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Indian River Lagoon Stewardship

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Requires “A Higher Standard”

By Duane DeFreese, Ph.D

A quarter century ago, Indian River Lagoon (IRL) scientists warned this day would come. Rapid coastal development changed the natural shoreline functions of the IRL. Nutrient over-enrichment from aging and inadequate wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, coupled with decades of accumulated high-nutrient muck in the system are driving chronic water quality declines. Harmful algal blooms, loss of seagrasses, declining populations of natural filter feeders (i.e., oysters and clams) and wildlife mortality events are all evidence of a system under stress. For the southern IRL, these chronic stressors are coupled with large volume freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee dramatically changing salinity levels and fueling toxic cyanobacteria blooms threatening wildlife, human health and a regional economy.

General Ann Dunwoody (Retired), the first female four-star general in the United States military, said in her book, “A Higher Standard” (2015): “Never walk by a mistake.” Community leaders and local citizens throughout the lagoon have stopped walking past the mistakes of our past. Historic actions are underway at local, state and federal levels to address the problems and save the Indian River Lagoon. We now recognize that as coastal communities and stewards of our coastal assets, we need to have higher standards.

In 2015, the IRL Council was created in response to the IRL water crisis with the primary goal to lead a historic reorganization of the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program (IRLNEP). National estuary programs focus on non-regulatory, science-based, strategic, and community-driven solutions to restore estuaries identified by Congress as “Estuaries of National Significance.” Successful ecosystem restoration requires a science-based plan and a responsible business approach to program implementation. IRLNEP is revising the IRL Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan last updated in 2008. Restoration projects are underway throughout the IRL with numerous state agency and local community partners. In 2016, Brevard County developed the Save Our Lagoon Plan to identify Brevard County IRL restoration projects funded by an unprecedented $300 million sales tax initiative. Both plans are aligned and share the ultimate goals to restore water quality, ecosystem health and resilience to the IRL.

Here are some common-sense, best practice actions that you will see in both plans.

REDUCE freshwater, sediments and nutrient loads entering the IRL. Stormwater systems must be improved to control and treat stormwater before it reaches the IRL. Citizens can help by reducing impacts from our residential yards – fertilizer, chemicals, pet waste and grass clippings do not belong in the IRL.

REMOVE high-nutrient muck impacting sediment health and water clarity in the lagoon. In addition, we must remove derelict boats, litter, debris and barriers to natural water flow.

RESTORE water quality, natural shorelines and natural habitats. Restoration of natural filter feeders (oysters and clams) and seagrasses is essential to restore water quality in the lagoon. The hope is to see sustainable commercial harvesting of shrimp, clams, oysters and crabs once again along the IRL. It’s an important part of our coastal heritage and economy.

RESPOND to changing conditions and new knowledge. Data matters. No business survives without tracking assets, inventory, cash flow and market trends. Successful ecosystem restoration requires the best available scientific knowledge supported by a coordinated and comprehensive monitoring network collecting data from continuous and discrete sampling. Both require a long-term commitment to annual, recurring funding for lagoon-wide monitoring.

REBUILD our aging and inadequate wastewater infrastructure. Scientific studies suggest nutrients in the IRL can be sourced to human waste. IRL communities need to rebuild our aging wastewater treatment infrastructure with a focus on conversion of septic to sewer, upgrades to wastewater treatment plants and a need to rethink reuse water and biosolids management.

RESEARCH Innovation and creativity are critical to solving complex challenges and leading ecosystem change. The Space Coast understands the lasting value of innovation with our global leadership in space exploration. Strategic investment in coastal research and development should lead to the creation of a clean-tech industry cluster along the IRL that would position us as a global leader of resilient infrastructure, and clean water and renewable energy technologies. Innovative cross-over opportunities exist between space and ocean/coastal science and technology.

REPORT current conditions, trends, discoveries, progress and even failures to our communities.

Ecosystem restoration is not quick nor is it easy. There is no inexpensive “silver bullet.” Regular reporting of progress will keep IRL restoration on the right path toward success.

The future environmental, economic and quality of life values for 1.6 million people, 45 cities, five counties and the State of Florida are linked to the health of the Indian River Lagoon. Spanning 40 percent of the east coast of Florida with an economic value of $7.6 billion annually, the cost of doing nothing far outweighs the cost to do the right thing.

The scale and complexities of IRL problems demand that individuals and organizations work side by side, exchange ideas, build relationships, identify common interests and explore options. Working together, we will solve the problems facing our Indian River Lagoon.

“One Lagoon – One Community – One Voice.”


Duane E. DeFreese, Ph.D

Duane DeFreese Ph.D. is the director of the Indian River Lagoon Council and is the vice chair on the Board of Directors of the Florida Ocean Alliance. 

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