Fresh Water Pollution, a Destructive Force in the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

Fresh water releases from local canals C-23, C-24 C-44 and polluted fresh water from Lake Okeechobee cover near shore reefs off of Stuart and Jupiter Island, 2013. (Photo Ed Lippisch)
Fresh water releases from basin runoff through local canals C-23, C-24, and C-44 as well as  polluted fresh water from releases from Lake Okeechobee through C-44, cover near shore reefs off of Stuart and Jupiter Island. (Photo MC archives,  2011.)

The concept that fresh water is a “pollutant” is sometimes confusing as we typically associate pollution with heavy metals, nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen from fertilizer, and muck accumulation, on the bottom of the river, from sediments running off of lands, through canals. Believe it or not, too much fresh water is just as polluting and has dire consequences for the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon.

This is historically ironic as well, as when the Ais Indians lived in this area,  the St Lucie River was a large fresh water “stream.” Throughout history, most of the time, the “St Lucie,” was not connected to the ocean. The natural inlet at what was later called “Gilbert’s Bar” by the Spanish was  sometimes open, sometimes not, but never for too long, and the inlet opening was much smaller and shallower than today’s St Lucie Inlet.

Yes, we are going back,  before we go forward, but history is important to know!

The “St Lucie Inlet” was permanently opened by hand using shovels, in 1892, by local pioneers who wanted access to the ocean for trade and communication. They had no idea that by doing this they would create “the most bio-diverse estuary in North America.”

As the salt water came in and mixed with the fresh water of the St Lucie and the “fresher than today’s water” of the Indian River Lagoon, one ecosystem, a freshwater ecosystem was destroyed by the salt, and another was born.

Over time, more fish and critters entered the St Lucie/ Southern Indian River Lagoon than at any other time in known history. The forks of the St Lucie, north and especially north, remained more “fresh” as the salt water usually did not go up that high into those areas. Perfect! Salt and fresh water fishing! It was a unique situation and as mentioned in the day before yesterday’s blog, presidents and other famous people swarmed to the St Lucie for its amazing fishing during this era, and all enjoyed.

Then things changed. In the late 1920s and early 30s, due to flooding  of agricultural lands and bad hurricanes killing people living and working in the southern area surrounding the lake, the Army Corp built the C-44 canal from Lake Okeechobee to the south fork of the St Lucie River.  Then in the 50s and 60s they built canals C-23 and C-24 as part of the Central and South Florida Flood System, another “flood protection project.”  Although all of these drainage programs helped agriculture, especially the sugar industry south of the lake, and citrus, in mostly St Lucie and parts of Okeechobee counties, as well as greedy developers, it did not help the St Lucie River. In fact, these drainage canals have been slowly killing the St Lucie and Indian River Lagoon ever since.

How?

Through many things, but believe it or not, mostly through fresh water.

Once the estuary (St Lucie/IRL) became brackish, a mixture of fresh and salt water, this delicate balance was important to the fish, mammals and others critters that made the river/lagoon their home in this new found paradise.

Briefly, I will summarize some of the killer effects of fresh water on its residents:

1. Fish: When there is too much fresh water the fish get lesions. This is from a fungus that only can live and operate in a fresh environment. The name of the fungus is Aphanomyces invadans and its spores get into fish skin when temperatures are low and water is fresh causing horrible lesions. More lesions have been reported over time in the St Lucie River that any other site in Florida according to the FDEP report at the end of this blog. The worst outbreak was in 1998 after the ACOE had been releasing fresh water from Lake Okeechobee in the winter months due to heavy rains. Thousands of fisherman were reporting fish with lesions; it is well accepted in the literature of our state agencies that this outbreak was connected to the gigantic releases of fresh water from Lake O.

Striped mullet with lesions. St Lucie River, 1998. (Photo, DEP State of Florida.)
Striped mullet with lesions. St Lucie River, 1998. (Photo, DEP State of Florida.)

2. Bottle nosed dolphins: Dr Gregory Bossert formerly, of Harbor Branch, has done extensive research into lobo-mycosis, an awful skin disease, in dolphins of the SLR/IRL. The highest number of dolphins with lobo in the entire 156 mile Indian River Lagoon system from Jupiter to New Smyrna Beach, are in the Stuart to Sebastian area. Dr Bossert’s 2009-20014 “Application for a Scientific Research Permit” to NOAA states on page 59:

“Water quality in the central and southern segments of the lagoon, is influenced by infusion of water from flood control drainage canals, e.g., in particular, run-off form agricultural watersheds and fresh water releases from Lake Okeechobee. (Sime, 2005.) Discharges from these sources introduce higher amounts of nutrients, metals, pesticides and suspended solids into the system (Woodward-Clyde, 1994). Analysis of spatial distribution of presumptive cases showed that the highs rates occurred in the IRL  segments 3 and 4 confirming our earlier observations.” (Mazzoil, 2003/Rief, 2006).”

