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IRNA Helps to Restore the Indian River Lagoon

By Deborah Ecker, Chair, IRNA Water and Lagoon Committee

IRNA has a strong Water and Lagoon Committee, twelve active members working to restore and preserve the precious natural resource in our backyard, the Indian River Lagoon.

Co-chair with me: Judy Orcutt. Members are Roland Anderson, Richard Baker, Bill Beardsley Mark Bondy, Jean Catchpole, Buzz Herrmann, Sam San Miguel, Peter Seed, Carter Taylor, Robert Hall, and Dan Lamson.

Sources of Lagoon pollution are fertilizers, stormwater runoff and septic tank effluent.  Through 400 miles of ditches these flow into three canals emptying into the Lagoon; and, from ditches flowing into the Sebastian River and on to the Lagoon

On Fertilizers: We actively supported the county’s and cities’ adoption of strong regulations about the application of fertilizers.  That included the county’s creation of a position for a fertilizer/stormwater education and enforcement agent. The IRNA committee considers the education of property owners and enforcement of commercial applicators still in need of work.  Property owners need to follow Best Management Practices (no fertilizers during summer months, no phosphorous) and direct contractors to comply.

On Stormwater: Spring 2015 the Vero Beach Utilities Department proposed a Stormwater Utility.  Mayor Richard Winger was its sponsor.  The Utility would install “baffle boxes” (refuse and vegetative filtering devises) at all city outfalls into the Lagoon, and dredge muck from specified areas.  Costs would be covered from fees based on the size of properties’  impervious surface areas.  IRNA supported the city’s authorizing a consultant to develop the structure of the Utility, including its fees, and will continue to support it because this is an equitable way to put the burden of runoff costs on those most responsible.

On Septic Tanks: Septic tanks - There are roughly 30,500 septic systems in Indian River County.  While septic systems can be (and in many cases, are) constructed adequately to filter effluent, in our county there are two problems tough to overcome:
93% of the county’s soil is not suitable for septic tanks; and
36% of these septic systems were installed before 1983 which means that they may have no bottoms, may be within 6 inches of the water table, and if flawed do not have to be reconstructed to post-1983 requirements.

Research presented to our committee in early 2015, by a team directed by Dr. Brian LaPointe (Florida Atlantic University), proved that human waste is entering the Lagoon from septic effluent.  The team’s test wells in the South Relief Canal found the chemical Sucralose in the groundwater near septic tanks. Sucralose is an artificial, noncaloric sweetener used in produced consumed by humans, such as soft drinks. This chemical finding directly ties pollution to human wastes, not agricultural.

In December 2015, LaPointe reported parallel findings from multiple test wells in Martin County, of septic tank effluent polluting the St. Lucie River and the Lagoon. (He also cited earlier studies with these conclusions.) A financial consultant followed LaPointe, advising the Commissioner on how septic to sewer conversions could be paid for.  Martin County’s Board of Commissioners concluded by directing staff to develop a septic to sewer  resolution to require property owners (in priority areas) with septic systems to make the switch.

Our committee followed this up in December, meeting with IRC staff. We asked for a feasibility study for septic to sewer conversions in this county.  Their reply: it’s premature, we have a separate study to be completed mid to late 2016.  Our IRNA committee will continue to press for action on this front, with those pre-1983 systems our priority.

Local Government Accomplishments: What Indian River County has completed this year is the construction of the Osprey Marsh Stormwater Park.  Its purpose is the removal of dissolved nutrients and of osmosis brine discharge from the South County Water Treatment Plant before they enter the Lagoon via the South Relief Canal.  The County had earlier installed the Egret Marsh Stormwater Park to remove nutrients and brine from the Main Relief Canal. IRNA supports and praises these efforts.

City of Vero Beach STEP System - Spring 2015 the city’s Utility Department began installing this modified, central sewage-collection system through the city.  Besides giving supportive testimony at Council hearings, IRNA lobbied Representatives and the Governor to authorize an exception to state regulations to allow the STEP system.  Because this system removes only the liquid wastes, leaving septic tanks in place, piping is less intrusive and less costly.

The IRNA Water and Lagoon Committee will continue to be an active supporter of our local governments’ efforts to protect the Lagoon, but we will be asking them to do still more.