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Nancy Smith

Massive Fish Kill Emphasizes Florida's Failure to Follow Science

March 28, 2016 - 7:30pm

Thousands upon thousands of dead and rotting fish float belly-up in the polluted Indian River Lagoon, devastating indictors of the state's failure to control nutrient levels in one of the most bio-diverse waterways in the country.

“They were suffocated. They could not breathe,” Robert Weaver, Ph.D., director of the Indian River Lagoon Research Institute, said of the blanket of fish stretching as far along a 50-mile waterfront as the eye could see. He said at 2 a.m. Saturday there was no oxygen at the depth of water where he was taking samples near Sykes Creek in Merritt Island.

Brian Lapointe, Ph.D., marine algae specialist and research professor at Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, told Sunshine State News the algae blooms and brown tide represent a perfect storm of high levels of fecal coliform, El Nino gullywashers bringing other polluted runoff, a sudden spike in temperatures and a depletion of oxygen levels for fish and other marine wildlife.

I Beg to DifferActually, the kind of perfect storm that ultimately follows when we ignore what science tells us.

"This meltdown of the Indian River Lagoon starts way up in Volusia County," Lapointe explained Monday. "The bloom and brown tide actually began last fall in the North and moved south. It hit the Sebastian Inlet area in early February 2000. Measurements for biomass in the water included 200 mg. per liter of chorlophyl A -- that's a big, big bloom.

"All those algae blooms die and strip the oxygen out of the water," he said. "The low oxygen is exaccerbated by the temperature spike."

Could this devastation have been prevented? Lapointe was emphatic. "Absolutely," he said. "The problem is, there is so much bad information out there, so much emotion and politicizing of the issue and so little emphasis on real science. Go back 26 years and look at the Indian River Lagoon Act. It identifies sewage hot spots. They knew human waste was a major problem even back then, but nobody wanted to deal with the issue. People wanted to keep their septic tanks, the status quo was cheaper than converting to a central sewage system."

The exception was Port St. Lucie.

By 1990 the city of Port St. Lucie was converting its utilities -- water and sewer -- to a central municipal system. It was a painful process -- each homeowner had to foot the bill to construct the system, the state never provided a dime. "It was the largest wastewater septic tank conversion in the country," PSL Mayor Gregory J. Oravec told SSN.

But, even though the entire city was converted by about 1996, residents were told they didn't have to hook up until their well fields failed -- meaning water improvement in drainage canals and the North Fork of the St. Lucie River was slow in improving for the first 10 years.

According to PSL Utilities Department figures, there are -- 

  • 18,664 active residential septic systems in the city and another 1,131 systems in use within portions of unincorporated St. Lucie County that lie within the city’s utility service area;
  • 50,024 sanitary sewer service customers being billed as of February 2016.

"We're trying to identify the sources of our pollution," Oravec said. "A lot of it is fecal coliform, that we know, and it's discouraging. We've asked Brian Lapointe to help us find the source."

The Indian River Lagoon is 156 miles (251 km) long, extending from Ponce de León Inlet in Volusia County to Jupiter Inlet in Palm Beach County. It includes Cape Canaveral. Lake Okeechobee is connected to the lagoon by the Okeechobee Waterway and where the St. Lucie River and Indian River meet in Sewall's Point. 

In 2008 there were an estimated 300,000 septic tanks along the watershed route of the Indian River Lagoon; today there are 600,000.

"You just can't blame Lake Okeechobee phosphorus for this brown tide," Lapointe said. "The official warning was not to touch the water in the North Fork. If Okeechobee were responsible, there would have been a warning not to touch the water in the South Fork. And there wasn't."

Gov. Rick Scott's office released a statement Friday in which the governor highlighted state and local efforts to reduce brown tide and concerns about the impact of algae blooms.

"While this brown tide event is not a health threat to our families or visitors, we are assessing and responding to areas that are seeing a loss of fish," Scott said in his statement.

Scott promised the state "will continue to do all we can to protect water quality in the Indian River Lagoon.”

Included in Scott's $82 billion budget just signed is $21.5 million to dredge muck-pollution from the central and northern Indian River Lagoon and the Banana River in Brevard County. In return, Brevard County has to pony up $1.5 million to the Indian River Lagoon Research Institute at Florida Institute of Technology.

