One Lagoon, One Voice:

Your Quarterly Guide to IRLNEP News and Progress

From Duane’s Desk

Headshot of Duane De Freese, PhD., Executive Director of One LagoonIt’s hard for me to believe that we are in the month of March and already half-way through the IRL Council/IRLNEP 2023 fiscal year.

We are emerging from a relatively mild winter and IRL water temperatures are already unseasonably warm. This causes concern among scientists and resource managers as we enter the Spring and Summer wet season when the lagoon is more vulnerable to harmful algal blooms (HABs). Seasonal rains transport nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus from land to the lagoon through surface water and groundwater. The lagoon depends on natural levels of nitrogen and phosphorus to support a healthy and productive estuary. But, when we add nutrients from aging and inadequate wastewater treatment plants, septic systems, stormwater runoff, and excess fertilizers applied to lawns, these nutrients become pollutants.

The good news is that historic levels of local, state, and federal funding are being applied to address aging and inadequate wastewater and stormwater infrastructure problems. Over the last few years, state agencies like Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Florida’s water management districts have received increased funding to address problems like stormwater runoff, leaking septic tanks and aging infrastructure. Most recently, Governor DeSantis has announced an additional $100 million annually for the next four years for water quality improvements in the Lagoon.

The IRLNEP staff have been very busy funding and managing 52 active projects with our partners and expanding our community outreach throughout the IRL watershed. We recently hired our first GIS/IT Data Scientist as well as three Community Engagement Coordinators. These new team members will help expand our focus showcasing what’s being done to restore the Lagoon to health and will improve the reach of our public engagement to every Lagoon community.

What can you do to help? Think about the ways you care for your home and yard. If you are overusing fertilizers and pesticides, reduce the amounts you use.  As the summer rainy season ban on fertilizer use approaches on June 1, I would like to propose a new tradition for St. Patrick’s Day 2023. Keep on with the wearin’ of the green but wish the Lagoon good health (Sláinte mhaith!) by starting your own summer fertilizer ban beginning on St. Patrick’s Day.

close-up look at seagrass with caption "happy st. patricks day"

close-up look of seagrass in the IRLIn 2022, President Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which allocated funds for enhancing water quality, conservation efforts, and increasing resilience. Among the beneficiaries of this funding is the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program, which received $4.5 million to develop the IRLNEP Seagrass Nursery Network and build restoration capacity for IRL seagrasses.

Five organizations in the IRL watershed have been selected to receive these funds to establish or improve their sea grass nurseries. The Marine Discovery Center in New Smyrna Beach, for instance, is planning to utilize the funds to establish a seagrass and clam nursery on its 22-acre site, which already houses a nature center, restored salt marsh, and public walking trails.

Meanwhile, the East Coast Zoological Society of Florida (Brevard Zoo) has initiated the construction of a new seagrass nursery in Melbourne Beach, comprising six 880-gallon raceways and individual tanks for testing the best practices. The project is expected to be completed by the end of the second quarter, and seagrass cultivation is expected to begin shortly.

Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce already boasts an impressive seagrass nursery, but the funds will be used to enhance raceways and undertake further research. The experimental nursery will provide additional capacity for the sustainable cultivation of Halodule wrightii (shoal grass), Syringodium filiforme (manatee grass), and potentially Ruppia maritima (widgeon grass) for future lagoon transplantation efforts.

Furthermore, the Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart is home to F.O.S.T.E.R. (Florida Oceanographic Seagrass Training, Education, and Restoration), a community-based research and restoration program aimed at preserving and restoring existing seagrass populations. FOS will use these funds to improve their existing seagrass nursery and develop training materials for their volunteers.

Sea & Shoreline, a full-service aquatic restoration firm in Florida with over two decades of experience restoring habitats, will provide expert guidance and seagrass stock to all partners to ensure success.

These funds will be available to the partners from 2022-2026, and although the project is expected to be challenging and costly, the high risk is expected to yield high rewards. Although planting alone cannot solve the problem, it can significantly accelerate the seagrass recovery process.

