Indian River Lagoon in Distress

The Indian River Lagoon is located on Florida’s east coast. It is a shallow water estuary that has one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America. It stretches across 40 percent of Florida’s east coast, spanning 156 miles that contain more than 600 species of fish and more than 300 kinds of birds. It has an economic impact to the State because of its commercial and recreational fishery. It accounts for hundreds of millions in revenue from angling, boating, bird-watching, and tourism. But these days the River is in distress.

The lagoon was hit with an algal superbloom, unlike any it had experienced before in the spring of 2011. It covered nearly 131,000 acres. Roughly 47,000 acres of seagrasses were lost, a reduction of about 60 percent. In August 2012, the lagoon experienced a brown tide algae bloom, that tinted the water a chocolate brown. The algae had been a recurring problem in Texas but why it showed up in Florida was a mystery.

Last summer, manatees began dying. The recent count is 111 manatees dead under mysterious circumstances. Then pelicans and dolphins began showing up dead, too. More than 300 pelicans and 46 dolphins have died so far.

Biologists have not been able to identify the causes for the deaths. The species diets and symptoms are different. Biologists with the State examine every dead manatee found in Florida for a cause of death but the Indian River lagoon manatees have them stumped. Similar tests are being run on the pelicans and dolphins.

Suggested culprits for the algae blooms and marine animal deaths include: storm water runoff filled with fertilizer and other nutrient pollution, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dumping polluted water from Lake Okeechobee, changes in water temperature or salt levels, overflow from contaminated mosquito control ditches and climate change, which is boosting the acidity of the world’s oceans.

A bill recently signed by Gov. Rick Scott will get more pollution fighting help to the river of Grass. The legislation helps pay for part of the $880 million long term plan for Everglades water pollution cleanup by extending a $25 an acre tax on sugar cane and other agriculture south of Lake Okeechobee. The law calls for the tax rate to decrease starting in the mid 2020’s.

The tax goes toward cleaning up stormwater pollution that washes off farmland and into the Everglades. The bill also requires the state to pay $32 million a year for the next ten years to build marshes that remove phosphorus before the nutrient flows into the Everglades.

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