Welcome to “One Lagoon, One Voice: The Podcast,” where members of the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program sit down with scientists, researchers, and community leaders to discuss important issues facing the 156-mile-long estuary on Florida’s east coast.
Learn more about hot topics like seagrass restoration, manatee populations, and much more on the only show that brings both the wondrous and worrisome aspects of the Indian River Lagoon into focus.
In our first episode, meet the members of the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program and learn about their mission to lead the charge in lagoon restoration by uniting the community around the message of “One Lagoon.”
To learn more about the IRL Council and our lagoon home, visit OneLagoon.org.
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[Audio transcription via YouTube]
- Duane De Freese
- Daniel Kolodny
- Kathy Hill
- Kirsten Ayres (KJ)
Duane De Freese: Hi. I’m Duane De Freese, executive director of the IRL Council and the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program. Welcome to our One Lagoon, One Voice Podcast.
Each week myself or one of my staff members will host leaders in the community, scientists along the lagoon, people who know a lot about the system, to talk about some of the problems and most importantly some of the solutions to solve the Indian River Lagoon’s health and make sure it’s great for future generations.
If you enjoy hearing us talk about the lagoon like and subscribe to this podcast. And be sure to follow us at One Lagoon on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. So let’s get the show started and let’s talk a little lagoon.
Duane: Hi everyone. Welcome to One Lagoon, One Voice. Today I’m here with my colleagues and staff members of the National Estuary Program: Kathy Hill, Dan Kolodny and Kirsten Ayres… we call Kirsten, KJ. I’m going to have each one introduce themselves but each is a scientist and an important executive member of our team. So Kathy, why don’t you begin?
Kathy Hill: Thanks Duane, happy to be here. Hi everybody. I’m Kathy Hill. I am the Deputy Director for the program and also the communications director so I handle all of our communications, website, social media, outreach, that sort of thing.
Daniel Kolodny: Hey Duane. Yeah [I’m] Dan Kolodny, I’m the Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer for the program. [I] do all the financial responsibility as well as manage all the contracts and all our grant management that we have with our federal partners
Duane: And just as an aside anytime we need a boat captain, Dan is our boat captain as well.
Kirsten Ayres/KJ: Hi everybody my name is KJ Ayers and I’m the GIS coordinator. I do a bunch of different things from data analysis [and] data management to making maps.
Duane: So this is our science team and also our senior level executive team as we move the work of the National Estuary Program forward. And our first topic today is talking about our mission statement.
Our mission was changed in 2015 when we reorganized the National Estuary Program and it was changed to One Lagoon, One Community and One Voice. So let’s start with this One Lagoon concept. KJ, I’m going to start with you as the youngest representative of our team because each of us are going to have a little bit different perspective on this mission statement. What does One Lagoon mean to you?
KJ: One Lagoon to me is kind of like bringing everybody together to work on the IRL (Indian River Lagoon). So all the stakeholders, from boat captains all the way up to public management, getting them all involved together and kind of working to make the community better as a whole.
Daniel: I’m going to kind of go off what KJ said. It’s a lot to do with having everybody work towards one common goal, and that’s a healthy lagoon. So as part of our CCMP and the vital signs wheel the healthy lagoon is right at the center of it.
Having all stakeholders on one clear path all doing their own projects to bring together the healthy lagoon—you know that’s what One Lagoon is to me, everybody on the same mission.
Kathy: I think the One Lagoon message is just to make everybody aware that no matter where you are or where you live, you and your home, and your community, and your local government—everybody has an impact on the lagoon.
Duane: So this concept of One Lagoon really is about not just the Indian River Lagoon but the people who live along the lagoon in the communities. And if you’re interested in seeing how that fits with our comprehensive conservation management plan, go to our website at onelagoon.org. You’ll see a vital signs wheel that graphically can show you how this One Lagoon mission really fits with the actions that we take on a day-to-day basis to protect and restore this system.
So when we think about how you become a steward of the Indian River Lagoon we need to understand what the lagoon is and we work very closely through the 156 miles of the formal Indian River Lagoon Estuary, which is really three estuaries that come together.
We have the Mosquito Lagoon up in Volusia County. We have the Indian River Lagoon that extends from Northern Brevard County all the way down to the northern part of Palm Beach County, and we have Banana River which is in Brevard County. Those three lagoon type estuaries form the entire Indian River Lagoon ecosystem. But it’s not just an ecosystem of natural places and species, it’s also an ecosystem of people and communities.
