthetic centerpiece of Indian River County.

“We want to teach the kids real scientific methods of problem solving and show them that they can make a difference,” Widder says. “Paradoxically, in the face of such doom and gloom [about the environment], the most valuable tool we need to be passing on to our children is optimism. It is only the optimists who will see the solutions and recognize that if was our choices and behaviors that brought us to this environmental precipice, then their choices and behaviors can pull us back from the brink.”

“Involving students was a critical component of the project, as the education they will receive from this hands-on involvement in the project will help them understand our human impact on the environment in a way that a classroom never could,” says Tompkins.

Widder says she is “over the moon” that the mapping project, called “Saving the Water Babies,” will be a part of the regular curriculum instead of an afterschool activity and students are excited about the chance to do science in the real world that will make a difference in their environment.

“We had a meeting last week at Indian River Charter High School for students and parents interested in finding out more about the Marine Science honors course,” Widder says. “Nicole Moreaux warned me it might be a pretty poor turnout because it was the end of the year and everyone was focused on finals.

“It was standing room only! We now face a tough problem of how to select from the pool of interested students the 20 for which there is available space.  It’s a good problem to have.”