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State agency admits its presentation on lagoon plans inept

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of January 17, 2013)

Responding to reports in Vero Beach 32963 that a Florida Department of Environmental Protection plan to restore seagrass in the Indian River appeared hopelessly out of date, DEP’s Director of Environmental Assessment and Restoration Drew Bartlett says the presentation of the plan to the Vero Beach City Council was inept.

“Let’s just say that if I was standing in front of the council, I would have handled it differently,” says Bartlett.

Bartlett also says DEP and St. Johns River Water Management District will launch new seagrass evaluations and expand study of seagrass losses in 2013, requesting $1.1 to $1.8 million in new study money from the water management district’s board, and that the department will respond to the city council’s requests for information and action.

A slideshow summary of DEP’s Basin Management Action Plan, or BMAP, to restore seagrass in the Central Indian River Lagoon was presented to the city council Oct. 18 by Basin Coordinator Mary Paulic. It stated, “The Central IRL is meeting seagrass depth targets... therefore, nutrient reductions beyond planned activities are not required of the stakeholders for the next five years.”

Council members reacted with anger to the presentation because, in reality, three ecological calamities have occurred in the lagoon since DEP received the data its plan is based on, killing a majority of seagrass in the area where the plan summary says it is doing well.

Troy Rice, director of St. Johns’ Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program, says approximately 63 percent of seagrass in the Indian River County stretch of the lagoon has been lost in the last two years.

Councilmember Tracy Carroll told Paulic an environmental disaster is unfolding and asked that she do something to accelerate updated evaluations of the lagoon’s health and spur action to save the estuary. “You need to impart a sense of urgency to your superiors and get some experts in here to figure out what is going on.”

Bartlett says Paulic did brief her immediate supervisors after the meeting and that they informed him of the council’s concerns.

“We will get back to them,” he promised. “I can’t say exactly when because I don’t know when their next meeting is, but we will respond.”

Bartlett says that while the slide-show language was unclear, there are good reasons to proceed with implementation of the five-year Basin Management Action Plan

“It locks in place all the commitments governments up and down the lagoon have made [to reduce nutrient pollution].”

Paulic’s plan summary stated in one place that seagrass growth in the lagoon will be reevaluated in 2017, but Bartlett says it will actually be assessed much sooner.

DEP provides money to St. Johns for seagrass mapping and Rice says he is putting together a proposal for a new round of mapping in the coming year. The lagoon was last mapped in 2011 prior to mass seagrass losses.

In June, working in conjunction with DEP, St. Johns put together an emergency response group of scientists to try and figure out the cause or causes of the superbloom.

Up until now the study group has functioned without funding.

Now, in the face of a continuing emergency, Rice says he will ask St. John’s governing board for money to expand the group’s investigations to try and figure out the causes and find solutions for seagrass loss.

“We will request between $1.1 and $1.8 million for studies over the next five to seven years,” he says. 

“I personally have observed the seagrass has been destroyed in many parts of the estuary,” Sen. Joe Negron says.

State Rep. Debbie Mayfield agrees there is a critical need for tup-to-date information.

She says Kilroys, devices created by the Ocean Research and Conservation Association in Ft. Pierce, that measure water pollution and transmit data in real time, could help scientists figure out what is killing the seagrass.