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Environmental groups ask Gov. DeSantis to declare an emergency

STORY BY SUE COCKING (Week of June 17, 2021)

The Clean Water Coalition of Indian River County – joined by the Indian River Land Trust, the Environmental Learning Center and other environmental groups – is urging Gov. Ron DeSantis to declare a state of emergency to battle pollution in the Indian River Lagoon.

The alliance’s appeal comes as manatees are dying in record numbers, and follows the release by the Marine Resources Council of its fourth annual environmental health report card for the Lagoon, assigning the waterway an overall grade of F-plus.

The Clean Water Coalition and groups aligned with it are calling for the state to dedicate millions of dollars more to stopping the flow of pollutants from homes, businesses and farms into the lagoon that kill the manatees’ primary food source – seagrass – and harm other marine life, including bottlenose dolphins.

The environmental organizations also want to get rid of years of muck deposits and blankets of harmful algae choking the 156-mile-long estuary.

“If you had a leaking roof, you’d fix it,” said Coalition president Paul Fafeita, a Vero Beach charter fishing captain. “We’ve got 156 miles here of serious trouble.”

This year some 750 manatees have been found dead in Florida – many of them in Brevard County lagoon waters where veterinarians say they’ve starved to death because of a lack of seagrass to eat. Federal and state officials declared an “unusual mortality event” and increased efforts to rescue and rehabilitate the protected mammals earlier this year, but deaths continue.

Meanwhile, Gov. DeSantis and the Legislature this past session agreed to dedicate 5.4 percent of taxes on real estate transactions, or $111 million annually, to wastewater improvements throughout Florida.  The state also distributed $500 million from the American Rescue pandemic relief act to pay for septic to sewer conversions and sewage treatment plant upgrades.

But Fafeita and fellow conservationists say it’s just not enough.  They cite a recent report from the well-respected Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program that estimates it will take $5 billion in clean water infrastructure projects to restore the waterway over the next 20 years.

“The evidence is overwhelming and indisputable that the Indian River Lagoon, one of the most biodiverse estuaries in North America, has become an unhealthy, algae-dominated ecosystem with substantial losses of sea grasses, fisheries, and now a record death rate of its beloved manatees,” the coalition’s letter to the governor reads. 

“Our call is for a sustained long-term funding expansion to restore the IRL and the state’s other waterways as soon as possible to ensure the health of our economy, the health of our citizens, the health of our manatees, and the health of Florida’s waters.”

In response, Dee Ann Miller, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), wrote in an email to Vero Beach 32963: “Thanks to the Governor’s leadership and the swift response of state agencies, as well as the continued coordination between local governments and citizen support organizations, we are able to support existing resource needs and a declared state of emergency is not necessary at this time.”

Said Fafeita: “Politicians and everybody have given funding, but it’s not enough.”

He repeated the Clean Water Coalition’s call of two years ago to increase the St. Johns River Water Management District’s share of property taxes to pay for lagoon restoration. His group estimates upping the district’s millage rate by one-tenth of a mill would generate about $45 million per year for that purpose.

Water management budgets were slashed by former governor/now Sen. Rick Scott around the time of the 2011 algae ‘superbloom’ that devastated the northern lagoon, killing manatees, dolphin, fish and other marine creatures. Those cuts have persisted ever since.

If restored, Fafeita says, those funds could pay for cultivating seagrass meadows in the lagoon; converting septic systems to sewer; upgrading sewage plants to advanced wastewater treatment; improving stormwater treatment and removing muck.

His group also wants tougher pollution control regulations such as banning the use of the herbicide glyphosate, which kills seagrass and has been linked to cancer in people; beefing up fertilizer restrictions; stopping large discharges from Lake Okeechobee that cause algae blooms in the southern lagoon; and requiring advanced-technology septic systems where sewer hookups are not available.

“It’s been an uphill battle and now the hill is getting steeper,” Fafeita said.