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County looks to reel in state funds for wish list of lagoon projects

STORY BY CASEY STAVENHAGEN (Week of October 26, 2023)

Indian River County hopes its new lagoon plan and the 88 proposed water-quality projects included will help secure a share of $100 million in state grants announced this summer.

In response to commissioners’ direction to expedite the county’s Indian River Lagoon Management Plan, staff recently delivered on the list of more than $200 million worth of proposed projects. “It has taken longer to get here than I like, but we’re here,” said county commission chair Joe Earman.

“Let’s follow the playbook and let’s pursue this. I think we can make a difference,” Earman said.

The 103-page plan, developed by county staff and the consultants Tetra Tech, delves into the nitty gritty of nutrients in the lagoon, various ecosystems, the demands of increased development and the algal blooms of 2011, 2012 and 2016 caused by excess nutrients in the water.

“These events led to fish kills, widespread seagrass die off, and raised concerns regarding the effects on wildlife dependent on the habitat,” the plan reads.

Beyond water quality issues, the lagoon has experienced a major habitat shift.

“Historically, the Lagoon was dominated by a sandy bottom, but excessive organic matter, nutrients and fine sediments from erosion have created deposits of muck in the tributaries and in areas of the IRL … The reduction of healthy sediment and the decrease in water quality has resulted in massive, and in many areas total, loss of seagrass,” the plan says.

Since commissioners approved the draft plan in July, staff and Tetra Tech held two public meetings and met with six stakeholder groups to receive comments on the plan. The final version of the plan included those comments and, when applicable, incorporated them into the plan.

“In both meetings, septic-to-sewer and wastewater were the priority,” said Melissa Meisenburg, the county’s county lagoon plan environmental specialist. “After that, it varies depending on whether its stormwater or land use changes. That House Bill 1379 is weighing heavily in people’s minds.”

There’s no clear funding in place for vital projects, but County Administrator John Titkanich said staff has identified 23 potential grants the county could apply for.

“The costs of the projects and programs listed in this plan exceed the County’s current funding availability,” the lagoon plan reads. “Therefore, substantial additional funding will be required to achieve plan goals and regulatory requirements for the IRL going forward. As new funding sources become available, the County will evaluate the applicability to project needs and will add pertinent sources to the plan.”

Of the 88 projects, 21 are currently operational, eight are under construction and five are designed. The five shovel-ready projects include two areas of seagrass restoration, the installation of an oyster reef and living shoreline at Lauren’s Island – located just south of the Barber Bridge and west of Riverside Park – septic-to-sewer for 17 homes in Floraton Shores and the evaluation of future muck removal. The remainder of the projects are conceptual.

The bulk of the projects in the county’s list are septic-to-sewer connections for homes, split into groups. The conceptual project list includes over 6,000 homes at approximately $15,000 per home on average.

Recent studies have shown that wastewater is a leading cause of nutrient loading in the lagoon. Tetra Tech estimated that septic-to-sewer conversions could reduce nitrogen input by up to 17 pounds per year, per home.

“The mantra throughout the lagoon is to stop the nutrients at their source,” said Clean Water Coalition of Indian River County acting president Judy Orcutt. “It’s cheaper to stop them from getting into the water than it is to try and take them out of the water.”

Each project in the plan fits into 17 named key factors, ranging from land use changes to wastewater. One of four county departments – stormwater, coastal engineering, conservation lands or utilities – will head each project. Staff added goals, objectives, and actions to each key factor between the draft and final versions.