District, partners forging ahead to protect the Indian River Lagoon

By Ed Garland

Imagine 125 Olympic-sized swimming pools stretched end to end on Interstate 95, each containing roughly 3,300 cubic yards of gooey, black muck. The average Olympic pool is 164 feet long, which means the muck-bearing pools would stretch for nearly four miles. That’s how much muck the St. Johns River Water Management District has already dredged from the Eau Gallie River in Brevard County since spring 2017. And we’re poised to remove an equal amount in 2019.

The Eau Gallie project is oftentimes the headline-grabbing project of the district’s Indian River Lagoon restoration project roster, but it is hardly the only one. The agency’s dedicated staff are working on many fronts to improve the long-term health of the biologically complex estuary, which has been hard hit in recent years by persistent and protracted algal blooms.

“Work to manage and care for the lagoon is diverse, and many staff from our Division of Water and Land Resources, Division of Projects and others work quietly behind the scenes to restore this Estuary of National Significance,” says St. Johns River Water Management District Executive Director Dr. Ann Shortelle. “Removing decades of muck from the lagoon’s tributaries is beneficial to water quality, but we’re also finding ways to capture nutrients before they have a chance to reach the lagoon.”

Perhaps Florida’s best example of a project designed to decrease stormwater runoff in the lagoon is the district’s Canal 1 project in Brevard County.

The St. Johns River Water Management District is leading a project to remove more than 600,000 cubic yards of organic muck from the Eau Gallie River in Melbourne.

Canal 1 aerial photo

Stormwater from the C-1 Canal in Palm Bay (top) is pumped west to Sawgrass Water Management Area (below), where it is naturally filtered before flowing the St. Johns River. The project reduces the overabundance of freshwater flowing to the Indian River Lagoon.

Sawgrass Lake pumping station

For almost a century, Canal 1 in Palm Bay shunted stormwater away from its natural destination, the St. Johns River, and instead directed it to the Indian River Lagoon, straining the estuarine environment with nutrients, sediments and unnatural volumes of freshwater. The multi-phase C-1 Project restores a portion of these flows back to the St. Johns River, after being naturally filtered to remove nitrogen and phosphorus. This natural filtration happens in a 2,000-acre treatment system known as the Sawgrass Lake Water Management Area (SLWMA). Fully operational, Phase 1 pumping on the west end of the system now sends 39 percent of the average annual runoff back to the St. Johns River Basin.

What does this mean for the Indian River Lagoon? Between Jan. 1 and late August 2018, the pump stations redirected more than 14 billion gallons of stormwater to the SLWMA, an average of more than 58 million gallons a day. Based on water quality samples in the canals near the pump stations, roughly 9,000 pounds of phosphorus and 100,000 pounds of nitrogen have been removed from the Canal 1 system by fall 2018, thus preventing these nutrients from entering and causing harm to the lagoon.

South of Palm Bay, Micco Stormwater Park and Fellsmere Water Management Area, two very different projects, are both designed with the lagoon in mind. The Micco project uses a chain of lakes and a restored swamp to hold stormwater and capture nutrients before they can reach the St. Sebastian River, a lagoon tributary. The stormwater park is expected to remove an estimated long-term annual average of 16,753 pounds of total phosphorus and 27,223 pounds of total nitrogen.

South of Palm Bay, Micco Stormwater Park uses a chain of lakes and a restored swamp to hold stormwater and capture nutrients before they can reach the St. Sebastian River, a lagoon tributary.

Fellsmere Water Management Area adds 10,000 acres of restored wetlands to the headwaters of the St. Johns River. The Fellsmere project conserves groundwater that is withdrawn from the Floridan aquifer; augments dry season flows to the St. Johns River, enhancing downstream aquatic environments; and increases water storage in the Blue Cypress Lake watershed.

The vastly larger Fellsmere Water Management Area adds 10,000 acres of restored wetlands to the headwaters of the St. Johns River. Formerly pasture and crop lands, the property is now a vast wetland area that enables the district to decrease the frequency of freshwater discharges through the C-54 canal to the lagoon to less than a 1-in-100-year storm event. What’s more, the Fellsmere project conserves groundwater that is withdrawn from the Floridan aquifer; augments dry season flows to the St. Johns River, enhancing downstream aquatic environments; and increases water storage in the Blue Cypress Lake watershed.

Tim Glover, president of Friends of St. Sebastian River, helps celebrate the public opening of Micco Stormwater Park in spring 2018. At right is St. Johns River Water Management District Executive Director Dr. Ann Shortelle.

Partnering with other agencies and local governments has also led to scores of jointly funded projects throughout the estuary. Since 2014, the district has shared construction costs on 35 projects benefiting the Indian River Lagoon. Cumulatively, these projects will remove approximately 208,000 pounds per year of nitrogen and more than 100,000 pounds per year of phosphorus. The district has provided more than $19 million in funding toward approximately $63 million in lagoon project construction costs. Projects include septic-to-sewer, oyster reef installation, wastewater treatment facility upgrades, baffle boxes, muck removal, stormwater treatment ponds and park, upgrades to a water reclamation facility, and a reuse storage reservoir.  Good things are happening and on a massive scale.

“The challenge of revitalizing this waterway is larger than any one entity can master,” Shortelle says. “We don’t work alone. We provide substantial scientific and engineering expertise to guide lagoon restoration efforts and partner with lagoon region county governments, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, utilities, the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program, and community and stakeholders’ groups. We’re all striving for the same goal – to renew the lagoon.”

Visit www.sjrwmd.com/renew-lagoon to learn more about our Indian River Lagoon restoration projects.