Below are six proactive ways in which lagoon-area residents and visitors can help improve water quality—and the overall Indian River Lagoon estuary system.
Indiscriminate use of fertilizers results in deteriorating water quality in the Indian River Lagoon as well as waterways everywhere. Fertilizers are composed primarily of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium which are the major components required for plant growth. These chemicals, when improperly used, can have significant adverse effects on the environment.
Although fertilizers can temporarily make a lawn look greener, they are far too often applied incorrectly. Instead of being incorporated into plant tissue, excess nutrients work their way into the lagoon directly through stormwater runoff or indirectly by seeping through the soil into groundwater. When in the lagoon, these nutrients stimulate blooms of micro-algae (i.e., phytoplankton) as well as the proliferation of other aquatic plants. Blooms of certain species of phytoplankton can create what are known as harmful algal blooms, or HABs. HABs can produce potent toxins that can have negative health consequences for both humans as well as marine organisms.
Eutrophication is a process in aquatic systems that describes the subsequent decay of rapidly growing plant material consuming available oxygen, thus creating hypoxic conditions that threaten other plants and animals in the ecosystem. Larval and juvenile stages of fish and invertebrates can be particularly sensitive to eutrophication.
This decaying organic material eventually settles to the bottom and, along with fine particles of silt and clay, creates a low oxygen (hypoxic) layer often called muck.
Hypoxic conditions can affect biodiversity by causing the demise of species normally found in an area while promoting the growth of opportunistic species that thrive in low oxygen environments. Muck can easily be resuspended and further affect water quality and clarity. Dense phytoplankton blooms (harmful or otherwise) can also physically decrease the amount of light penetrating the water column and thus pose as an additional threat to healthy seagrass growth.
Become familiar with the Florida Yards & Neighborhoods program, run by the University of Florida Cooperative Extension service and supported by UF/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. This program educates homeowners about the design, installation, and maintenance of healthy landscapes that use a minimum of water, fertilizer, and pesticides.
If reclaimed water is used for irrigation, be aware that it does contain some nutrients. Adjust the amount of fertilizer accordingly.
An estimated that 75 billion gallons of stormwater runoff in Brevard County makes its way into the IRL annually. Most of this is collected from hard, impervious surfaces: streets, parking lots, sidewalks, and rooftops via storm drains, which then enters the lagoon via canals and tributaries.
Carried with this runoff are pollutants such as heavy metals, fertilizers, sediments, animal wastes, oil and grease from roadways ,anti-freeze, pesticides, household chemicals, bacteria, and an array of organic and inorganic material. In the IRL, these materials threaten free-swimming and bottom-dwelling organisms, promote excessive algal growth, and can smother seagrasses.
This “non-point” pollution is the primary source of pollution in the IRL today and poses the biggest threat to its water quality. A common misconception hindering individual efforts to lessen the effects of this pollution source is that many of us think that water entering storm drains is initially directed to wastewater facilities for treatment. This is not the case.
To help keep sediment, leaves, yard clippings, and floating litter that would normally reach the IRL via storm drains, many local governments as well as the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program have been instrumental in installing a number of stormwater treatment devices known as baffle boxes throughout the IRL. Although baffle boxes do not remove dissolved nutrients, this inexpensive, relatively simple technology has been tremendously successful in preventing much solid material from entering the lagoon.
Other tips to keep stormwater cleaner:
It’s true: animal waste is gross. Understandably, some pet owners are reluctant to pick up after their pets for a variety of reasons: inconvenience; unsightliness; odor. Although more than 60 percent of dog owners report responsibly picking up after their four-legged friends, it is estimated that in the five-county region surrounding the Indian River Lagoon, every day, as much as 84 tons of dog feces are left on the ground in backyards, sidewalks and streets.
In addition, some people choose to dispose of animal waste directly into waterways and/or storm drains. Since most stormwater is not treated before flowing into canals and local waterways, bacteria and other organisms in neglected or improperly disposed of pet waste can directly threaten commercial and recreational fishing, shellfishing, boating, and swimming in the Indian River Lagoon. Nutrients associated with pet waste can also cause the proliferation of phytoplankton and macro-algae with additional, adverse effects on the IRL ecosystem.
Many homeowners take pride in a beautiful landscape. Landscaping increases the aesthetic and curb appeal of dwellings, and enhances property value. Florida’s nursery and landscaping industry is big business, valued in the tens of billions of dollars annually.
But picking the right plant for the right place—selecting landscaping plants that fit well into existing site conditions—can not only minimize water consumption and over-application of fertilizers, but still support the economic benefits of the state’s horticultural industry.
When commonly used “backyard chemicals” are reduced or eliminated, so is the likelihood that excess chemicals will reach the estuary’s waters. Agricultural and residential runoff is an important contributor to declining lagoon water quality.
A few general principles to keep in mind:
When you are ready to choose specific trees and plants for your landscape, the following resources can help guide your selections:
The Indian River Lagoon’s natural beauty is irresistible, drawing thousands of people every year for kayaking, boating, canoeing, camping, sightseeing, wildlife viewing and more. Tourism and recreation contributes significantly to the regional economy, contributing an estimated $2 billion annually.
In order to preserve and maintain the biodiversity and integrity of the IRL for ourselves and future generations to enjoy, consider ways to reduce impacts on, and respect the IRL ecosystem during our outdoor activities on the lagoon by “leaving only footprints”
Leave No Trace principles provide a guideline for reducing human impact on the natural environment.
Many hands make light work – and the Indian River Lagoon needs all hands on deck to help restore and maintain its many habitats and natural resources. Shoreline cleanups, mangrove planting, water quality monitoring, oyster gardening, living shorelines, helping out at community events, photographing scenes that inspire you – all these things and more are readily available throughout the five-county area encompassing the IRL.
For more information on volunteer activities, outreach and other opportunities, visit the Indian River Lagoon Council’s website at OneLagoon.org.