Close-up look of seagrass

Quarterly Meeting Update

Every project is progress toward a healthier lagoon. Historic levels of funding are being allocated for projects. These projects reduce nutrients and manage impacts that fuel algal blooms and habitat degradation. They increase understanding of what restoration strategies are the most effective. Each quarter the IRLNEP Management Conference sees more IRLNEP projects come to completion.

Projects were a significant topic during the most recent IRL Council quarterly meetings during the week of February 7 – 10, 2023. At the IRL Council Board meeting, Chief Operating Officer, Daniel Kolodny shared project proposal rankings and upon recommendations from the committees, the board approved $650,000 in funding for:

  • Using floating treatment wetlands to reduce nutrients (Martin County)
  • Converting septic to sewer along Monterrey Waterway (City of Port Saint Lucie)
  • Converting septic to sewer and upgrading aging sewer infrastructure (Ft Pierce Utilities Authority)
  • Growing manatee grass in a nursery to use for restoration (Florida Oceanographic Society)
  • Creating a living shoreline on SE Illinois Avenue (City of Stuart)
  • Mapping hypoxia and its impacts on benthic nutrient fluxes in the IRL (Florida Institute of Technology)
  • Using genetic tools to boost seagrass restoration success in the Indian River Lagoon (partial funding, Mote Marine Lab)

There were no proposals submitted to the Community Based Restoration category this year. Daniel suspected that the organizations that might normally submit to that category are already at capacity and was hopeful that proposals would be submitted next year.

Daniel also gave the Board and all committee Quarter 1 progress report on projects​:

  • 43 in progress
  • 7 pending​
  • 2 completed (City of Stuart – Tressler Drive Water Quality Improvement Project and Florida Atlantic University/Harbor Branch – Sampling to Assess Toxins Produced by Harmful Algal Blooms in the Indian River Lagoon)

In addition to projects, the Board of Directors and each committee received updates on water quality, heard special presentations and recommend projects for funding. Meetings are also an opportunity to hear updates from staff on IRLNEP communications, special projects such as GeoCollaborate platform, annual events such as Envirothon and community engagement activities.

Dr. Chuck Jacoby, St. Johns River Water Management District, presented the water quality and conditions reports collected from the continuous monitoring sondes in the northern and central portions of the lagoon. Coinciding with winter temperature drops, chlorophyll-a has been calm, showing short activity spikes at Cocoa and Eau Gallie. Dissolved oxygen levels have been good.

The St. Johns River Water Management District and the Melbourne-Tillman Water Control District have rediverted a substantial portion of the C-1 drainage to a retention area west of I-95. Stormwater stored in the retention area is pumped into a wetland treatment system before draining into the St. Johns River. Dr. Jacoby reported that the project is in full swing and has removed thousands of pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus from going into Turkey Creek and thus the Indian River Lagoon. For more info: Upper St. Johns River Basin Project – SJRWMD. A similar project has been approved for Crane Creek. For more info: Projects – SJRWMD.

Kathy LaMartina and Dr. Melanie Parker, South Florida Water Management District, reported that the releases of water from Lake Okeechobee have caused a slight decrease in salinity of the St Lucie estuary. Those releases started on January 21, 2023, and at the time of the presentation, it was too soon to report results. From October through December 2022, water conditions remained at mostly optimal levels for oysters. Oyster recruitment rates were “phenomenal” from April to June 2022, decreasing substantially in July but never reaching zero recruitment until December – which follows the natural spawning pattern. Oyster density has shown a gradual increase over time as well. Overall, a successful year for oysters in the St Lucie estuary, especially following two major storm events.

David Jones, Diversity of Thought, Inc, presented the benefits of communicating and building bridges with priority populations to advance the work of the IRLNEP. With Mr. Jones’s guidance, staff will define goals, determine measurable outcomes, and outline the duties and commitments of a task force. With this work, the IRLNEP will expand its outreach and better support all communities throughout the watershed.

The Board reviewed and adopted the tentative budget for FY 2024 and authorized IRLNEP staff to develop and release requests for proposals for Small Grants and Restoration Benefiting Priority Communities. Finally, the Board authorized staff to finalize and submit the FY 2024 EPA Workplan and complete the FY 2024 IRLNEP Business Plan.

