It's good to see a Florida waterfront county where so many citizens -- if not the majority of their county commissioners -- are prepared to do whatever it takes to rid local waters of sewage effluent.
The Indian River Lagoon at Brevard County needs the kiss of life.
"The lagoon has lost 95 percent of its seagrass, it's suffered not only massive fish kills, but die-off of endangered manatees, dolphins, and pelicans," says Harbor Branch and Florida Atlantic University marine biologist Brian Lapointe, whose four peer-reviewed studies of local waters show where the bulk of the problem is coming from.
Sewage in the water.
Lapointe says over the years Brevard County has paid out millions of dollars for muck research and removal from the lagoon bottom, but has spent very little on the root cause of the problem -- sewage.
The issue came to a head at Tuesday night's Brevard County Commission meeting when commissioners were set to discuss how to spend the $44 million, more than originally anticipated, raised in 2017 by the county's half-percent sales tax for lagoon restoration.
Call it an unfortunate coincidence for commissioners ... earlier that day, neighborhoods of waterfront residents were left desolate and crying on canal banks near Merritt Island where hundreds of dead fish floated in brown water.
The Cocoa Beach and Merritt Island area of the lagoon is in its third month of a brown algae bloom that's been killing seagrass and other lagoon life since 2012.
"This is a crisis ... The Band-Aids on the cancer patient aren't working," Merritt Island boat captain Alex Gorichky told the five commissioners. The voters, he said, will "replace every single last one of you until we get it right. We're fed up. We're done. We're done with dirty water. We're done with the nasty lagoon. The crisis is still a crisis, and it's not being treated as the crisis it is."
Commissioners wanted to spend most of the money on muck removal. Of Brevard's approximately 60,000 septic tanks, they would devote only enough money to some 1,700 septic tanks.
Said John Hitchcock of Palm Bay, president of Florida Wetlands Forever, "This is a $1 billion problem. ... The county's plan for spending this $427 million over 10 years has no basis, we have no idea if it's going to work. ... We have four-to-six peer-reviewed studies that tell us ...we need to sewer the whole county," Hitchcock said of Lapointe's work.
Retired civil engineer Jim Glass, a member of the Florida Coastal Conservation Association, talked about his 40 years of experience with septic-to-sewer conversions in Sarasota Bay and Tampa Bay.
"The sea grass is the lifeblood of the lagoon," Glass explained. "Sea grasses are back in Sarasota now." He also regaled his work in the Florida Keys on a $1 billion program to eliminate 23,000 septic tanks and 235 small wastewater treatment plants. Work in the Keys started in 1998, finished in 2000, and only now is the last septic tank gone.
"We need a moratorium on all new septic tanks, inspect existing ones and reprioritize the (lagoon restoration spending) plan. We need a detailed master plan and timeline to fix the lagoon," he said.
"Muck buildup is a symptom of a sewage-driven eutrophication problem," Lapointe preaches during his presentations. "Brevard County," he says, "is actually using the Indian River Lagoon as part of its sewage treatment process. Just as solids, or muck, need to be periodically removed from sewage treatment plants, this is what they're now doing in the Indian River Lagoon, mostly removing muck."
If you get a chance, watch the meeting, starting at about one-third of the way through it.
What you will hear from public testimony is a call to re-prioritize funds for a wastewater master plan that will begin an aggressive septic-to-sewer program, and much-needed improvements in wastewater collection and treatment to AWT (advanced wastewater treatment, i.e. nutrient removal).
But you'll get none of that from commissioners, three of whom apparently weren't moved by those residents. Chair Rita Pritchett, and Commissioners Jim Barfield and Curt Smith voted in favor of spending the money a la business as usual, dividing it up on more than 30 different lagoon projects; Vice Chair Kristine Isnardi and Commissioner John Tobia seemed poised for a new direction.
Some Brevard voters are talking about "a whole new commission" in November. "We're dead serious about our lagoon," retired Cocoa Beach nurse Marian Ryan told me Friday. "It's ours to care for, we're the stewards for the people and all living creatures who come after us."
Incidentally, Lapointe was unable to attend Tuesday's meeting because he was in Miami, preparing for the PBS 10th Anniversary of its series "Changing Seas." Producers highlighted his research in several episodes, particular the research relating to sewage pollution as the No. 1 problem in the Indian River Lagoon. (His septic research in the lagoon also had national attention from the Washington Post and the engineering journal Informed Infrastructure ... but who's counting?)
Meanwhile, Randy Fine, R-South Brevard County, a legislator I consider a hero for his efforts to make wrong local lagoon decisions right, did sit in on Tuesday night's commission meeting. Unfortunately, I was unable to connect with him before the weekend.
To recap, as a result of Fine's efforts, Brevard has been compelled to spend more than $12 million on sewage system repairs under a consent order prepared in March by the Department of Environmental Protection.
Brevard's illegal dumping of 22,782,439 gallons of raw sewage into the Indian River in 21 separate releases from Sept. 11 to Oct. 19, 2017, so enraged Fine he determined to compel the county to fix its infrastructure so such malfeasance never happens again.
The consent decree requires the County Commission to complete three projects by the end of 2020: the completion of 3.5 miles of force main on North Riverside Drive between Eau Gallie and Oakland Avenue in Indialantic; complete $1.9 million of clay pipe rehabilitation in seven collection basins in the South Beaches; and complete smoke testing of sewage pipes in Satellite Beach.
Unsurprisingly, the consent order did not arise Tuesday night -- or, if it did, I missed it.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith