Citrus Along the Indian River Lagoon, A Killer and a Necessity

Historic postcard, Indian River Citris. (Collection of Sandra Henderson Thurlow)
Historic postcard, Indian River Citris. (Collection of Sandra Henderson Thurlow.)

Thousands of years ago, humankind found a way to avoid the constant nomadic life of following big game, becoming more self sufficient, learning the art of agriculture. Nothing has made our lives better. Unfortunately, after thousands of years of its evolution, nothing has made our lives worse.

Don’t get me wrong, I realize that agriculture an important industry, the second largest after tourism, in the state of Florida. Still, we must look at its issues and try to make things better.

Agriculture is a high intensity land use, using large amounts of pesticides, fertilizers, and fungicides that over time accumulate in the water and the environment. The May 2014 issue of National Geographic states that “farming is the largest endeavor on earth using just under 40 percent of the earth’s surface causing the second largest  impact to the earth, erosion.” 

Much of the land in our area is devoted to agriculture as well, particularly citrus.

The Indian River Lagoon region is famous for its delicious citrus and although the industry is in decline due to canker, it has had huge impacts on the IRL area due to the canal system built to drain the land and water the crops. The muck that has entered the lagoon since the early 1900s is mostly from erosion of canals, due to the runoff from agriculture as they drain their lands that were once swamp or wetlands.

The Indian River Lagoon Region runs from Palm Beach to Volusia Counties, along the 156 miles of the lagoon. (USDA map 2011)
The Indian River Lagoon Region runs from Palm Beach to Volusia Counties, along the 156 miles of the lagoon. (USDA map 2011.)

The USDA documented 89,367 acres of citrus in the Indian River Lagoon region in 2009, declining to 81,673 in 2010. There is a lot of land devoted to citrus, land that has been radically altered from its original state and affects the Indian River Lagoon as there are literally thousands of miles of canals attached and interwoven along these groves. All eventually dump to the river or other water body.

In 1994 the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) determined that the north fork of the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon, a registered state “Aquatic Preserve,” was contaminated by pesticides that came from the citrus groves in the area of the St Lucie’s headwaters, Ten Mile Creek. (http://www.dep.state.fl.us/southeast/ecosum/ecosums/tenmile_creek.pdf)

In 2002, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection labeled the St Lucie River as “impaired.” Reading through the document there is clear determination of agricultures’ role  in this process, especially with sediment run off, pesticides and heavy metals that have accumulated in the environment. (http://www.dep.state.fl.us/southeast/ecosum/ecosums/SLE_Impairment_Narrative_ver_3.7.pdf)

All postcards of citrus industry in Florida, ca. 1912. (Collection of Sandra Henderson Thurlow.)
All postcards of citrus industry in Florida, ca. 1912. (Collection of Sandra Henderson Thurlow.)

IMG_5796 IMG_5797

Reading through the documents it is noted that many of the agricultural areas are quite old, as the post cards I am sharing today from my mother’s  collection are from 1912 and 1914.  According to the FDEP, many of the areas around Ten Mile Creek did not have BMPs, or best management practices in place, as they were  there before such rules were voluntarily implemented in the 1980s and 90s.

I don’t get it. Our environmental agencies have seen the writing on the wall for decades and even with the modern implementations of BMPs, (http://solutionsforyourlife.ufl.edu/hot_topics/agriculture/bmps.htmlwhere farmers try to minimize their impacts on our waterbodies, the rivers, estuaries, and lakes are filling up with excess nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer and other pollutants at an alarming rate.

Yes, the FDEP is implementing TMDLs or total  maximum daily loads through the BMAP, or basin management action plan, where municipalities and counties are required to lower their nutrient levels in waterbodies, but these are 15 and 30 year goals, that most certainly will take longer to truly implement. Also agriculture is exempt under the law and Right to Farm Act. They, as mentioned, implement BMPs but it may take fifty or more years to get all farms up to speed, if ever. Do we have that much time?

In the meanwhile, we watch or rivers dying from local runoff from C-23, C-23, and C-44  supporting the citrus and agriculture industries in Martin and St Lucie Counties.  On top of this, during major rain events, Lake Okeechobee, also full of agriculture runoff and high nutrients suspended in muck, from the sometimes back pumping sugar industry south of the lake, pours into the St Lucie River as well, wreaking any work we have done locally to meet local TMDLs.

Would I rather see the citrus lands developed for houses?

No. I rather fix the problems we have. And even though its called “corporate welfare,” I think state, federal, and local governments must help agriculture operate in a way that is not killing the environment. Some of the funds from the state this year that came out of the Senate Hearing on the IRL are doing this and the state really has been helping “forever,” but quietly, under the radar.

It is time to come full out to the public and explain the situation: we must feed ourselves and support our historic industry, but agriculture/citrus is killing our waterways.

In conclusion, of course the industry should make every effort itself to improve the situation, and some are more than others. In any case, we cannot just point fingers at them, we must help them. Perhaps we should bond together and put into law even better, stricter management practices, that will give the children of our state a future, not just eating, but also fishing, swimming and boating in a clean river.

___________________________________________________

IFAS, Update on Best Management Practices, 2014: (http://www.crec.ifas.ufl.edu/extension/trade_journals/2014/2014_January_best_mgt.pd)

USDA and State of Florida Citrus Report 2009: (http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/Florida/Publications/Citrus/fcs/2009-10/fcs0910.pdf)

3 thoughts on “Citrus Along the Indian River Lagoon, A Killer and a Necessity

  1. Thank you so much for all you do. I read daily and learn so much. I stopped using fertilizer early last year when I became aware of the damage it is doing. I have noted that my gardens and lawn are doing well. Orange groves have been reduced which would mean less additives have been used why are the numbers still so high that maybe they can use less and still have quality ;products.

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