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Suddenly, restoring lagoon becomes county's top priority

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of July 18, 2013)

County Commissioner Peter O’Bryan last week became the latest member of the commission to suddenly see the light and put forward a plan to restore the Indian River Lagoon, plagued with a complex, interconnected series of environmental problems that amount to something very near ecosystem collapse.

The first strategy mentioned in his detailed, three-page plan calls for the county to “intensify educational efforts with... the governor, on the importance and economic benefit of the lagoon, so research/remediation money does not get vetoed out of the budget.”

Governor Scott has been notorious for cutting money for water protection and clean-up, including his recent veto of $2 million for a system of sophisticated lagoon monitors that Harbor Branch Executive Director Dr. Margaret Leinen said would have provided a “very substantial upgrade in our observational ability,” allowing scientists to more accurately identify, track and respond to estuary pollution.

Until this year, most commissioners seemed to share the governor’s indifference on the state of the lagoon. Though severe problems have been evident in the estuary since early 2011, the commission took no significant new action to address the developing disaster until Tim Zorc was elected last fall and quickly put together a day-long symposium that appeared to shake the board out of its apathy.

Zorc is following up the symposium with a three-day workshop in August that will bring together leading lagoon scientists from Harbor Branch, ORCA and other organizations along with government officials representing the county and area cities to craft a set of specific lagoon-restoration proposals that balance scientific effectiveness with political and financial viability.

But now that they have been awakened to the degree of the lagoon’s decay – and to the public’s growing demand for action – other commissioners have not waited for Zorc’s plan to move forward before proposing their own initiatives.

Commissioner Bob Solari has begun touting the idea of reversing the flow of the three main relief canals to keep polluted water out of the lagoon, a long-term infrastructure solution that will cost tens of millions of dollars and could eventually be of great benefit if it is funded and moves forward (see editorial, page 34).

Commission Chairman Joe Flescher teamed with oyster farmer Charles Sembler and ecologist Chip Swindell in June to plan a prototype oyster reef near the Spoonbill Marsh that got lightning-fast approval from the commission.

Flescher says he expects quick approval from permitting agencies that will allow the concrete-rubble reef to be built by early fall in time to be colonized by oysters this year because of groundwork done by the three men ahead of time.

If successful in purifying water and restoring the habitat for fish and other marine species, the reef concept can be rapidly expanded to other parts of the lagoon. Based on prior studies of existing oyster reefs, it seems that an extensive array of strategically placed reefs might make a significant difference in ecosystem health.

Two weeks ago, the commission finally gave preliminary approval to an ordinance to regulate fertilizer use, the last county along the lagoon to respond to scientific evidence and state agency pressure to put rules in place to keep nitrogen and phosphorus that feed smothering algae blooms out of the estuary.

The ordinance they are moving ahead with is not nearly as strong and effective as it needs to be, according to Vero Beach ecologist Dr. David Cox and Dr. Richard Baker, University of Florida biology professor emeritus and president of the Pelican Island Audubon Society, but both men say it is a step in the right direction

O’Bryan now has put his plan on the table, with 15 short-term strategies, six medium-term strategies and three long-term strategies for lagoon repair.

Beside trying to shake Scott awake and make him aware that the lagoon is important to the state and needs help, O’Bryan’s short-term fixes include installing baffle boxes at Department of Transportation drainage ditches to catch sediment and debris before it enters the lagoon; speeding up construction of the south county algae scrubber water treatment project that will pull nitrogen and phosphorous out the south relief canal; hiring a county staff person to enforce the new fertilizer ordinance; passing an ordinance to require old septic tanks that are leaking into the ground water to be upgraded; designing and installing sewer systems in neighborhoods that have a large number of faulty septic systems, and installing pollution monitoring devices in the lagoon.

His medium term strategies include expanding the Spoonbill Marsh, which filters water to reduce nutrient flow into the lagoon, and applying for grants to construct more oyster reefs.

Long-term, O’Bryan suggests restoring spoil islands and beginning the process of designing surface water storage areas to keep storm water out of the lagoon, an approach that would be part of Solari’s pet project of reversing the canals

“It is a good start,” says Baker of O’Bryan’s agenda.
It remains to be seen whether, and if so, how quickly, O’Bryan is able to bring any of his plans to fruition.