New IRL Council chairs and vice chairs:

  • IRL Council Board: Chris Dzadovsky, Chair and Jeff Brower, Vice Chair
  • Finance Subcommittee: Stu Glass, Chair and Thomas Campenni, Vice Chair
  • Management Board: Tom Carey, Chair and Bob Musser, Vice Chair
  • STEM Advisory Committee: Dr. Chuck Jacoby, Chair and Chad Truxall, Vice Chair
  • Citizen’s Advisory Committee: Frank Catino, Chair and Tess Sailor-Tynes, Vice Chair

New appointments to the Management Conference:​

  • Suzanne Scheiber, Dream Green Volusia, to the Citizens Advisory Committee​
  • Thomas Barrett, Riverside Conservancy, to Citizens Advisory Committee​
  • Jim Moir, Indian Riverkeeper, transfer from CAC to Management Board​
  • Erin Cartmill, St. Lucie County, to the STEM Advisory Committee​
  • Wendy Swindell, Indian River County, to the STEM Advisory Committee, replacing Beth Powell

Watch the full Board meeting here: February 10, 2023 – Indian River Lagoon Council Meeting – YouTube.

Join us at the next meeting on Friday, May 13, 2023, at Sebastian City Hall, 1235 Main Street, Sebastian, FL.

News From The Front

Local Government Happenings!

The work done by local government within the IRL watershed is integral on our pathway to a healthy lagoon. We commend our municipal partners for their commitment, hard work and dedication.

Great Catch, Volusia County!

Oyster bar marsh map

Volusia County Council members approved the updated version of the Manatee Protection Plan (MPP) on December 6, 2022. The update is the first since the original plan was approved in 2001, and a second phase was adopted in 2005. With guidance from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, staff identified several areas needing updates, the most notable being an increase in mitigation fees and modification of how the conservation funds can be distributed and used annually. This change will allow the County’s Sheriff’s Marine Unit, Environmental Management, and eligible cities to utilize additional funds for manatee conservation and law enforcement.

The MPP deals with manatee/human interaction, habitat inventory and protection, education, research, and governmental coordination. Additionally, the Boat Facility Siting Plan minimizes watercraft-related injuries to manatees by setting new boat slip standards in the county, and by creating a Manatee Mitigation Fund to support law enforcement and educational activities to protect manatees.

Next steps: Keep your eyes open for an approval from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for review and approval. We will keep you posted!

Brevard County updates Save Our Indian River Lagoon (SOIRL) Plan

The Save Our Indian River Lagoon Project Plan outlines local projects planned to meet water quality targets and improve the health, productivity, aesthetic appeal, and economic value of the lagoon. The 2023 Plan Update adds 14 new projects for 386 projects proposed over the ten years. Once completed, they will reduce and remove 1,309,977 pounds of nitrogen and 106,607 pounds of phosphorus annually from the Indian River Lagoon.

Projects that could achieve large reductions quickly, such as fertilizer reductions and wastewater treatment facility upgrades, as well as the most cost-effective septic-to-sewer, and stormwater projects were ideal for earliest implementation. This prioritization allows for the reductions to occur as quickly as possible. Project scheduling also considered the timing of upstream reductions with downstream removals, where feasible.

As of January 2023, the Trust Fund has collected $295M, spent $57M, with $316M underway plus spent of a projected $542M over ten years. Out of the 372 proposed projects, 72 projects have been complete, while 151 projects are underway. As projects are completed and information on the actual construction costs, timeline, and reductions are obtained, the plan will continue to be adjusted, as needed, to ensure that the most cost-effective projects are being used to meet the Indian River Lagoon (IRL) restoration goals.

Implementation of these projects is contingent upon funding raised through the November 8, 2016, half-cent sales tax referendum. Kudos to the Brevard County taxpayer for their contribution! View the Project Story Map to learn more about the location, benefits, and status of all projects in the Save Our Indian River Lagoon Plan.

Oyster Bar Marsh Conservation Area Ribbon Cutting in Indian River County

Picture it, 2001: Indian River County purchases 96 acres of Oyster Bar Marsh property but could not add a trail due to the private landowner access needed for trail development. Fast forward 15 years: thanks to contiguous land purchase by the Indian River Land Trust and improvements by Indian River Mosquito Control, public access and recreational trails became possible!

