An economic and environmental disaster in the making


Published: Sunday, July 21, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 19, 2013 at 8:04 p.m.

Teddy Roosevelt liked pelicans.

Those absurdly constructed creatures that waddle so clumsily upon the earth but soar through the air like the very definition of grace itself.

Upon learning that feather hunters were slaughtering pelicans by the thousands on an especially productive rookery in Florida's Indian River, T.R. asked advisers what he could do to stop it.

The answer: protect the breeding ground by executive decree.

“I so declare it,” Roosevelt exclaimed.

And just like that Pelican Island, in 1909, was America's first federally designated wildlife preserve.

If only it were that easy today.

A century later, pelicans are again dying in the Indian River Lagoon. So are dolphins and manatees.

But not at the hands of mercenary hunters. No, what's killing wildlife these days in North America's most ecologically diverse estuary is, officially, a mystery.

Which is to say that we don't really know.

Or perhaps, that we don't really want to know.

Oh, there are clues aplenty.

We know that we have been saturating the lagoon with nutrients — the byproducts of agricultural and stormwater runoff, septic tank leakage, sewage discharges, runaway development and so on — for years.

We know that freshwater discharges into the lagoon have decreased the salinity of the water. And that, combined with years of drought, has played havoc with the food chain.

We know that an algae “superbloom” two years ago wiped out 47,000 acres of seagrass in the 158-mile long estuary, destroying vital marine food sources and nursery grounds.

And just this week, the Tampa Bay Times reported that the 112 manatees known to have died in the lagoon in recent months had been dining on seaweed laced with a “suite of toxins” of yet undetermined origin.

“These animals are swimming in some highly toxic water,” Peter Moeller, a chemist with the National Ocean Service, told the Times in a perfect observation of the painfully obvious.

Here's something else we can be pretty sure of.

Aliens from outer space are not poisoning the Indian River Lagoon.

We are.

And that's an old story in Florida, where forcing water to conform to the whims and desires of man has led to predictable consequences time after time.

Aliens didn't construct a giant earthen berm around Lake Okeechobee, there to stagnate and languish. We wanted the great lake to behave itself so we could build our farms and homes in its flood plains.

We presumed to drain the Everglades, and we straightened out (and then unstraightened) the Kissimmee River because it suited us to do so.

We gutted the mighty Apalachicola for the convenience of barges that hardly ever used it. We drowned the Ockalwaha for barges that never did arrive. We turned the St. Johns into something akin to an open sewer, and we are living with that legacy to this day in the form of giant algae blooms.

And don't even get me started on what we've done to Florida's greatest and least understood liquid treasure: the vast aquifer beneath our very feet.

In the space of a generation we have depleted underground water reserves that required centuries to accumulate.

A mystery? Hardly.

The clues to what's ailing the Indian River Lagoon are all around it. In the condos and subdivisions and strip malls and marinas and hotels and farms that virtually encircle the estuary.

Where is that “suite of toxins” coming from?

Where isn't it coming from is the better question.

Ironically, in a state whose politicians claim to be obsessed with jobs, the slow death of the Indian River Lagoon is an economic as well as an environmental disaster in the making.

According to the St. Johns River Water Management District, the annual economic impact of the lagoon is $3.7 billion. The 11 million people who flock to the lagoon to fish, boat, watch birds and otherwise enjoy the best that natural Florida has to offer support 15,000 full and part-time jobs.

The great “superbloom” of 2011 alone wiped out upwards of $470 million of the lagoon's economic value, the district figures.

Now, the district reckons that “the lagoon is at a turning point. The coming months could herald a slow recovery of this unique ecosystem or a continued decline.”

Can Florida muster the willpower to save the Indian River Lagoon? The signs are not good. This year Gov. Rick “Let's get to work” Scott vetoed more then $27 million earmarked for water quality improvements ... including $2 million to simply monitor water quality in the lagoon.

On the theory, I suppose, that what we don't know can't hurt us.

Honestly, it's enough to make Teddy Roosevelt cry.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

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