By Peter Barile, American Water Security Project
The Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), members of the local Florida legislative delegation and the St. Johns River Water Management District joined Gov. Ron DeSantis in Sebastian in September to announce $53 million in project support from FDEP’s new wastewater grant program to help improve water quality in the floundering Indian River Lagoon.
The funding of 13 wastewater infrastructure projects could not have come sooner, as many in East Central Florida are well aware of the degraded status of the Indian River Lagoon system, which includes the Mosquito, Banana River and the Indian River Lagoons.
Nuisance and toxic algal blooms, including brown tides, blue-green algae and seaweed blooms, fish kills and mass manatee die-offs, have become too common over the past decade, especially in Brevard and Volusia counties.
In the shadow of Kennedy Space Center, ironically, much of the northern Lagoon below the surface has become a lifeless “moonscape” denuded of greater than 90% of historic seagrass cover. Oxygen deficits have also suffocated fish, shellfish and other bottom dwellers.
In a 2021 FDEP Basin Management Action Plan for the northern Indian River Lagoon, the department reported that despite recent restoration efforts, a 50% reduction in annual nitrogen and phosphorus loads will still be needed to create water-quality conditions sufficient to mitigate harmful algal blooms and result in water clear enough to initiate recovery of seagrasses and organisms that depend on this aquatic plant lifeblood.
Which means that significant reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus loading into the lagoon is still the primary and essential task necessary to achieve restoration of the most biodiverse estuary in North America.
Back in 1990 the Indian River Lagoon Act was passed by leadership in Tallahassee to stop direct discharge of over 50 million gallons of partially treated human sewage per day into the lagoon. The pollution was then causing localized seagrass loss and closure of many of the lagoon’s prolific shellfish areas.
This law called for conversion of wastewater treatment plants along the lagoon to advanced wastewater treatment, reducing greater than 90% of effluent nitrogen and phosphorus and also creating a valuable reusable water source.
The law also requested local water management districts, and counties such as Brevard, to inventory and then mitigate polluting septic tanks. This assessment of polluting septic tanks near the lagoon was completed.
In Brevard alone, 75% of its 90,000 residential septic tanks were identified as potential polluters. But cleanup was never achieved and Florida’s boom in new residential development resulted in many thousands more homes with polluting septic tanks, primarily outside of urban service boundaries.
In 2020, following consultation from scientists, bill sponsor Sen. Debbie Mayfield of Indialantic and the Legislature passed the Clean Waterways Act, which created a wastewater grant program to provide matching funds to local governments for critical wastewater projects near water bodies that FDEP identified as impaired.
Another bill signed by DeSantis in 2020, the Environmental Accountability Act, sponsored by Rep. Randy Fine of Palm Bay, significantly increased FDEP fines to local utilities operating poorly maintained wastewater facilities that previously operated under a slap-on-the-wrist penalty structure for permit violations.
DeSantis publicly stated in 2019 that “sewage dumping became the cost of doing business” for polluting utilities undeterred by miniscule fines.
As the governor announced in his media event, the 13 lagoon projects funded from the FDEP’s wastewater grant program will convert three wastewater treatment facilities to advanced wastewater treatment and hook up 3,000 polluting septic tanks to municipal wastewater treatment facilities — a great step to fulfill the mandate of the 1990 Indian River Lagoon Act.
In the years to come, I encourage the governor, the Legislature and the FDEP to continue to prioritize funding for critical wastewater infrastructure projects that will result in water-quality improvements and restoration of the Indian River Lagoon system.
Alternatively, the Legislature and the governor should be vigilant in cutting wasteful spending projects such as muck dredging and “super clam” seed plantings that are not consistent with the FDEP’s restoration plans for the lagoon.
Thank you again, Gov. DeSantis, our local legislative delegation and the FDEP for making restoration of the Indian River Lagoon system your environmental priority.
Dr. Peter Barile is an environmental scientist and the science director of the American Water Security Project. He is based in Melbourne.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.