VERO BEACH, Fla. — On the Indian River Lagoon, in the north side of Vero Beach, charter boat captain Paul Fafeita said if the water looks blue, it's just a reflection of the summer sky.
Under the surface, he said, the water is muddy and brown.
"We take people fishing and the first thing we have to do is apologize," Fafeita said.
Longtime kayaker Jean Catchpole sees water quality worsening.
"After heavy rains, you can see a change in the color of the water," Catchpole said. "It turns brown."
Retiree Wayne Mills was a member of a group that helped restore life to Chesapeake Bay when he lived near the nation's capital and fears the Indian River Lagoon's deterioration.
"You don't want to let it get so far that you can't reverse it," Mills said.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission statistics show more than 47% of all manatee deaths in the state this year occurred in the Indian River Lagoon, which stretches 156 miles from Volusia to Martin counties and is home to more than 4,400 plant and animal species.
A new federal lawsuit filed by three environmental groups – Save the Manatee Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife – partly blames pollution from septic tanks for those deaths.
These environmental groups blame not only septic tanks, but also fertilizer runoff for seagrass loss and algal outbreaks.
On a boat trip in the lagoon, Fafeita, who has been boating for more than half a century, showed Contact 5 some problem areas.
"I'm going to skirt this shoreline," Fafeita said, blaming a record number of manatee deaths on the disappearance of sea grass, the manatee's main source of food.
"This all used to be plush seagrass along this area right here," he said, pointing to an area close to shore with no vegetation underwater. "See how it's basically barren."
Florida Atlantic University researcher Dr. Brian Lapointe blames the pollution on thousands of septic systems near the lagoon, from Volusia to Martin counties.
He said the pollution threatens both wildlife and property values, especially in Indian River County.
"The can has been kicked down the road for so long that we're now seeing a crisis in the Indian River Lagoon," Lapointe said.
Lapointe's research shows pollution from household sewage in the central Indian River Lagoon in and around Vero Beach is considerable higher than in counties to its north and south.
Lapointe puts the blame squarely on septic systems, especially on homes on or near the lagoon.
"Every home is like a little brownfield," Lapointe said of houses on septic systems. "The problem in Florida is conventional septic systems just don't work. They just do not remove the contaminants."
Pollution worsens when it rains, especially during spring and summer downpours. Backyards and fields flood. Septic systems fail.
Septic tanks are built to hold solids in tanks, while the liquid from household sewage is supposed to be filtered by soil as it seeps into the groundwater.
But scientists like Lapointe said some of Florida's problems stem from sand being a weak filter.
When groundwater rises, it moves even more sewage into the lagoon.
The city of Vero Beach is taking action.
It now inspects all home septic systems every five years, mandating homeowners whose systems fail inspections hook up to the central sewer system.
The city is also not allowing new homes to build septic systems.
But Contact 5 inspected city records and found only 35.9% of eligible homeowners have hooked up to central sewer systems.
"I'm still on septic," Vero Beach homeowner Donald Blank said.
Blank said he received an estimate of $9,000 to connect to the central sewer system.
He said homeowners like him on fixed incomes would convert if there were subsidies that would pay for a substantial portion of the hookup costs.
"If the state or the city is so concerned about pollution, why are they not paying for it?" Blank, who lives about a mile from the lagoon, wanted to know.
He said he keeps his septic system maintained. He also volunteers at the city's Environmental Learning Center and bristles at the idea that his home is contributing to the Indian River Lagoon's pollution.
On his boat in the lagoon, Fafeita has hope as he sees a cormorant perched on a piling. But he also sees warning signs in the form of dead and disappearing manatees and young pelicans, alone on the banks of the waterway in the summer.
"They don't have enough strength to fly north with their relatives, their parents," he said.
So far this year, the FWC reports 256 manatees have died in the Indian River Lagoon. By comparison, 353 died in the lagoon in all of 2021.