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

Project H2O Hopes To Rally Teamwork For Healthy Waters

Jan 18th, 2016 | Category: MDC News

Project-H20-without-water-line

A brand new program has been launched in Volusia County to address the needs of local waterways. Project H2O began operating in early December 2015, with the hiring of Mallory Brooks as its coordinator and the program hopes to gain greater public visibility this year through cooperative networking.

Based at the Marine Discovery Center in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., the new program plans to address several key themes, including environmental awareness, community engagement, sustainability, watershed protection and collaborative partnerships.

Those focus areas will address five key areas of implementation: education – educating Volusia County students and citizens about the problems and solutions concerning local waters; citizen science – engaging Volusia citizens in the active monitoring of waters while building a watchful community of ambassadors; restoration – to ensure healthy habitats through community restoration of local waters; reduction – to reduce the quantity and impacts of detrimental inputs into local waters; and research – supporting rigorous scientific study of local waters to better guide environmental initiatives in Volusia County.

Brooks, 23, who graduated from Stetson University in spring 2015 with a degree in environmental science, will oversee the one-year grant program funded by the National Estuary Program.

Mallory Brooks

Mallory Brooks

Here’s what the native of Tampa, Fla., had to say to Marine Discovery Center content writer Lisa D. Mickey in a recent interview:

MDC: What is the objective of Project H2O?
Brooks: Project H2O aims to promote healthy habitat through outreach. It’s a collaborative initiative with a variety of organizations, governmental agencies, nonprofits, local universities and so many others throughout Volusia County whose goal is to improve the waters and habitat in the Indian River Lagoon (IRL), as well as in the surrounding water bodies. We are all working together and sharing resources in order to better understand what we know and what we want to know about the IRL and Volusia County waters.

MDC: Who are some of the entities with which Project H2O is working?
Brooks: We have a great number of groups involved with Project H2O. So far, they include the St. Johns River Water Management District, Volusia County, the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences, Blue Spring Alliance, Stetson University, Bethune Cookman University, Daytona State College and the League of Women Voters. We are hoping to get others on board, as well.

MDC: What’s the first order of business for Project H2O in 2016?
Brooks: Our first order of business is to have everyone involved and on the same page about what is expected of Project H2O. Our plan right now is to draft a few documents, including a Resolution of Support and Operational Guidelines. We are also working on an Annual Work Plan to outline the specifics of Project H2O’s work throughout the year. We will work alongside our research team, who will guide the goals of the project and steer our efforts effectively.

MDC: What kind of things is Project H2O hoping to do?
Brooks: We are hoping to use the collective efforts of our partners to better utilize the resources available. When Project H2O was started, all of the partners were at a loss. The IRL was suffering from algal blooms, die-offs of dolphins, manatees and pelicans. Often, crisis provides opportunities to reevaluate our approach in the way we manage local water bodies. The advantage of a collaborative effort like Project H2O is that we don’t duplicate our work and can prioritize projects based on looking at the whole picture and not just a piece of it. The collaboration is a much more efficient use of our time, resources and energy to manage our waters.

MDC: Are you focused on both salt water and fresh water?
Brooks: Project H2O is a collaborative effort focusing on our watershed, which includes springs, rivers, estuaries and the ocean, but we must also be good stewards of the land that will drain into those water bodies and groundwater sources. The IRL is at the center of attention for Project H2O. It is such a fragile ecosystem, but one that is so important to Florida.

MDC: What is the challenge?
Brooks: The good news is that everyone has such a passion for our waters, so once we get everyone working together, I don’t think it’s going to be hard at all. But the current challenge is getting our network together and understanding what is expected of everyone. We are still identifying goals and establishing the group.

MDC: It sounds like Project H2O is kind of a clearinghouse of information when it comes to projects and initiatives in our local waters. You’re at the hub with all of the spokes rolling around you.
Brooks: Yes, absolutely. We’re working together with the ultimate goal that every group and organization is borrowing resources and information from each other. That is what’s so great about Project H2O! We are becoming a community working toward improvement in our water bodies throughout Volusia County with a focus on the IRL.

MDC: What will be your key focus in 2016?
Brooks: Our key focus in 2016 will be the input of nutrients in our local water bodies. These inputs include storm-water discharges, wastewater effluent, septic-tank discharge, the use of fertilizer and other practices in the watershed that increase nutrient inputs. We’re trying to hone in on what we see as the places where we can make the most difference in our first year and what needs the most attention.