So we have 1.6 million residents in the lagoon. The watershed actually includes Okeechobee County to the West down on the southern end [and] over 38 Incorporated cities. We really are a large portion of East Central Florida with very different kinds of impacts and situations as we move from north to south. And in addition to that, we’ve added an additional 25 miles up the southern Halifax River in Volusia County.
So what I’d like to do is to have a little conversation with my team, you know, about why this lagoon matters to people, to species, to habitats, to the State of Florida.
Dan: I think the biggest thing for me is it’s a huge resource economically and recreationally so it doesn’t just span 156 miles, it also spans two climate zones. You have tropical and kind of a subtropical ecotone, and so there’s a high diversity of species that are very important commercially and recreationally for fisheries. And [also] recreation on the lagoon such as kayaking and boating and fishing. There’s just a massive amount of opportunities for recreation and fisheries. That’s one of the biggest draws for the lagoon for people.
Duane: And Kathy how about you? You’ve seen a lot of changes in this lagoon over your career spanning a number of different positions. Why does the lagoon matter?
Kathy: For me my first love in the lagoon was the biodiversity, so I came to Florida to go to grad school to study lagoon biodiversity. One of my first jobs after graduating was to work for the Smithsonian. Before I even worked for this program the Smithsonian was working with the NEP to develop the species inventory. That was a listing of 3 000 species that live in the lagoon, and at that time that was the highest documented biodiversity. “Documented” being the key word because there’s more species here than are documented.
Over the years we’ve seen some changes so we we don’t necessarily know how high the biodiversity is anymore, but we do know that there’s lots and lots of species that live here and as Dan mentioned, the change from the climatic zones: you have Northern species living as far south as they can possibly live, and you have Southern species living as far north as they can possibly live, and in the lagoon they all mix and match and everybody has ample resources, hopefully, to live and to breed and to continue on.
So I think the lagoon is just special for that reason. Every time you go out into the lagoon you see something you don’t see usually and it’s an everyday thing if you go out every single day you’re bound to see something that you didn’t see before.
Duane: You know, KJ, you’re the youngest member of our team and the newest member of our team but you come to this system with a lot of background. Both your technical background in science but also your technical background in GIS. But you’ve spent a little time on the water too, haven’t you?
KJ: Yeah, a little bit. So I grew up in Northeast Florida, so mostly Duval County and Northern Volusia County. I spent a lot of time actually on the Halifax River. Kind of the waters that lead into the IRL. We used to go out there paddle boarding all the time behind my grandparents house. It’s kind of cool to see the transition between the different generations that live on the IRL.
Duane: Yeah, that’s really interesting. But you know when you think about a hundred years ago this system was all about transportation—moving goods and services to these little coastal communities driven by commercial fishing.
The citrus and agricultural industry and seeing this urbanization and changing landscape really has changed how we look both physically and functionally as a coastal ecosystem. Because it was such a productive system with seagrasses as far as the eye could see on flats and relatively clear water.
I mean, we had turbidity when we had wind events. No question back in the ‘70s we had a lot of inputs that thankfully have been changed over time—but yeah the system was really a productive, valuable, economic driver and social driver of quality of life and unfortunately that’s changed a lot.
So let me make a segue now into talking about some of the problems that we see and we’ll go round robin. Give me your top three problems [when] looking back at your experiences [and] your life along the lagoon. What do you see as the three major problems that require solutions in order to get us back to some of the memories we’ve just shared with our listeners?
Dan: Well, for me, I would say my top one hands down is stormwater infrastructure. You know there’s just so much development going on, and so much impervious pavement being put down. And all our rain and pollution that we put on the land as far as fertilizers and insecticides herbicides, all that stuff is just now washing into the Lagoon straight into it.
So you know the way they developed back in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s? Everything was to drain directly into the Lagoon and so the system just couldn’t take it anymore. So for me, number one is stormwater infrastructure.
Second would be because of all the input that we’ve had, would be the legacy loads. So all the muck that’s been put in there, all the sediment, all that stuff that’s already been dumped—getting it out would be my number two.
And then wastewater infrastructure would be number three. Having all the septic systems, you know, that all leech into the lagoon, getting rid of those and getting all the sewer line aging sewer repaired. Because there’s so much intrusion from stormwater into those systems and they just overflow and can’t handle all that.
Duane: Kathy, KJ, does that kind of jive with how you think about the system? [Do] you want to add something additionally, or do you have some different top threes for each of you?