In the last massive environmental disaster in the northern lagoon in 2012, much of the seagrass was destroyed. Since then the Legislature has plowed $72 million into ridding the water bed of nitrogen and phosphorus so seagrass can grow again.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce has heard the call. The chamber announced Monday it has entered into an educational partnership with its trustees, Lapointe, and Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

“Dr. Lapointe’s scientific research shows that septic tank sewage nitrogen is a smoking gun that threatens many of Florida’s waterways, including the Indian River Lagoon,” said Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. “At the Florida Chamber, we remain committed to Florida’s environment, and look forward to sharing Dr. Lapointe’s research and further securing Florida’s water future.”

With six million more residents expected to call Florida home by 2030, and our state’s water demand expected to increase by 20 percent by 2030, strong, science-based water quality standards will continue to play a vital role in Florida’s economy and quality of life, the chamber said in its announcement.

The Florida Chamber backs the comprehensive water policy Scott signed into law during the recently completed legislative session.  The chamber’s water education campaign is intended to strengthen public awareness by educating employers and employees on how septic tank pollution threatens local waterways. 

Lapointe has extensive experience in water quality research in South Florida and the Caribbean region. His research has led to greater nutrient removal from sewage effluents in Monroe County, his long-term water quality monitoring at Looe Key reef in the Florida Keys represents the longest low-level nutrient record for a coral reef anywhere in the world.  

His work in Florida Bay and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in the 1990s, which utilized stable nitrogen isotopes to “fingerprint” nitrogen sources, was the first to demonstrate the importance of agricultural nitrogen from mainland sources to development of algal blooms in the Keys.

"Septic tanks are second only to fertilizer as the largest source of nitrogen in Florida waters," he says.

Last November LaPointe presented the results of a study Martin County commissioned FAU's Harbor Branch to do, "2015 Martin County Watershed to Reef Septic Study." (Unfortunately, I am unable to attach it below -- it's too large for SSN's format. If you want to read it, email me and I'll send it to you.)

“We confirmed that the areas with a high concentration of septic systems had nitrates and phosphates in the groundwater and in the ditches leading to the St. Lucie,” Lapointe told the County Commission in making his Nov. 3 presentation. “Then we found that sewage is getting into the estuary and being taken by tides out to the reefs, where it’s causing a chain reaction that’s literally killing the reefs.”

Said Lapointe, “We have so many opinions around the state as to the various factors that may be causing things like the brown tide in the Indian River Lagoon, or the problems we’re seeing in the St. Lucie estuary or Florida Bay. But, it really comes back to not using political or expedient solutions to these problems, which can often times make the problems worse. It is really looking at cause and effect and we really need to use the best science available to find out the causes of these problems."

In a recent edition of Florida Chamber’s "Bottom Line" public affairs program (see the video below), Lapointe explained that the public doesn't realize what many of the main sources of pollution are -- including septic tanks. 

“To secure Florida’s water future," he says, "we really have to follow science; science has to lead the way.”

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith


What about the out dated orangeburg sewage lines that many homes along the Indian River Lagoon used up until 1972. They were meant to carry raw sewage from our homes to the main city sewage line. Dr. Duane DeFreeze did mention this at the Satellite Beach Town Hall meeting last week. There are lots of homes that have city water 'n sewage with orange berg lines that are broken, rotted and/or expired. This is a BIG issue that is contributing to the problem as well. We need subsidies to help replace those short lines with PVC.

As long as the population continues to grow, through birth, migration and immigration, nothing can be done to save the natural ecosystem. Positive changes in politics. environment education and throwing money at improvement may add a little time before the collapse, but most people will not notice in any event.

Local governments, along with state and federal agencies and authorities, need to put their heads together and collaborate, in order to come up with a functional solution to this problem. Consider opening some canals or inlets from the Atlantic Ocean into the Banana River, in at least two locations. The narrow strip of land near the north end of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, as well as the narrow strip of land near the south end of Cocoa Beach and the north end of Patrick Air Force Base, are two possible locations for such canals or inlets. Involve the local governments. Involve Port Canaveral. Involve the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Involve the U.S. Air Force. Just fix the problem.

Florida has some of the weakest septic tank system requirements and weakest enforcement of regulation in the nation. EPA determined way back in 1997 that properly designed, installed, and maintained onsite systems are adequate (and superior to centralized systems in some instances) for wastewater management. Septic tanks that leak like sieves immediately disqualify a system from "properly...". Sorry Florida, you saved a few $1000 on each of your onsite systems, but you destroyed your environment in the long run.

