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Working group to identify best ways to help lagoon

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of May 9, 2013)
Photo of County Commissioner Tim Zorc.

In what could be a turning point for the Indian River Lagoon, County Commissioner Tim Zorc is putting together a working group of scientists and poltical leaders that will meet for two or three days at the end of July to consider alternatives and back specific solutions to environmental problems in the estuary.

“At the end of the working group meetings, we will have a document I will take back to the county commission for consideration and action at the first commission meeting in August,” Zorc says. “Public Works Director Chris Mora will then be tasked with beginning the process of implementing whatever projects are seen as most beneficial to the lagoon.”

The working group will build on information presented at the county lagoon symposium held in March, which some area scientists have called a watershed event.

The symposium identified critical problems unfolding in the estuary, including nutrient pollution, the loss of sea grass and fish populations, and the spread of disease among marine mammals.

It also brought forward a menu of possible solutions, including the idea of opening a connection between the lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean to infuse clean water into the estuary’s failing ecosystem, a proposal to reverse the flow of canals that carry pollution into the lagoon, and thoughts about upgrading or eliminating septic systems that leak nutrients and bacteria into groundwater that enters the lagoon.

The working group will look at those and other possible remedies in greater detail, evaluating both scientific and financial viability to prioritize the ideas in terms of overall effectiveness, according to Zorc. “Some will be near-term solutions, things that can be done quickly; others will be long-term projects we may be working on for decades.”

He says more than 100 people and organizations have asked to participate in the working group but that he plans to keep the number down to 20.

“We are talking with two experienced meeting facilitators, and both of them say if you have more than 20 participants, some people won’t have a chance to talk about the problems they see as most pressing or the solutions they have in mind.”

Zorc says some participants are a given, including Dr. Grant Gilmore, the leading expert on fish in the lagoon, one or more scientists from Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and Edie Widder, founder of ORCA – the Ocean Research and Conservation Association – in Fort Pierce.

Widder says the symposium was a positive event for the lagoon and the workshop is a smart follow-up. “I keep hearing people refer to the symposium, which is a good thing,” she says. “The working group, which I will be happy to participate in, will keep science strongly in the mix as we look for solutions to problems in the lagoon.

“Too often there has been a disconnect between science and public policy [when dealing with environmental problems]. You want the broadest base of knowledge possible so that good ideas are supported and bad ideas don’t take hold.”

Zorc says county municipalities and the county itself will also be represented on the panel so political prospects are factored in along with scientific conclusions.

The working group will be a privately-funded non-profit entity, in part so members can confer outside of meetings to develop their ideas without violating Florida’s Sunshine Law.

“If it was a direct subcommittee of the commission, it would kind of defeat the purpose we have in mind,” Zorc says. “I am trying to foster a broad exchange of ideas and as much collaboration as possible. Being subject to the Sunshine Law would hamper the creative process of late-night conversations between scientists talking over ideas and figuring things out.”

Zorc says community members came forward unasked with offers to fund the working group. He is finalizing a budget this week he will take back to the funders for their approval that includes money for facility rental and other expenses.

He plans to hire one of the facilitators he has been talking with to run the meetings with the goal of building consensus through a process in which participants score ideas to rank their scientific effectiveness and financial feasibility.

The ideas that score the highest and have the potential to work in concert will be included in the document Zorc presents to the county commission for an action motion in August.

He expects the workshops to take two or three eight-hour days and says the public will be able to attend but not participate.

He says he expects a tiered set of solutions to emerge from the meetings.

“I have been talking with a company that wants to grow seagrass like you would grow regular grass on a sod farm and transplant it into the river. Another group is talking about growing a large quantity of oysters in the lagoon, not for harvesting but to filter and clean the water.

“An obvious thing that needs to be dealt with is the septic tanks right on the river. Now that we have proof septic systems are a major source of pollution we have to look at how to divide the problem up into smaller projects, fixing the worst areas first and working out from there, either improving the systems or putting in sewers.

“I am open to hear all ideas. The group can then decide what makes the most sense.”

After the initial two- or three-day workshop, the working group will meet quarterly for a half-day session to evaluate the progress of projects and update the plan.

Vero Beach Public Works Director Monte Falls says if an idea like the lagoon/Atlantic link is going to move ahead, Zorc’s working group is the likely venue where it would gain definition and pick up support.

“It is a great initiative,” he says of the group. “Anything that seems reasonable should be looked at and evaluated to see what has the best opportunity to help the lagoon.”