Troubling waters for the Indian River Lagoon

An Indian River Bottlenose dolphin chasing prey on the Indian River Lagoon. This subspecies of the Atlantic Bottlenose is 20% smaller due to living in the shallow lagoon. Photo by Jenna Boerst.

By Jenna Boerst

For years the Indian River Lagoon has dealt with pollution that has changed the ecology of the river. Now, talks are underway to see if turning the lagoon into a national park will be a better method of protection. 

The Indian River Lagoon runs from Ponce de Leon Inlet down to the southern border of Martin County and suffers from fish kills, algae blooms and poor water quality, according to the St. Johns River Water Management.  

Jim Moir, executive director of the Indian Riverkeeper is no stranger to the obstacles that go into protecting the river. He said protecting the river has been hard since the river went under the Florida Department of Environment Protection, putting the Clean Water Act underneath the state DEP instead of the federal EPA.

“It has this weird triangular involvement, where the water management districts are in charge of monitoring,” Moir said. “The Department of Agriculture is in charge of agricultural enforcement or you know, recommending the best management practices and the state DEP is responsible for enforcement of those regulations and permits and so really, nothing ever gets done.”

Moir said one of the biggest challenges is combating point source pollution from Lake Okeechobee, which is legally allowed to dump wastewater into the estuary. Last Saturday, Lake Okeechobee began discharging water due to high water levels, according to The Army Corps of Engineers.

It is unknown how long the discharges could last. In 2023, the Army Corps of Engineers discharged Lake Okeechobee for 83 days. 

“The group of engineers that operate the locks that control the discharges of Lake Okeechobee, they’re exempted from that Westerns River Act, under the transport authority that they have. They’re allowed to transport water from one place to another,” Moir said. “So they’re allowed under federal law, to pollute the city of Stuart and the city of Fort Myers and all the people associating with those waterways because they have to discharge water from Lake Okeechobee for safety reasons.”

Lake Okeechobee is known for its blue-green algae, which flows into the Indian River and creates an extremely toxic environment for those in and out of the water. 

“People get sick and dogs die from drinking water that is being discharged out of Lake Okeechobee, it’s toxic. It looks like guacamole floating to the river,” Moir said.

As riverkeeper, Moir noticed that things haven’t been properly managed and feels that the system won’t change anytime soon. Moir said that most systems will be grandfathered into old ways and even the stormwater currently doesn’t have proper management. 

“So my thought was, well, let’s disconnect from all of that. And let’s designate the Indian River Lagoon and the near-shore reef as a national park and put it back under federal control rather than state control. And if you love something, you designate it as a park and you protect it in perpetuity as a park,” Moir said. 

With the river supplying around $7.6 billion annually, many businesses and livelihoods depend on the health of the river, according to St. Johns River Water Management. 

Cheyne East, captain of Southern Mayhem Fishing Charters, makes a living fishing the Indian River Lagoon. In recent years, his team has had to adapt in order to work around the decreasing water quality. 

“When we run through an area with poor water, with you know, fishkill, you’ll look into the well and all of our baits are turned belly up because they can’t handle that, that poor water quality,” East said. 

To avoid polluted water, East must travel the river more, and look for areas that have pockets of clean water trying to keep his bait, and livelihood alive. He worries that by letting it get worse, it’s not going to be a great situation for a lot of individuals. 

“We’re in the same boat as a lot of other captains around us. The river keeps on dying off and keeps losing all the population of fish, then you know, it’s going to be a whole lot harder for us to make money and find the fish,” East said. 

East thinks designating the river as a national park could be good but worries about how that could affect his business. 

“The only thing that I worry about though is like, if they end up closing it off and making it a federal, you know, park and everything,” East said. “I don’t think we will be able to operate businesses in that area.”

The factors affecting the river are vast but East favors the replanting of oysters and seagrass, which are natural filters for the river. The now missing seagrass used to be everywhere, according to East. 

“I think that was a huge thing. Initially, when that, you know, poor water quality started to come through and killed off all that seagrass, and then because that seagrass was such an important natural filter the water didn’t, you know, couldn’t clean up as well, because of that, that natural filter was gone,” East said. 

East is not the only person who vividly remembers the seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon. Bernice Roth, 97, has lived on the river since 1977 and has watched the river change over the years. 

Roth vividly remembers when she first noticed issues with the river. In the ‘80s Roth said crabbers came into the river and disrupted the natural flow of things, harvesting too many crabs and disturbing the seagrass. 

Roth said after the seagrass died, most of the fish left the river as well. 

While she is in favor of solutions, she has doubts about the ability to get the river designated as a national park. 

“I don’t see how they could, it’s too large of an area of water and it traverses too much area. I don’t see how it could be,” Roth said. 

She said she is in favor of anything that can protect the lagoon from overfishing, pollution and further disruption and remembers how healthy the river was before the loss of the seagrass.

“I think they have to have the grass grow again. They have to concentrate, putting whatever grass seed in and making the grass grow. That’s the beginning of a healthy lagoon is when the grass starts to grow again,” Roth said.

While there are many solutions and many questions about how to protect the river, Moir urges people to stay positive. He encourages those who care about the river to be proactive in protecting it, as change is possible. 

“I think we need to hold hope out there. You know, hope is what all of this depends on,” Moir said. 

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