On February 1, the Oyster Bar Marsh Conservation Area was unveiled for the public to enjoy! This integral project, part of Indian River County Conservation Lands Program’s goal to protect, restore, and sustain endangered ecosystems and associated rare and endangered species in Indian River County. Secondary objectives of the program include passive public recreation, preservation of open space, groundwater quality protection, flood protection, protection of historic and cultural resources, and general preservation of quality of life.

Open daily from 7am to dusk, visitors can check out native plant species along the pollinator trails, get in their daily steps on the three-mile impoundment trail loop, watch the birds and other wildlife that spend time in the mangroves, or overlook the lagoon on a newly constructed boardwalk.

Learn more about Indian River County’s Conservation Land Program.

FPUA Awarded $15M Resilient Florida Grant for Sewer Facility Relocation

Fort Pierce Utilities Authority (FPUA) has received a $15 million award toward their sewer treatment plant relocation project from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) as part of the Resilient Florida grant program. The funds will be used toward the construction of the new Mainland Water Reclamation Facility and restoration of seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon.

Where possible, FPUA’s grant writers incorporate seagrass restoration into wastewater plant relocation grant proposals. This includes 2.23 acres through Resilient Florida funding, if approved, and an additional 3 acres through National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency funding, if approved.

This critical project removes the existing island sewer treatment plant from the shores of the Indian River Lagoon, and places the new treatment plant five miles west, far away from the lagoon and in an industrial area away from neighborhoods. The project will replace aging infrastructure with new technology, increase resilience, limit potential environmental impacts, and better serve the community.

The upgraded plant will be more energy-efficient and cost less to operate, saving our customers money. Its location next door to the Florida Municipal Power Agency’s natural gas power plant adds a unique sustainability element to the project too. The project will reduce an average two million gallons per day of draw from Florida’s aquifers by instead utilizing reuse water from the sewer plant for the 300 MW power plant cooling towers.

Visit FPUA’s Sustainable Sewer to learn more about this state-of-the-art project!

Martin County’s Water Ambassador Lunch N Learn Series is Back!

After a successful series last fall, Martin County, UF/IFAS Extension, and Sea Grant Florida, have partnered again to bring us the 2023 Virtual Water Ambassador Lunch N Learn Program.

Martin County’s Ecosystem Restoration and Management Division’s mission is to preserve, restore, maintain and enhance Martin County’s environmental resources. Their commitment to working with other agencies and organizations to help solve environmental problems that do not stop at the border of the county’s conservation lands should be commended!

The webinar series, which started on February 14th, is a fantastic way to inform citizens on their role in keeping our waters clean. Martin County and partner agency staff provide an hour-long presentation on topics such as: Intro to Stormwater and Martin County Stormwater Projects, Rain Barrels: The Rain Barrel Project, Impacts of Fertilizer Ordinances on Water Quality in Florida Lakes, Sargassum Biochar for Harmful Algal Bloom Remediation, and Drivers of Seagrass Decline in the Loxahatchee.

If you are reading this before May 16th, there’s still time for you to register for an upcoming presentation! If you are lucky, you will be able to catch the next Water Ambassador Field Trip… that is another story. Stay tuned!

To learn more about the challenges that face Martin County’s watershed and what the county has done to solve some of those challenges, watch: Our Water Story: By Martin County

True to their titles, the community engagement coordinators have been active in their respective regions to bolster support for the One Lagoon, One Community, One Voice initiative. In addition to presenting to local clubs, attending stakeholder meetings, and assisting with volunteer events our staff have participated in some fun STEM activities! Read on for an overview of events.

High school team participating in Indian River County’s EnvirothonCentral engagement coordinator Heather Stapleton participated in Indian River County’s Envirothon. Envirothon is an outdoor competition encouraging student interest in natural resource conservation and environmental management. In the field, students are challenged to work as a team to answer written questions and conduct hands-on projects focusing on environmental issues in five study areas: aquatic ecology, forestry, soils and land use, wildlife, and a current environmental issue. The regional IRL competition adds one additional subject area: ecology of the Indian River Lagoon. The county winners will be moving on to the state competition taking place on Earthday (4/22) this year!

