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.
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.
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.)
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?!”
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.”
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.
(NOTE: The links below were removed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in 2016. When I called and asked why, I was told they were archiving…JTL)
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)