"To protect and restore the Florida coastal and Indian River Lagoon ecosystems
through education, research and community stewardship."

Algal Blooms Make Return To Indian River Lagoon

Feb 28th, 2016 | Category: Announcements, MDC News

By Lisa D. Mickey

Bob-Chew

Bob Chew

When Rhode Islanders Bob and Beth Chew purchased waterfront property in New Smyrna Beach three years ago, it was the lure of the Indian River Lagoon’s clear water and fishing-mecca reputation that sealed the deal.

An environmental scientist and avid angler, Bob wanted to spend each September to June fishing in the lagoon. Best of all, the water was so pristine that he could “sight fish” and release his catch back into the estuarine waters for another day.

But in early February, Chew went out in a boat on the Mosquito Lagoon with his neighbor, professional fishing guide Frank Brownell. What they found was dark, murky water with limited visibility.

“The water looks like orange-brownish tea with a little coffee mixed in,” said Chew, a member and volunteer at the Marine Discovery Center. “It’s disgusting.”

Sure enough, the story headline in a Florida Today newspaper in Brevard County made Chew’s hunch official, announcing: “Green Algae Joins Brown Tide in the Indian River Lagoon.” And according to the story published on February 23, the algae that killed 47,000 acres of seagrass in the lagoon back in 2011, has returned.

Dr. Chuck Jacoby, a supervising environmental scientist at the St. Johns River Water Management District, noted that an unseasonably warm and unusually wet “dry season” in Central Florida has contributed to the current algal bloom.

“We haven’t had much cold weather and water temperatures have stayed relatively warm,” said Jacoby. “Colder temperatures often give you some benefit in the winter because they slow down the growth of algae.”

And because 2016 has been punctuated nationwide by dramatic El Nino weather conditions — bringing more rain than typical during Central Florida’s winter months – Jacoby said the rainfall has also contributed to algal growth in the lagoon.

“Nutrients are generated largely by land-based activities, such as use of fertilizers and septic systems, and the rain moves these nutrients from the land into the lagoon,” Jacoby added.

Project H2O coordinator Mallory Brooks was recently invited by Chew to view the lagoon’s water quality for herself. From Chew’s boat, Brooks could clearly see why the New Englander was upset.

“The water was an olive-green color, which was shocking to me,” said Brooks. “We were in six inches of water and we couldn’t see the bottom of the lagoon.”

Ironically, the winter months typically offer the best water clarity for Central Florida anglers and kayakers. Paddlers can often see conchs and fish on the bottom while anglers can cast toward their visible targets. As a result, the usually clear waters of the Indian River Lagoon bring winter tourists from around the world to enjoy water sports. This winter, however, has offered a different story.

“I would be very concerned if my livelihood as a professional guide in these waters was jeopardized because of the poor water quality,” said Chew. “And if the water is this dirty in the middle of the winter, I can’t imagine what it will be like when the temperatures warm up.”

In his home state, Chew watched a similar concern with declining water quality on Narragansett Bay — a bay and estuary located on the northern side of Rhode Island Sound. For at least two decades, the waters in the bay suffered and declined.

“The public finally made it a priority to clean up Narragansett Bay and we had whales this year,” said Chew. “We didn’t see them when the water wasn’t clean 20 years ago.”

Local citizens around the bay plastered their cars with “Save the Bay” bumper stickers and public awareness turned into public duty to pressure politicians into taking appropriate actions, said Chew.

“Just like what happened with Narragansett Bay, we need to save our lagoon here,” he added. “I think we need to address the problems in the lagoon now and enforce ordinances on fertilizer use and septic systems around the water. We’re in a crisis situation and the demise of the Indian River Lagoon would be a terrible loss.”

Jacoby is holding out hope for some colder temperatures in the waters of the Indian River Lagoon this spring. And he added that “a lot of things have been put into place” to improve the water quality of the nation’s most biologically diverse estuary.

For example, science-based studies to enhance biological management of the lagoon include regular monitoring, data collection, field and lab analysis, a current seagrass transplant project and water-quality sensors installed throughout the northern and central sections of the lagoon to monitor nitrogen, pH, dissolved oxygen and water temperature.

“It took us well over 50 years to get to where we are today and the challenges have built up over time,” Jacoby said. “It’s going to take time to reverse course and the answer will unfold in the long term.”

One of the large challenges is to restore the watershed closer to its original size and function by altering the canals dug to drain land for agriculture and development, added Jacoby.

In fact, one of the area’s first efforts to drain land using canals came during early colonization of New Smyrna in 1768. Jacoby said current plans are in place to send water in some canals back to the St. Johns River where it used to flow and to slow down the flow in other canals so less nutrients and sediment reach the lagoon.

Even with county and municipal fertilizer ordinances in place up and down the 156 miles of the Indian River Lagoon, the real issue of nutrient overloading in the lagoon often comes down to citizens voluntarily making choices to protect precious waterways,

“Nutrient overloading in the lagoon will only be solved when we, as a community, responsibly manage our waters,” added Chad Truxall, executive director of the Marine Discovery Center. “Individuals, municipalities, home owners’ associations, government and businesses depend on a healthy lagoon for a healthy and productive community.”

Truxall would like to see more local support for native landscapes that don’t require large amounts of water, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. He also advocates creating “community-level solutions” that protect waterways.

And with 93,000 septic tanks in Volusia County alone, cleaning up the lagoon also includes the need for citizens to take action to assure their septic tank drainage fields are not depositing harmful nutrients and wastes into the lagoon or waterways.

“All of us are contributing to the condition of the lagoon,” said Jacoby. “So it’s up to all of us to contribute to the solution.”

Lisa D. Mickey may be reached at lisa@marinediscoverycenter.org

What Can You Do to Help the Indian River Lagoon?

Here are some helpful actions you can take if you live on or near the Indian River Lagoon. Visit http://floridaswater.com/indianriverlagoon/whatyoucando.html to learn more.

  • Fertilize wisely and sparingly. Use organic or slow-release fertilizers and use only when nutrient deficiencies are evident. A single pound of fertilizer will grow more than 500 pounds of algae in the lagoon. Algae block sunlight to seagrass, causing habitat loss, fish kills and loss of a food source for manatees.
  • Send only rain down the storm drain. Avoid placing grass clippings, yard wastes, oils, trash, chemicals and other pollutants into the storm drain. These drains are designed to carry rainwater to the Indian River Lagoon.
  • Pick up after pets. Pet wastes left on paved surfaces, lawns or scooped into storm drains and other water bodies can become a source of nutrients and fecal coliform — bacteria that can potentially harm shellfish and make them unsafe to eat.
  • Use native and Florida-friendly plants. These plants are adapted to Florida’s growing conditions and require less water and fertilizer to thrive. Non-native plants can become rapidly spreading invasive species, which can degrade or eliminate native species and jeopardize animal habitats.
  • Report sick, dead or injured wildlife. Sick or dead birds, as well as other wildlife, should not be handled. Call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922 for help.
  • Leave only footprints.  Be sure to properly dispose all garbage and monofilament fishing line during lagoon visits and leave rocks, plants and other natural objects where they belong in the lagoon.