Perils facing the Indian River Lagoon

Posted at 4:45 PM, May 09, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-09 17:56:00-04

In the Indian River Lagoon, off Fort Pierce, Dr. Edie Widder sees the world through the eyes of a scientist. She is co-founder and CEO of ORCA--the Ocean Research and Conservation Association. She said to me as we toured part of the lagoon, "We are messing with our planetary life support systems."

Fertilizer and pesticide runoff from farmlands, sugar cane fields and homes, septic and treated sewage outflow from our cities, grass clippings from our backyards--all of it creates a nasty stew beneath the surface of the lagoon.

I asked Dr. Widder about the recent, catastrophic fish kill in the northern reaches of the Indian River Lagoon, in Brevard County. She told me, "Unless we change our ways it is likely to happen here."

Widder said the working theory on the cause of the massive fish kill goes like this. Nutrient rich runoff spawned an algae bloom. A virus then killed the algae. Bacteria ate the dead algae, sucking oxygen from the water and suffocating fish. "We have to stop," Widder said, "putting all our waste and nutrients and pollution into this body of water."

The alarms are getting louder even as resources to cope are threatened.  Dr. Widder's ORCA team oversees 25 water quality monitors strategically located across the lagoon. Those monitors track pollution sources and flow. Now, though, Dr. Widder worries 15 of the monitors may have to be pulled because state lawmakers said no to $500,000 in requested funding. She said, "We are going to lose the ability to figure out what we need to be concentrating on to clean up the lagoon."

I talked to Senator Joe Negron, the Stuart area Republican, about her concerns. He's been pushing to tackle water quality issues and has growing clout as the incoming president of the Florida Senate. Negron promised he's looking at ways to try to keep all the water quality monitors in operation. We will be following up to see what happens.

Meanwhile, Dr. Widder argued that you wouldn't pull monitors from a patient in the emergency room. Doing so in the ailing  lagoon, she added, puts all of us at risk. She concluded, "We need to be doing the same kind of thing for our life support systems on this planet. We need to be monitoring them with the same kind of care because, ultimately, they are sustaining us."