This is why came up with this Newly Developed Patented SolarOrganite® Septic Tank Waste Elimination Process. This newly patented process will eliminates septic tank waste from toilets and or septic tanks that is fueled only by the sun using the SolarOrganite® Process to help people on septic tanks here in Florida and the USA with a safe and sustainable sanitation method for getting rid of their toilet waste and or septic sludge that is polluting our land, lakes, springs, rivers and all other water sources. Currently septic tank waste is drained into a drain field areas or applied directly to land with no real treatment or the septic waste is taken to landfills and just dumped. With this new process, only sunlight is used through SolarOrganite® Process to totally sterilized, pasteurized and dry the end product into a healthy, safe material meeting US EPA 503 Requirements. This new patented processing has the capability of heating human septic waste to a high enough temperature using SolarOrganite® Process in an enclosed chamber to pasteurize and sterilize human waste and create a 99% totally dried end product. The device is a next-generation septic tank waste treatment process using only solar energy that can be used to disinfect septic liquid and solid waste while generating useful and environmentally safe end products. Sewage waste is either pumped or gravity feed into the SolarOrganite® processing chamber. Based on the amount of sewage waste, determine the size of the processing chamber needed. This new process manages human waste that will help improve the health and lives of people in Florida and the United States. Unsafe methods to capture and treat human waste result in serious health problems. Crops, food and water tainted with pathogens from fecal matter results in health risks issues. The heat energy generated by the sun with SolarOrganite® Chamber to pasteurization-sterilization chamber that can heat up the reaction chamber to over 100 degrees Celsius to treat the waste material, disinfect pathogens in both feces and urine, and produces a safe end product. The end product then meets all State and Federal Environmental Regulations.

this is not climate change related, it is a use issue only. I had worked with Dr. laPointe 20 years ago on Florida Bay issues and Lake Worth issues. We can stop all of the issues if we control what goes in. Nutrients are not healthy in a salt water environment. Follow the experts, get the politics out of it, including climate change and focus on Florida.

Nowhere in this article does it mention the amount of nitrogen added to the soil by thunderstorms. Has that been measured by anybody? Florida is the lightning strike capital of the U.S. I do believe.

It has been measured. Google "Atmospheric nitrogen and phosphorus deposition in Florida" You can find data for several regions.

With apologies to The Donald, "What we need is a ban on new residents until our political leaders get a handle on exactly what is going on" A good first step would be to get the fornicating Chamber of Commerce out of it. Like, completely gone. One more worthless political hack organization.

Agreed. As one who has lived in Florida my whole life (72 years) I have seen the population explode. Too many people and there is no way we should encourage another 6 million by the year 2030. The state cannot sustain what we have now. We should have built the wall back in the 80's or even the 70's and limited coastal, as well as waterfront development.

Oh, you are so right. This overpopulation has to stop, as it is the root of the problem. Also the current Republican regime is the most anti environmental in history. Check their voting records online and vote them out

First I would like to see Dr La Pointe report and where samples are taken. Second I would like to point out that the state of Florida DEP has permitted 2000 domestic wastewater treatment facilities. They treat mostly for nutrients. The permitted capacity is 1.5 billion gallons per day. They call the effluent (reclaimed water) of the 1.5bbillion gallons per day, 950,000 million gallons per day are discharged to surface waters (i.e. Indian River lagoon) Ocean outfalls(Atlantic Ocean) or deep well injection. Now, latest report on active septic systems are 2.5 million statewide. That equals about 750,000,000 gallons per day. Quick analysis tells me that not all septic systems are in failure. Therefore, septic systems properly maintained are not the problem Dr La Pointe makes them out to be. I would suggest that direct discharge of effluent from sewer treatment facilities are doing the most harm. There's other issues with collection systems for the sewer treatment facilities like leaking piping. In the industry it is known as Inflow and Infiltration (I & I) Let's get all the science together for a holistic approach instead of playing "wack a mole" Septic systems and wastewater treatment facilities that are properly operated and maintained are both effective and needed treatment methods.

This is absolutely disgraceful, and akin to the Flint, Michigan water crises in the level of governmental mismanagement and failure. The Governor and Legislature have only one job, and that is to protect our state. What a colossal failure by our leaders.

Tell it to worthless Governor Scott - and his worthless Attorney General, Bondi after banning the term "climate change" from environmental assessments.

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nancy smith

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