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Oversight group recommends updates to restoration plans for Indian River Lagoon

Members of the Brevard County Save Our Indian River Lagoon Program discuss program updates at their first meeting of the year on January 19, 2024.
Molly Duerig
/
Members of the Brevard County Save Our Indian River Lagoon Program discussed program updates at their first meeting of the year on January 19, 2024.

The Brevard County Save Our Indian River Lagoon (SOIRL) Citizen Oversight Committee voted unanimously Friday to advance proposed updates to a ten-year plan for restoring the polluted lagoon to better health.

Next, the updated plan must be approved by county commissioners, who will likely consider it at their Feb. 20 meeting, county officials said Friday. Meanwhile, members of the public now have more than the required 15 days to review the draft.

The 369-page draft outlines a range of efforts planned to improve lagoon health, from septic-to-sewer conversions and muck removal to shoreline restoration and public education.

In all, project costs over ten years total more than $587 million, funded largely by a half-cent sales tax Brevard County voters approved in 2016 to help clean up and protect the Indian River Lagoon. The referendum funding also allows Brevard to take advantage of state and federal match funding, according to the SOIRL program’s website.

Watch a recording of Friday's meeting below, via the SOIRL program's YouTube channel:

Overall, members of the Citizen Oversight Committee expressed optimism Friday about the lagoon’s gradually improving health. A local fishing enthusiast who spoke during a public comment period echoed that optimism, saying the lagoon is “really improving.”

Just this month, about 85% of 649 code enforcement cases involving private sewer leaks were resolved, according to the SOIRL program’s January progress report.

Still, more work lies ahead to keep improving the Indian River Lagoon, one of 28 federally-designated Estuaries of National Significance. It received an overall ‘F’ grade on the Marine Resources Council’s most recent annual report, which found that despite the lagoon’s improving water quality, critical seagrass continues to decline.

That annual report also urges citizens to “stop fertilizing the lawn.” Most fertilizers used in residential areas contain nitrogen, which can damage water bodies if fertilizers are misused, according to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).

But a recent, state-commissioned UF/IFAS report states it “remains largely unclear” whether or not local restrictions on fertilizer use — like seasonal bans — actually reduce pollution and improve water quality.

Mangroves like this one can help protect and stabilize shorelines, according to Florida's Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).
Molly Duerig
/
WMFE News
Mangroves like this one in Brevard County can help protect and stabilize shorelines, according to Florida's Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).

Alternate committee member Charles Venuto expressed concern Friday about the study’s finding, and how it might impact what he describes as a growing movement in the state to prevent counties from exercising local government authority.

“I’m very concerned [about] this movement in the state … there seems to be more and more control from the state on what local rule can be,” Venuto said. “And I’m concerned this new study came out that indicated that nutrient pollution from fertilizers is not a concern, although I see it’s disputed.”

Venuto said despite recent water quality improvements, the lagoon still doesn’t resemble what it did several decades ago, when it was much healthier: a “baseline” that Venuto said newcomers to the area might not be aware of. He said it’s important for counties to make their own decisions about local fertilizer restrictions.

Echoing that sentiment in a summary of 2024 legislative priorities, the volunteer-run Brevard Indian River Coalition writes that “one rule for all is not effective in solving fertilizer pollution problems,” due to different soil types, temperatures and other area conditions.

“Local governments are where experiments should be done that can be bubbled up to the state level. And it’s coming the wrong way, the way our state’s running,” Venuto said.

Molly is an award-winning reporter with a background in video production and investigative journalism, focused on covering environmental issues for WMFE and WMFV.

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