Last month, I visited the Indian River Lagoon with Riverkeeper Marty Baum and his friend Gunnar Johnson. The Indian River Lagoon is ground zero for water quality problems in Florida. They have even had two funerals for this waterway. It is heavily used by people and the hand of man has had a very negative impact on it, yet there are still beautiful areas and if we adopted better water policies the situation could be improved and it could bounce back, which is why Marty works as hard as he does.
Marty is a fifth generation Floridian and remembers when the waterways were crystal clear and a beautiful blue color all through the lagoon. Today the water is dark and frequently almost black in places.
Marty drove us out to where you can see the line created by the dark waters of the St. Lucie juxtaposed against the clearer blue water of the Atlantic. It was shocking to see the contrast. Marty, an avid fisherman for much of his life, only fishes for sport in these waters knowing what he does about the water quality issues here.
If Marty were to eat any of the fish he catches, he would catch them here or further out in the Atlantic. When I saw the color of this water, I was both happy and sad. Happy that clear water still exists, but sad at what has been lost in the Indian River Lagoon.
The five mile radius around this island once boasted more biodiversity than anywhere in North America. Now it is heading towards a monoculture. Because of the tides and the way the rivers in the lagoon flow, this side of the St. Lucie gets more of the darker waters from Lake Okeechobee, while the other side gets more of the clearer ocean water. We didn't see any fish jump and hardly even saw any birds on this side. Coming back, we traveled along the opposite shore.
Marty took us to a bird island on this side that had quite a number of birds. I was happy to see that they looked pretty healthy, as I had read the horror stories of the pelicans dying along with the manatees and dolphins from 2011 to 2013. Nevertheless, fishing in these waters must still be taking a toll on their health. Unlike people, it is not an option for birds to decide to just fish for sport. We watched these beautiful creatures for quite some time and a few highlights are included below.
Watching all these pelicans and other birds fly in and out, I wondered if they would still find enough to eat here if the water quality continues to deteriorate. Marty and Gunnar told me about the second phase of a restoration program to reintroduce live oysters to the river. Each oyster can filter 50 gallons of water per day. 350 volunteers grew about 60,000 oysters in the past year. Old shells, after being dried out to kill bacteria, are put back into the river as well, to provide habitat for the new oysters. Gunnar was helping in the volunteer efforts to put them in the water. Marty said he couldn't risk it, as he had recently suffered from MRSA, which people have been getting from putting their arms or other body parts in the river if they have open wounds. My hat fell off my head, and I checked my hands before I reached in to pull it out.
After we got off the river, Gunnar drove us up to the locks and we arrived in time to see one of the releases. The water coming out was disgusting brown sludge. It did not even look like water to me, which was even more I saw some catfish swimming just outside of the lock. It boggled my mind that anything could live in that water at all, and I wondered in how many ways the systems of these fish had mutated.
The scum along the shoreline shows the effects of too many nitrates and other chemicals in the water, which alter the balance of life. Certain weeds, grasses and plants along the banks may thrive, but the diversity within our waterways is strangled. It is this toxic water, along with the water released from Lake Okeechobee that makes its way into the St. Lucie and the Indian River Lagoon. Although the death rates of ocean mammals and pelicans are not as extreme as they were between 2011 and 2013, the images of the water you see here show how much pollution still remains. The Indian River Lagoon still has a long way to go before it is heathy again, but Marty and other experts believe it is possible if the right steps are taken.