Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

A symbol of Florida’s environmental degradation

Indian River Lagoon on the Atlantic stretches north from Jupiter Inlet to Ponce Inlet, just south of Daytona Beach. The lagoon, a place once as lovely and peaceful as its name, includes the St. Lucie River, an outlet of Lake Okeechobee, which means the lagoon is in deep trouble this year.

The phosphorous-laden runoff being directed out of the lake to prevent flooding is being sent into the St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee River on the West Coast because it is too polluted to be sent into the Everglades, which needs the water.

But the lagoon’s troubles really began in 2011 when a super bloom of phytoplankton spread through its Mosquito Lagoon, killing off more than 30,000 acres of fish-hatchery-friendly sea grass. In 2012 came a deadly brown algae plume never before seen in Florida, which was followed by a reddish algae that creates a poison that can sicken people.

This year the lagoon has seen a record number of mystifying manatee, dolphin and pelican deaths, along with sporadic fish kills. Scientists don’t know what is causing all these deadly phenomena, but they believe there are more underlying causes than the phosphorous-laden water flowing out of the St. Lucie, or the inevitable polluted stormwater runoff so common to most Florida waterways.

A whole ecosystem may be slowly dying while we stand by twiddling our thumbs. So credit Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, then, for holding a symposium on the Indian River Lagoon last week that drew national media attention. Scientists posited causes and potential solutions but, of course, fixing the problem takes money and political will, neither of which are in abundance these days.

Sen. Nelson did cite a bill approved in the Senate that would build a $270 million reservoir and a $33 million canal to channel lake water to a 9,000-acre recharging area to cleanse it before it’s released elsewhere. The bill, unfortunately, is going nowhere in the House. The Florida Congressional delegation needs to step up and breathe life back into the legislation.

Perhaps it was Sen. Nelson’s symposium that helped nudge Gov. Rick Scott into visiting the St. Lucie area Tuesday. Until now, Gov. Scott has blamed the federal government, most specifically the U.S. Corps of Engineers, which manages the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee and nearly every summer must reduce the lake’s volume to protect the aging dike. But what is killing the St. Lucie and the Indian River Lagoon — and the Caloosahatchee — is as much a state responsibility as a federal one.

So give Mr. Scott a hand, too, for pledging $40 million to complete a project that will clean up polluted stormwater runoff before it reaches the St. Lucie. Even as he continued to blame the feds, the governor took some state responsibility on his shoulders.

He should. Lake Okeechobee’s pollution from nutrient-rich runoff from agriculture and urban development isn’t the feds’ doing, after all. The state dearly values its agricultural businesses and its new development, both pillars of Florida’s economy.

But these economic engines have negative effects, too — none more shocking than what’s happening to the Indian River Lagoon. Even with more money and political support, the remedies won’t come quickly.

It takes time to build reservoirs and stormwater treatment plants. There should be a sense of urgency from both state and federal leaders to find — and fund — those remedies before the lagoon is pronounced DOA.

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