In total 12 high school teams and 10 middle school teams competed. The overall winner was Edgewood Jr/Sr High School. Congrats to all who were involved!

Students at the Tomoka Regional Science fair in Volusia County

Northern engagement coordinator Jessy Wayles helped to judge the Tomoka Regional Science fair in Volusia County. In addition to listening to presentations from students about plant sciences, she also awarded Freshman

Jordan Platt with the “Young Scientist of the Indian River Lagoon” for his work with using aquatic plants to uptake excess nutrients.

Heather and Southern engagement coordinator Caleta Scott had so much fun showing over 400 Indian River STEAM Fest participants species of plankton caught fresh from the lagoon. Microscopes with screens, rather than eyepieces, allowed for ease of observation. Most guests were very intrigued, never imagining so many different forms of microscopic life. Kids and parents alike enjoyed observing the microscopic world of the lagoon.

One Lagoon

In March 2021, Brevard Zoo utilized funds from the Save Our Indian River Lagoon (SOIRL) Plan to construct the Wexford Oyster Project in Melbourne Beach. The project, which spanned over 320 feet, aimed to enhance habitat and improve water quality along an eroding sea wall using both traditional and plastic-free restoration materials.

The project was installed in two sections: half using traditional aquaculture-grade plastic mesh oyster shell bags, and the other half using a new plastic-free material called oyster gabions. The oyster gabions consisted of galvanized steel wire boxes filled with oyster shell. The site was then monitored on a monthly, quarterly, and bi-annual basis by the University of Central Florida.

After 24 months, the project had successfully recruited an estimated 300,000 live oysters, potentially filtering 3+ million gallons of water per day. What’s more impressive is that each live oyster had recruited to the project on its own.

According to Olivia Escandel from Brevard Zoo, “This project is a great example of SOIRL’s Restore and Respond dollars at work! We would like to thank all of our partners, including the volunteers, who made this project possible.”

Man and woman with oysters on hand during the Wexford Oyster Project
man measuring oyster as part of project Wexford Oyster Project

One Community

Trash-Free Waters is one of the 32 IRL vital signs in the C. With a target of trash free waters by 2030 – this kind of partnership just may help us get there! Throughout the last two summers, Boys & Girls Clubs of St. Lucie County partnered with Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (FAU Harbor Branch) to provide programming for teens that focuses on the harmful effects of marine debris while empowering young adults to become advocates for the clean water and their communities. In this time, 18,803 pieces, or 1,569 pounds, of trash were collected and removed from local St. Lucie County piece using collected trash

Each week-long camp was structured so that teens spent time learning about marine debris and impacts on the environment before visiting various waterfront sites. There, the teens collected and sorted trash while recording data that they later submitted to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA.) The week closed with St. Lucie County Solid Waste Division teaching the teens about recycling and getting their Clubs set up with their very own recycling station.

In addition to their hands-on work in the community, these teen ambassadors created six ocean-themed art pieces using the trash they collected. The sea creature scaffolds were provided by the St. Lucie County Environmental Resources Department and were designed using upcycled materials. These sculptures were initially displayed at the Indian River Lagoon Science Festival and are now seen throughout St. Lucie County.

Exposing all youth to this kind of work will bring us closer to envisioning trash-free waters and ONE COMMUNITY. This program was funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

One Voice

The IRL Symposium is a multi-institutional and multi-agency effort to provide a forum for discussing Indian River Lagoon science and management. Themes vary from year to year. Harbor Branch has been the lead sponsor and host since 2012. The symposium has become a clear demonstration that the One Lagoon community works collaboratively. It is an opportunity to reiterate and emphasize existing partnerships as well as forge new relationships. As is evidenced by the increasing number of student attendees, awards, posters and presentations, organizers have always encouraged and recognized the next generation of scientists. Looking to the audience of well over 300, Dennis Hanisak summed it up, “We have one heck of a community here. And, it keeps getting bigger and better.” The IRLNEP is proud to continue supporting this endeavor.

IRL Seagrass attendees

Theme: IRL Seagrass
Attendance: 360 registered and 373+ views on line
Presentations: 1 keynote address
45 talks
40 posters (up from 28 previous year)
Awards: 10, including IRLNEP Promising Scientist Award