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Sebastian Middle School students join push to ‘rescue’ the lagoon

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of March 8, 2012)
Photo of Students who created “Mission Possible: Lagoon Rescue”

A group of gifted middle school students has joined area scientists and environmentalists in a push for fertilizer regulation to protect the Indian River Lagoon from toxic runoff that is killing dolphins and other marine life.

“People are overusing fertilizer by 500 percent,” says Katrina Nilsson, who lives across the street from the lagoon, which is home to more than 3,700 species of plants and animals and is widely regarded as the most bio-diverse estuary on the East Coast of the United States.  “We want to educate the public and get the government to act.”

Nilsson is one of six students in Laurie Wykoff’s 7th-grade civics class at Sebastian Middle School who created a project called “Mission Possible: Lagoon Rescue” as part of a national student activism competition inspired by the Project Citizen program.

The program is administered by Civics First, a private nonprofit education association that “actively engages students in learning how to monitor and influence public policy and encourages civic participation among students, their parents, and members of the community.”

Their efforts are needed in Indian River County where the county commission has so far been unwilling to pass fertilizer regulations, despite a strong scientific consensus that such regulations are needed to protect the lagoon.

Wykoff, who has been teaching for 17 years, says the Mission Possible students are “driven and determined. When I first started teaching them about Project Citizen, they couldn’t wait to get started.”

Others in the group include Jessica Howell, David Green, Mark Green, Noah Rieck and Martha Grudens.

The students’ passion for protecting the lagoon comes partly from their ages. At 13 and 14, they are more alive to the wonder of the natural world than many adults.

“I love going out in the lagoon,” says Nilsson, whose family has a boat. “I like seeing all the dolphins. I like swimming. I saw a sunfish one time – oh my gosh, they are these big, big fish that look like a fin. It was huge, thousands of pounds, and it was in the lagoon.”

Others in the group talk about their fascination with seahorses, game fish and manatees.

But they are also driven by the facts.

“The lagoon creates more than $800 million in annual economic benefits for Indian River County,” Nilsson says.

Wykoff and Brad Wright, another Sebastian Middle School teacher, introduced the Project Citizen program to the school this year.

“It is a great way to teach civics,” says Wykoff.

“We had speakers come in and talk about community issues to give us ideas for our projects,” says Martha Grudens, who comes by her environmentalism naturally as the daughter of Indian River Land Trust Executive Director Ken Grudens.

“We made a list of ideas and then we all voted on it to see which project we wanted to do,” says Mark Green.

The Mission Possible team researched its topic, reading and conducting interviews, and created a multi-panel poster board explaining the problem of fertilizer runoff, identifying the pros and cons of various solutions and recommending government regulation.

Seven other groups of civics students created similar problem/solution projects focused on bullying, texting and driving, homeless shelters and other issues. A group of community leaders including Sheriff Deryl Loar, County Commissioner Peter O’Bryan and Sebastian Mayor James Hill judged the eight presentations and picked “Mission Possible: Lagoon Rescue” as the best project in the school.

On Feb. 27, the students presented their findings to a packed audience at the Indian River County School Board business meeting.

“I was so nervous, my hands were shaking,” says Jessica Howell, expressing the feelings of her fellow presenters.

“It was a little nerve-racking being on live TV,” agrees Mark Green.

“I get nervous just thinking back on it,” says Nilsson.

Despite the anxiety, the students gave a well-organized and convincing presentation of their conclusion that fertilizer use should be regulated to protect the environment.

“These are the problem solvers of the future, right here. Not just the future, but today,” said Superintendent Fran Adam after the presentation. “We want to congratulate you for the great work you are doing. Good work.”

Going forwards, the students plan to create a website reporting their findings and circulate a petition to gather signatures in support of government regulation of a problem that affects everyone in the community.

Fertilizer contains nitrates and phosphates that feed grass and help it grow. It is widely and sometimes indiscriminately applied by homeowners, lawn care professionals and workers at golf courses and parks. When fertilizer is over-applied and during rainstorms, dissolved nitrogen and phosphorous run off lawns and fields directly into the lagoon or into gutters, sewers and canals that lead to the lagoon.

The runoff causes something called nutrient overload in the waters where Indian River County residents and tourists boat, fish, swim and delight in wildlife such as dolphins and manatees. Instead of feeding lawns, the nitrogen and phosphorous feed the growth of algae that consumes oxygen and makes lagoon water murky and slimy, cutting off sunlight to sea grass and starting a domino effect of ecological degradation.

Dolphins in the lagoon are suffering epidemic levels of disease due to pollution. The most recent scientific studies found more than 50 percent of them are ill and that they live, on average, only half as long as their free-ranging kin out in the relatively clean Atlantic.

“We were shocked,” says Stephen McCulloch, head of the Marine Mammal Research and Conservation Program at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, referring to results of a dolphin health study.

“What we are seeing is not just concerning, it is alarming. Nowhere else do you see this combination of known and unknown diseases, including viral, bacterial and fungal diseases and cancers.”

Sea turtle tumors and deformed oysters documented by scientists are other indicators of a troubled lagoon in need of greater protections.

Martin, Lee, Sarasota and other counties have passed regulations based on a state model ordinance that effectively limit the amount of poisonous chemicals entering rivers, lakes and coastal waterways but Indian River County has not acted.

Bob Solari, the commissioner most hostile to fertilizer regulation, says he opposes it on ideological grounds. “The county doesn’t need to pass another ordinance. I tie these things to our democratic system that recognizes autonomous human beings. Government has passed too many corrosive regulations that dull the intellect of the individual and undermine a democratic society. I believe in the rights and liberty of the individual over some nebulous collective.”

He has so far failed to say why regulating poisonous fertilizer runoff is any more corrosive to democracy than regulating other poisons in the environment or other individual behaviors that endanger the community.

He and other commissioners will have another opportunity to consider the matter May 2 when WyKoff’s 7th-graders will overcome their public-speaking anxiety a second time and present their project to the commission.