(Sections 3 and 4 are the “south central” and “south” IRL/SLR-from-south of Sebastian Inlet, to Stuart’s St Lucie Inlet. IRL dolphins are “site specific” staying usually in a 30 mile range. The St Lucie River is considered part of the southern IRL.)

S. Indian River Lagoon Dolphin with lobo mycosis. (Photo Dr Gregory Bossert.)
S. Indian River Lagoon Dolphin with lobo mycosis. (Photo Dr Gregory Bossert.)

3. Seagrasses: Seagrasses are the basis of health for the entire SRL/IRL. Seagrasses that live in an “estuary” need sunlight and brackish (part salt/part fresh) water to survive. among other problems, the fresh water releases cause turbidity in the water so the grasses can’t get light and they die. Mark Perry of Florida Oceanographic states that during the Lake Okeechobee and canal releases from 2013, that lasted five months, up to 85 percent of the seagrasses died around the St Lucie Inlet. All nursery fishes are affected by this and of course it goes right up the food chain. Manatees, an endangered species, that live exclusively off of seagrasses, are very affected and reduced to eating drift algae that in some cases kills them. Dolphins are swimming around saying: “Where are the fish?!”

Unhealthy looking seagrasses coated in algae as seen 6-14 near Sewall's Point at low tide. (Aerial photo, Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch)
Unhealthy looking seagrasses coated in algae as seen 6-14 near St Lucie Inlet at low tide. (Aerial photo, Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch)

4. Near shore reefs: The reef system in our area is the northern most of a tropical reef system that goes all the way south to the Keys. It cannot survive with fresh water dumping sediment on its delicate system and altering the salinity of the St Lucie Inlet. Insaine. These reefs are supposedly “protected.”

Freshwater pollution and near shore reef, St Lucie Inlet. (Photo JTL, 2013)
Freshwater pollution and near shore reef, St Lucie Inlet. (MC archives, 2011.)

I could go on and on, but I will stop here. I’m sure you get the point. Salinity is a delicate and important part of a healthy estuary. Generally short lived fresh water releases during heavy rains by our local canals are bad enough, but long term dumping of Lake Okeechobee releases on top of that, is certain death. It must stop. Send the water south.

_______________________________________________

FDEP, SLR Impairment/fish lesions: (http://www.dep.state.fl.us/southeast/ecosum/ecosums/SLE_Impairment_Narrative_ver_3.7.pdf )

WETLANDS Volume 25, SFWMD, Estuary in Distress: (SRL/IRL:http://www.evergladesplan.org/pm/recover/recover_docs/cems/cem_st_lucie_irl.pdf)

11 thoughts on “Fresh Water Pollution, a Destructive Force in the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

  1. I had this crazy thought, as impossible as it sounds, but what if the Inlet was permanently filled back in? The discharges would have to stop and a viable flow way South would have to be built! The only reason why this dysfunctional system continues to function in the way that it does, is because the Inlet is the enabler, Crazy? okay then think about what WAS done in the first place…and the result of those actions now. .

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    1. That is a thought…especially in light of that MC must fund the inlet dredging now and it is tremendously expensive. THE ACOE used to do it. The problem is two fold. 1. Real Estate values/boaters, and 2. the discharges from Lake O won’t stop, they will just fill up the river and sit there and flood us and kill everything. It is a mess. I like that you are thinking!! We’ll see. Nature might just have her way eventually.

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      1. Yes of course, but therein lies the problem – money/development/big agriculture trumped the environment. What got here in the first place was short sighted thinking and avarice. Now we’re twisting ourselves into pretzels trying to fix what Nature created and it’s not working. At the rate it’s going, real estate values will continue to drop as the River becomes more polluted. Streets already get flooded at certain times because the river is filling up with muck.The Health Dept. posts their (now annual) signs, warning people to avoid contact with the water and how much more marine life has to die before people realize we’re in a very serious crisis?

        All I’m saying is that the Inlet totally allows this dysfunctional arrangement to persist. Who does this really benefit and at what cost?

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    1. Just sent u an email as in Bahamas and service is sparse. The water would have to be cleaned and would be directed to Florida bay and Everglades not biscayne bay. I would never want to hurt an ecosystem the key word is restore. Hope you got my more detailed email. Thank you for your interest in the IRL.

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      1. Yes redirected to Everglades where the natural flow of water existed all the way down from Mississippi through Florida I was raised in ft Pierce and as a third generation fisherman I have herd tremendous stories about the lagoon and only remembering a little from when I was young I have dramatically seen first hand from day to day how it is dying I’m worried about my son’s being able to carry on the way of life that the lagoon once produced for not only me but all the way back to my grandfather and many others something has to be done for some the lagoon is the only thing they know and at the rate the I’ve seen another fifteen years it WILL be gone then we won’t have a chance

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