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New questions raised about effectiveness of Spoonbill Marsh


Indian River County’s controversial $4 million Spoonbill Marsh facility may be contributing to the nitrogen load in the lagoon instead of reducing it, according to two concerned citizens who have successfully petitioned the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to hold a public hearing on the matter.

Nitrogen, which comes mainly from fertilizer runoff and faulty septic systems, is harmful to the lagoon because it feeds algae blooms that kill seagrass and smother marine life.

Barry Schapiro, a retired advertising executive and environmental activist, and Carter Taylor, former president of the Indian River Neighborhood Association and a long-time member of its lagoon committee, say nitrogen input and output numbers the county self-reports and sends to the FDEP grossly inflate the nutrient-removing capabilities of the marsh to meet an environmental benefit level the facility must show to remain in compliance with its permit.

The county constructed the 67-acre Spoonbill Marsh in 2008, on the western shore of the lagoon north of Grand Harbor. It is intended to treat mineral-rich effluent left over from drinking water purification – which environmental regulations prohibit from being dumped directly into the lagoon – by mixing it with lagoon water and filtering it.

About 2 million gallons of the waste water is mixed with 4 million gallons of the lagoon water each day. It flows first to settling ponds and then wends its way through nutrient-removing wetlands and mangroves before it returns to the lagoon.

Although Schapiro and Taylor have multiple problems with the way the marsh functions, nitrogen levels in the lagoon are their primary concern.

The county’s permit for Spoonbill Marsh states the facility must remove 2,759 pounds of nitrogen a year, and the total nitrogen and phosphate loadings must “be less leaving the marsh than those pumped into the marsh.”

County documents state the nitrogen load of lagoon water was 2.1 milligrams per liter going in and .91 milligrams per liter coming out in November 2017, making it appear the facility removed more than half the nitrogen load, the water going from extremely bad to just very bad, but Taylor said the nitrogen removal is being achieved “mostly by calculation errors.”

He points to an email from St. Johns Supervising Environmental Scientist Charles Jacoby stating that the total nitrogen concentration for the Main Relief Canal – which logically would have a higher level than the open lagoon – averaged 0.88 milligrams per liter in 2016-17.

And a 2010-11 study done by St. Johns found the average total nitrogen load in the lagoon in Indian River County was only 0.57 milligrams per liter, about a quarter of the load the county is claiming for the lagoon water it uses as a mixer in Spoonbill Marsh.

Taylor, who has a degree in finance from Wharton and is trained as a statistician, contends that if the St. Johns River Water Management District number is closer to the lagoon’s usual nitrogen load than the far higher number the county used, the facility is polluting the lagoon – not making it cleaner.

County commissioners and Utilities Director Vincent Burke were asked for comment on Friday. At Burke’s request, county environmental specialist Eric Charest responded.

“Your specific question regarding variability in the results from what is being seen on the Spoonbill Marsh Discharge Monitoring Reports and what others are showing as the levels for the lagoon may be something that can be attributed to differences in sampling sites and collection dates/times,” Charest said.

Taylor disagrees: “Given the number of water samples taken over a length of time, the relatively high nitrogen intake from the Lagoon reported by the county cannot be attributed solely to slight differences is measurement location and timing,” he said.

“This all averages out. The intake figures reported by the county are highly abnormal. If the intake concentrations were normal, they would not be able to show any net environmental benefit. A lot is riding on the quality and veracity of data collection, and this is all self-reported data.”

The marsh’s pollutant discharge permit is up for its third renewal since it was constructed in 2008, and the Department of Environmental Protection is still reviewing the county’s application. The date of the public hearing requested by Taylor and Schapiro and approved by FDEP has not been announced yet.