MDC: So, what would interest the public about these various concerns?
Brooks: We love our water in this county and it shows in the attendance of public participation at county, city and other public meetings that focus on our water. Our “Hands Across the Lagoon” event a few years ago and the IRL Public Forums drew huge interest with many people wanting to know how they can help. The IRL, St. John’s River and Volusia Blue Spring watershed are all focuses of Project H2O, which directly impact every citizen in the county. Keeping everyone informed on these issues and what factors are impacting the water quality should be of great concern to the public.

MDC: What are some of your other focus areas?
Brooks: We want to use citizen scientists in local projects to sample the quality of the water, seagrass, presence of microplastics, horseshoe crabs and other data. Citizen science is a great way to collect much-needed data and to engage the community on the issues that impact our watershed. One of our projects that we are assisting with is the Florida Microplastics Awareness Project. We are gathering water samples throughout the IRL in Volusia County and along the Atlantic shoreline. Once we have the samples analyzed and microplastics counted, the data is submitted to the University of Florida Sea Grant Extension Agent, Dr. Maia McGuire, and will be used to make management decisions.

MDC: What is Project H2O doing in restoration?
Brooks: The power in this collaborative effort is that we can identify and prioritize restoration needs. For example, if our research team finds that water quality is poor, the restorations efforts will be focused on that area with options to include living shorelines. Some partners within Project H2O will be able to provide plants while other partners will provide volunteers. Still others may provide the technical knowledge to implement restoration projects.

MDC: One of your goals is reduction. What does that mean?
Brooks: We want to reduce the amounts of inputs impacting the watershed. These include nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment from roads and sidewalks. In addition to working with our partners on storm-water retrofits – anything that reduces the amount of pollutants or sediment in waterways — and reducing sewage effluent, a strong influence will be the fertilizer ordinance recently passed in Volusia County. Education of the ordinance, as well as the “Be Floridian Now” campaign will be a great help in reducing the amount of fertilizer being used within the county. We’re partnering with “Be Floridian Now,” which is an educational campaign aimed at reducing the use of fertilizer on lawns and adapting lawns to be more “Florida friendly.” If we can reduce the amount of fertilizer being used on our lawns, we can reduce the amount of nutrients in runoff being added to the lagoon and other waterways throughout Volusia County.

MDC: What is Project H2O’s role in research?
Brooks: Research will guide all of the other efforts of Project H2O. Current research projects include the creation of a GIS map detailing every restoration and water-quality effort in the county. Other efforts will be looking at the public-health impacts of water quality. Additional research will be to study the impacts of living shoreline restoration, coupled with a strong outreach program on improving water quality.

MDC: It sounds like there are a lot of different things going on at one time and you’re going to have to become a pretty good juggler. How do you feel about that?
Brooks: It’s really exciting being at the start of this awesome project. It’s such an opportunity for Volusia County, where there is so much growth and people are so in tune with the environment. It think this project is going to be a great success, but we’re still trying to figure out a lot of things as we get started. The challenge is just getting everyone on the same page, understanding what’s expected, what’s the next step and how they can be involved.

MDC: On a personal level, what’s your hope for this program?
Brooks: I really hope to see a difference in the quality of the water bodies throughout Volusia County. This approach should include thinking about the quality of the water and the land that drains into that water body. I think this project has so much potential because the people of Volusia County are involved and supportive of their environment.

MDC: What has been the biggest surprise so far?
Brooks: I expected more conflict in trying to launch this project, but people have been so welcoming of its efforts.

MDC: When will the public hear more about Project H2O?
Brooks: We’re hoping to launch an outreach campaign early this year and get our logo out there. We’ll be developing outreach materials and website content and we’ll distribute handouts and fliers to inform the public about the project. Right now you can check us out on Facebook.

MDC: What role does the average citizen have in Project H2o?
Brooks: I think every student and every citizen in Volusia County can be involved. If they are looking to have more involvement in schools or with their kids, we can set something up with education through Project IBIS. We always need citizen scientists to help with our microplastics water sampling or in our oyster-recycling program, making oyster bags and mats used for shoreline restoration. Our hope is to get everyone involved in some way throughout the county.

MDC: It seems that a project like this could only become more important as our region experiences continuous growth.
Brooks: Yes, I think so. Florida just topped a population of 20 million people, and that number is only going to grow. The Indian River Lagoon is an “Estuary of National Significance,” but when you add an influx of people to this sensitive ecosystem, along with the trash and pollution they’re bringing and the knowledge they may be lacking, we need to educate people and help them understand the estuary’s importance and how it can benefit them. Once we get them onboard and help them understand what we have here, then I think we’re golden.