Kathy: I think we’re all going to probably agree on our top threes, but what I would like to throw in there is political will. A lot of these problems are invisible and people don’t necessarily understand them, and over the years there’s been a sort of ignoring of them for a large portion of that time.
You know this problem’s been 70 years in the making and for a long time people just thought about grow, grow, grow, that was how you made communities prosperous. There’s nothing wrong with that, growth is inevitable and it’s going to happen and I think we just need to do it more smartly than what we’re doing.
And we’re starting to see political will change. We’re starting to see that people understand now that the wealth of Florida is in its waters, and if you’re gonna have clean water you need to clean up what’s wrong with it and keep it healthy so that people don’t have concerns about swimming or fishing or boating or however they want to enjoy the lagoon.
Duane: Yeah, that’s great. You know, KJ, you’ve been working a lot on water quality and harmful algal blooms and I’m going to just mention that we had a tipping point in 2011 with the Indian River Lagoon. There were a lot of problems that were neglected or overlooked.
A lot of them are plumbing problems with septic tanks, waste water, stormwater systems—but the ultimate outcome of that freshwater input, the pulsing of fresh water and the addition of the pollutants that come with it including nutrients and sediments and other pollutants…you’ve got to see that firsthand with some of your algal bloom mapping and data analysis, KJ.
So do you agree with the top three that this is mainly a plumbing problem? And what do you see as you think about water quality and changes particularly since 2011?
KJ: People doing a generalization don’t realize that everything from the smallest thing, from a corporation down to their home, can impact the lagoon. So whether you’re putting herbicides or pesticides on your lawn, it automatically leeches into the lagoon, and that ultimately will affect something else. And it’s just kind of like a cycle, like a tipping point, like everythings interconnected, and a lot of people don’t realize that.
So [with] the pollutants going into the estuary, the seagrasses die off, [and it causes] the massive mortality event of manatees. It’s all interconnected and I feel like a lot of people don’t realize that and they focus on one thing. Whereas the initial problem is with water quality.
Duane: No it really is, and you know we’ve kind of positioned the National Estuary Program to include 32 different vital signs recognizing that so much of this is interconnection between waters and what we do on land.
So as we move forward with this conversation, I want to challenge you to some of the solutions. You know we have problems with water quality—that shift that happened in 2011 has resulted in a decade of recurring seasonal harmful algal blooms that have caused a dramatic loss of seagrasses which have been documented now, you know, in scientific publications and resulted in a complete change in the structure and function of this system.
We’re seeing impacts to our fisheries, loss of seagrasses, impacts to manatees, and an unusual mortality event.
How do we solve this problem? We hear, and I know we all agree on this, that we hear a lot from citizens who say we’ll never ever solve this problem. It’s too big, too expensive, too hard—how do you all feel about it? And I’m going to add my opinion on this one as well but, um, is this too big? I mean, you know, is the Indian River Lagoon doomed or do we have solutions that work and what are they?
KJ: I think that the projection is getting better with the slow changes that everybody’s trying to do from our council members, county commissioners being involved. I think so we’re kind of in a good projectile but there’s still a lot more that we can do. And I feel like that’s why the NEP is trying to get involved.
Duane: Dan, you oversee…I think you’ve got well over 30 projects that you’re managing right now just for the Indian River Lagoon, but talk a little bit about the projects that are underway, including the projects that are being done by our partners at the federal, state, [and] local level.
You know the answer to the question I think we all know, is there’s a lot of people doing a lot of things at a lot of different levels using an awful lot of money, but give us a perspective and our listeners [a] perspective of the scale of the activity that’s going on.
Dan: Yeah, sure Duane. So first I just want to kind of roll back just a second and say you know history tells us that this can be done. Chesapeake Bay and Tampa Bay are really good examples of massive restoration efforts from when a lagoon was in a or an estuary was in a similar situation, so that right there should just give everybody a little bit of hope that it can happen.
It’s been done before. But as far as the projects, yeah the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program manages roughly 25 to 30, up to 40 projects per year. Part of my EPA work plan that I have to put together every year for our federal funding is to kind of give a whole overview or look of what the stakeholders are doing within the lagoon system for restoration. So each year I go ahead and put together that call, and we get up to 300 projects this current year that are ongoing.
