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County actions to clean up lagoon sparse, ineffective


Four years after it became clear an ecological disaster was underway in the Indian River Lagoon, the County Commission has done little to remedy existing problems or prevent future destruction of the waterway, once considered the most biologically diverse estuary in the nation.

To be fair, commissioners have talked a lot about the problems in the lagoon and the need to protect the waterway that is the area’s most valuable economic and aesthetic resource, and the county has proposed and done some planning for a number of lagoon-friendly projects.

But actual accomplishments are surprisingly few.

Pollution in the lagoon is mainly caused by leaking septic systems, fertilizer runoff, polluted road runoff and muck deposits, all of which load the water with nutrients – mainly nitrogen – that feed destructive algae blooms, clouding the water and smothering sea life.

Septic seepage and stormwater runoff add coliform bacteria, heavy metals and toxic chemicals. In the past few years, pollution has led to catastrophic seagrass loss, widespread disease in marine mammals, drastically reduced fish populations and occasional instances of life-threatening infections in humans.

As these dire events began to manifest in 2012, the Commission’s first response was to steadfastly refuse enactment of a fertilizer restriction ordinance to help keep nitrogen and phosphorus out of the lagoon, and to push ahead with expansion of the Oslo Road boat ramp, a project decried as foolish and environmentally destructive by lagoon scientists.

After more than a year of intense public pressure, the Commission finally reversed course and passed a fertilizer ordinance in the summer of 2013. Every city in the county had put similar rules in place well before that.

In October 2014, after environmentalists packed the Commission chambers and held large protest rallies, commissioners finally voted to put the Oslo ramp project on hold for three to five years. But that lagoon-friendly action was called into question when Vero Beach 32963 reported that staff was continuing to seek permits for the dredge-and-fill project in the middle of an aquatic sanctuary after it had supposedly been shelved.

Since the crisis began, the county has completed exactly two projects to help clean up and protect the lagoon.

In 2014, Commissioner Joe Flescher led an effort to install a small oyster reef a few miles north of Vero Beach and in 2015 the new Osprey Marsh Algal Turf Scrubber near the south relief canal went into operation.

The turf scrubber was built in response to a state mandate that the county not dump brine from its south water purification plant directly into the lagoon.

According to county Utility Director Vincent Burke, the scrubber removed 6,490 pounds of nitrogen from water headed for the lagoon in its first six months of operation, and while every little bit helps, that doesn’t make much of a dent in the 4 million pounds of nitrogen that enter the lagoon each year. (The scrubber also removed 1,800 pounds of phosphorous.)

The county’s efforts look particularly anemic when contrasted with proactive lagoon actions in the cities of Sebastian and Vero Beach.

Vero Beach passed a fertilizer ordinance a year and half before the county. It is now installing innovative sewer infrastructure to eliminate the use of septic systems in the city and working toward creation of stormwater utility to dramatically speed up completion of runoff filtration infrastructure.

Sebastian passed its fertilizer ordinance 15 months before the county and has launched a $100,000 per year grant program to help riverside property owners get off polluting septic systems and hook up to sanitary sewers.

“We have spent millions on our stormwater park, which takes 70 to 80 percent of the runoff,” adds Sebastian Mayor Richard Gillmor. “We are working on two oyster reefs and we led the fight to get Indian River County a seat on the Lagoon Council.”

Meanwhile the County Commission has refused to join the Indian River Lagoon Council, making it the only county along the waterway not cooperating in the regional effort to save the lagoon.

When the county declined to participate in the Council, which has oversight of federal funds available for lagoon projects, Gillmor and others organized IRC cities into a group to put up the $50,000 annual dues and occupy a seat on the Council so the county will have a voice. Gillmor also led the effort to bring the Council’s headquarters to Sebastian.

Dan Lamson, Executive Director of Indian River Neighborhood Association, warned commissioners last March that getting money for county projects “might well be impossible” without a voice on the Lagoon Council, but Commissioners Bob Solari and Peter O’Bryan pooh-poohed him.

Solari told Lamson the Neighborhood Association did not understand the issues, and O’Bryan said the county was doing just fine on its own, “without some council telling us what to do.”

O’Bryan said the County Commission “will continue to be very proactive ... we are moving forward with a septic to sewer project in Sebastian and we are going to do another oyster reef project.”

Those would be useful accomplishments if they had occurred, but they have not. According to county staff, no new oyster reef has been planned or built since the March 10, 2015 meeting where Lamson and O’Bryan spoke, and the commission did not authorize completing plans for the Sebastian sewer until last month.

The Commission began “studying” the possibility of new sewer infrastructure in several Sebastian neighborhoods in August 2014. Nearly a year and half later, no dirt has been turned.

There are some scattered bright spots in the county’s lagoon record.

When it belatedly passed a rainy-season fertilizer restriction ordinance, the Commission hired a fulltime education and enforcement employee to oversee compliance with the new regulations.

Stan Boling, head of Community Development at the county, said his department is “managing the Head Island project on the south barrier island.

“That project (near the St. Christopher’s Harbor subdivision) is restoring a waterway connection that will aid tidal flushing and provide a convenient pathway for boaters, reducing boat traffic over seagrass flats.”

In addition, the county staff has come up with a number of lagoon protection and restoration project ideas and the Commission is asking for state money to move ahead with hem in the current legislative session.

It remains to be seen if any of that money makes it out of the legislative labyrinth, or if the Commission will do anything besides talk about the lagoon in the coming year.