Restoring the Indian River Lagoon is a complex process,
but progress is being made

April 22, 2022

Dr. Charles Jacoby, providing a tour om a boat with six other people

Dr. Charles Jacoby, inset, was among District staff providing a tour and update on the District’s work in the Indian River Lagoon with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in fall 2021.

Guest column: Dr. Charles Jacoby, Supervising Environmental Scientist, Bureau of Water Resources

As a scientist, much of my daily work is focused on learning as much as I can about the causes of impacts to the water bodies within the St. Johns River Water Management District and helping to find solutions to improve these waterways. As a Supervising Environmental Scientist in the Bureau of Water Resources, my work centers on the 156-mile-long Indian River Lagoon (IRL) along Florida’s east coast.

The work is both challenging and rewarding. Many people across the state and nation have heard about the challenges in recent months because of poor water quality and how that affects plants and animals. Reversing these impacts yields rewards in the form of strong partnerships with federal, state and local agencies and stakeholders who are seeking long-lasting solutions. Collaborating with the IRL Council/IRL National Estuary Program, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and local governments is very rewarding.

One shared goal of these partnerships is healthy submerged aquatic vegetation (seagrass). Healthy seagrasses absorb nutrients, stabilize sediments, reduce cloudy water, supply food for aquatic animals and provide habitat. Unfortunately, algal blooms have reduced the amount of light that reaches these underwater plants leading to loss of seagrass. These blooms are fueled by runoff that carries nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer and septic tanks associated with homes, businesses, and roads. Compounding the challenge is a change in the type of algae scientists are finding in the lagoon. Smaller species of microscopic algae (200 to 500 can fit within a period at the end of a sentence) are winning the competition for nutrients. These species reproduce more quickly than larger species and some can avoid being eaten by organism that graze on algae.

The health of the lagoon depends on not only what goes into the waterway, but also on how it functions. The lagoon receives water and nutrients from several watersheds, and unlike the St. Johns River where water and nutrients move from the headwaters in Indian River County to the mouth at Mayport, water and nutrients are not “flushed” through the lagoon. In fact, moving water through the three water bodies comprising the lagoon takes from weeks to years, which makes nutrients available to fuel algae growth.

The good news is the District and many partners (three federal, three state, and 33 local entities) are working to achieve positive results. Permits, best management practices and projects are all used to reduce “loads,” which is the amount of nutrients that get into the lagoon. For example, the District’s Environmental Resource Permitting Program addresses the future by keeping nutrient loads from becoming an even bigger problem, and our restoration work addresses existing “legacy loads” of nutrients that come from sources such as muck.

Overall, work to restore the lagoon’s health revolves around a comprehensive fitness program. This program includes reducing external loads of nutrients entering the lagoon (diet), removing legacy loads that have built up over decades (exercise), restoring damaged plants and animals (physical therapy), and providing regular checkups and preventative care through adaptive management and investing in improvements (ongoing monitoring and research).

Progress is being made, with more than 1,000 projects planned or underway. For example, DEP in 2021 invested $83.6 million for updates to wastewater treatment plants and septic-to-sewer projects that benefit the lagoon. Brevard County has a half-cent sales tax to raise about $50 million per year over 10 years; Volusia County approved a 0.2 mil slice of property taxes for each of 20 years to leverage with other funding and conserve natural lands. The District is investing in larger, regional projects that include stormwater treatment areas, diverting and treating freshwater that currently flows to the lagoon but belongs in the St. Johns River, dredging muck that releases nutrients, and restoring habitat. The District has 34 cost-share projects in the lagoon region, 25 water quality improvement projects (funded by $25 million from the Governor), and seven District-led restoration projects.

We need to stay the course — we’re trying to do things that no one has done on this scale before. It took many decades for the lagoon to get where it is and it’s going to take a while to get where we want to go. We’ll continue our diet and exercise program, restore wetlands to give the lagoon physical therapy, maintain a finger on the pulse with checkups, and explore new and innovative approaches and projects that can be done to help the lagoon.

It’s been my pleasure to lead a team of scientists over the years who are dedicated to both understanding the everchanging dynamics of this estuary and sharing that knowledge with the public and other agencies to generate a meaningful, positive impact on the health of the lagoon system.

Editor’s note: In addition to his work in the District’s Bureau of Water Resources, Dr. Jacoby is a member of IRL Council management conference. He is among speakers April 21 and 22, 2022, at the Indian River Lagoon Symposium at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, FL. For info:  Dr. Jacoby also was named to the Florida Red Tide Task Force in August 2019 to lend his expertise on statewide algae issues.

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