So a lot of that is just buying into this whole One Lagoon aspect to do your part. Every stakeholder through the lagoon is doing their part with what projects they can do for restoration and it varies from infrastructure, stormwater, wastewater, septic to sewer conversions, habitat restoration, you know, oyster reef restorations, seagrass, living shorelines… there’s so many different projects out there.
SOIRL has a huge impact. 250 million originally estimated and now it’s pushed up to 500 million over 10 years, so there’s a lot going on and I think that’s what people need to know. That these projects are out there. You may not see them because a lot of them are underground or underwater, but there’s a lot going on. I think DEP’s got their TMDL (total maximum daily load) model and their initial estimates were almost halfway there so it’s getting [there.]
Duane: Talk a little bit about what SOIRL is because some of our listeners may not be aware of Brevard County’s leadership with that sales tax. So yeah a little description about what’s going on in Brevard County [may be helpful.]
Dan: So Brevard [County] I think arguably has been the hardest hit during that tipping point in 2011. They’ve seen the largest reduction in seagrass and the biggest problems and they recognize that they needed to step up and take care of this problem on their own.
So voters in 2016 voted to tax themselves with a half cent sales tax county-wide for 10 years and it became what is now SOIRL, or Save Our Indian River Lagoon program. It’s citizen oversight driven. They come up with a bunch of different projects and each year they’re reviewed and put to the council for approval and they just go at it.
They’re looking at I think over a million pounds of total nitrogen reduction when this whole project’s finished. So pretty significant. Almost half the TMDL, the total maximum daily load with DEP and the Basin Management Action Plan so a huge amount of reduction of nutrient input.
Duane: Yeah that’s great for our listeners. The reason we worry so much about nutrients and fresh water is that it’s nutrients that fuel harmful algal blooms that we’ve been suffering under. So the goal is if you reduce the sources of those nutrients like fertilizer, like septic systems, like our internal muck and wastewater systems that are undersized or aging or inadequate then what happens is we can reduce the intensity, the frequency, the duration of these blooms.
And the blooms cloud the light, we know that plants need light to survive, so that’s been largely the driver of our seagrass losses over the last decade have been these recurring harmful algal blooms that have been intense enough and long-lasting enough to do damage to our seagrasses.
Kathy, how about you? You know, some solutions? You see the world through a communication lens and what individual homeowners and citizens can do—so where do you see some of these solutions, you know, as we move forward?
Kathy: Yeah I think going back to the doom question for just one second, I don’t think that we’re doomed and I also don’t think that you can work in environmental restoration and be a pessimist—you have to be an optimist. And what gets me out of bed every morning literally is what are we going to do to make the lagoon better today. And that mindset is what keeps me going. It’s what keeps me doing what I do. I’m starting to see that from members of the public and elected officials and corporations and just folks that care about the lagoon. So that together gives me a lot of optimism for where we’re going. I think things are moving on the right path.
As Daniel said, just in the last couple of years, you know, we’ve had this mantra from people who maybe are not so engaged that nobody’s doing nothing, there’s no plan, but we know that there’s plans. We know that almost every county has a plan.
You know several counties including Brevard have voted themselves special taxes to clean up the lagoon. Citizens are clamoring for doing things for the lagoon and that’s driving the money and the projects that we see. Two years ago we had, from Daniel’s data, 267 projects lagoon-wide that were going on to help the lagoon just in one year, and last year as Dan said, 303.
So things are moving in the right direction, you know, nutrients are coming out, people have decided that that is a priority, and keeping the lagoon cleaner is a priority, and I think things are all moving in the right way.
Duane: Kathy, what are five things that citizens can do right now so our listeners can actually engage at a personal level at their homes or their businesses? You know, individual actions and I want to just have you expand a little bit about “Lagoon Friendly” and how we work more in alignment and in support of the Indian River Lagoon in our day-to-day lives. So tell our listeners about Lagoon Friendly.
Kathy: What we’re doing is trying to influence individuals to act responsibly and act for the benefit of the lagoon. And what you want to think about are those small little changes you can make around your home or in the way that you interact with the environment that will have big impacts.
So things like using fewer fertilizers and pesticides around your house, picking up your pet waste, maybe washing your car [for example]. Instead of washing your car in the driveway where all of that soap and excess water will go down the driveway into the nearest storm drain, you bring your car up onto the lawn and you wash it on the lawn so that water soaks into the ground.
Educate yourself. People are going to vote on these questions in [the] coming days and weeks and months, so vote your values. That’s prime. To do that you need to be educated about what the issues are.
Volunteer! You know, if you have some extra time and you love the lagoon there is a group no matter what your interest is there is a group that would be happy to have you. So volunteering, I think, is a huge thing. Um, lots of our successes with filter feeders in the lagoon with clam and oyster restoration is volunteer-driven now. A lot of the shoreline restorations are being driven by volunteers, so there’s lots of stuff that people can do.
Even if you can’t volunteer and you still want to do something for the lagoon you can do something as simple as buy a lagoon license plate. It’s a $15 contribution but it’s a personal contribution you make that says “the lagoon is important to me, I’m gonna buy this.” And you know our program gets the money, so this is our shameless plug, but you know that money goes out to projects and those things are helping the lagoon. So even if you can’t do anything else you could buy a license plate and just make a personal contribution to helping the lagoon that way. And that’s what Living Lagoon Friendly really means.
Duane: That’s great. In fact, that investment issue is an important one for our listeners to understand. Every county, every city, all of the individuals who live on the lagoon—if we all make [an] investment, you know, to have a healthy lagoon, that investment pays big dividends on value. Not just the economic value of the lagoon, which is estimated at $7.6 billion dollars a year, but it’s of value to our homes, to our businesses, our property values, it even impacts our workforce.
So folks who come down and want to work in Florida along our east coast, along the Indian River Lagoon, you know they want a boat. They want to be able to go in the water, and eat fish and shellfish safely. So when you start thinking about investment, a couple of estimates are that for every dollar that we spend investing in lagoon restoration, we’re deriving values at twenty to thirty three dollars. So we are really investing in the community of life that we have, we’re investing in our homes and in our jobs, you know, and in our economy.
And [we] really want to thank everybody who’s out there, whether it’s an individual, a city, a county, you know, it’s all hands on deck. And we have seen historic levels of funding at state and federal levels, including local levels, over the last few years. Our citizens need to support those investments because a lot of work still needs to be done if we’re going to restore this system to a healthy place like we remember. Or at least something like we remember.
So before we wrap up I’d like to give each of you a moment to say one last thing to our listeners on a wrap up, and Dan I’ll start with you.
Dan: All right, well I think everybody needs to know there’s no Silver Bullet for this you know. There’s no one thing that can fix everything. So, you know, you got to keep chugging along at each of these different problems and going about it and just keep the resolve and do what you can and that’ll be anything you can to help the lagoon.
Even if it’s, you know, stop [using] fertilizer or the investment like Duane said. Just keep at it and eventually we’re going to get there, and you know, it took 30 years for Tampa Bay and we’re at this only 10 years now so just keep that in mind. I think you’ll start seeing some progress. You know, luckily we’ve had great water quality the past year so hopefully that continues in the right direction,
Duane: Kathy, how about you?
Kathy: You know people have begun [having] more [of an] understanding about what’s happening in the lagoon and why we are where we are, and so that gives me a lot of faith and a lot of hope for the future. I think you know things are moving on the right track, we just have to keep up our will to keep going and to make it work.
Duane: And KJ, last thoughts?
KJ: I guess my thing is to always ask questions. Like Kathy said, kind of keep educating yourself on what’s going on, whether it be in the scientific community or whether you’re just doing something recreationally. If you see something or notice something maybe call somebody about it.
I think we posted a video about it, but like say you see, I don’t know, an injured animal out when you’re on the lagoon. Call FWC or Florida Fish and Wildlife. Or [if] you see an algal bloom, make sure you report it. Just always ask questions and be aware of what’s going on [in the] lagoon and I think ultimately that’ll start pushing us more in the right direction.
Duane: No question—each individual can make a difference both in their daily lives and in their support as a community for what is a historic investment underway right now to restore one of the nation’s most important estuaries, clearly, on the east coast of Florida. The only National Estuary over here on the east coast.
So I want to thank each of you—you [are] important team members of the National Estuary Program. I couldn’t do this work, and we couldn’t do this work, without your expertise and knowledge. You know, we interact with a very large volunteer network within our management conference of over a hundred people, and so the work of the National Estuary Program really starts with you as staff.
Duane: I want to thank all of our listeners today. These podcasts are going to be repeated on a regular basis but to learn more about us visit OneLagoon.org to stay informed about lagoon news and upcoming events.
Follow us on Facebook, on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok all at One Lagoon. We are here for your questions if you need technical support, just go to OneLagoon.org and you can contact us at any time. We’ll see you next time and have a wonderful day.