Muck: The enemy lurks deep in Indian River Lagoon

Article Courtesy of Florida Today

By Kim Waymer

Published December 2, 2013


ROCKLEDGE, Fla. -- At the Indian River Isles subdivision south of Rockledge, so much muck coats the canal bottom that homeowners who pay a premium for lagoon access often run amok with frustration when they try to launch their boats.

"Most of the year, none of them get out of here," said Doug Murphy, president of one of the subdivision's property owners associations.

His community is among many countywide with old canals clogged by black, viscous gunk. An estimated 5 million to 7 million cubic yards of muck blankets the lagoon bottom in Brevard County alone, the legacy of more than a half-century of runoff and erosion. The muck is mostly soil from construction sites, farms and homes along the lagoon's tributaries. But grass clippings, algae and other plants also contribute, as do past decades of fertilizer and sewage entering the lagoon. Those nutrients feed too much plant growth, and when the excess algae and other plants die, they settle out along the lagoon bottom as noxious muck.

The muck also carries metals from cars, power plants, paints and electronics into the estuary. Those cling to clays from sod and construction sites, flow into stormwater, then ooze into the estuary.

And the problem goes well beyond just a navigational hazard. Brevard's 160 miles of finger canals and other channels along the lagoon are the estuary's last line of defense before seagrass-smothering muck reaches the lagoon at large. So homeowners in Indian River Isles and elsewhere say local and state government ought to help dredge their private canals and the lagoon tributaries that flow by their back yards.

"We just want them to pay for what they dump into it," Murphy said. He and his neighbors blame the state and county for not properly maintaining nearby stormwater ditches and pipes, which carry dirt, rotting plants and polluted runoff into their canal.

Muck suspends easily in the water, clouding it up and limiting the growth of seagrass, the staple food of manatees and the most important habitat for fish and other lagoon life. It also contributes to bacterial decay, which consumes oxygen from the bottom sediment and water, potentially causing fish kills

Canals first became popular here during the housing boom in the early days of the Space Age as developers used dredge-and-fill techniques to essentially create additional waterfront property on which to build homes.

Now, more than a half century of muck has built up in the lagoon and its tributaries, more than 10 feet thick in some places. In some spots, like the Eau Gallie River, the dirt, sand and mud foil even pontoon boats, which draw only inches of water.

Biologists say the muck must go. But dredging up enough of the stuff to benefit lagoon water quality would be expensive, and funding is elusive.

Officials from six lagoon-side counties recently asked the state for a combined $120 million for muck dredging and other lagoon restoration projects, but it's uncertain which will get funded. Much of the recent political drive surrounding the lagoon has focused on funding large-scale projects to lessen the fertilizer-laden water releases from Lake Okeechobee.

Brevard and the cities within the county must maintain 160 miles of canals and channels, not including the more than 70 miles of the Intracoastal Waterway, the main channel that cuts through the center of the lagoon.

Maintaining the ICW falls to the Florida Inland Navigation District, which focuses on projects that benefit boating.

"Our mission is to keep the navigability," said Mark Crosley, FIND's executive director.

"At this point, we're not looking to do dredging for environmental reasons," Crosley added. "The water quality benefits are a secondary benefit to us."

The ICW serves as a muck sump of sorts the lowest point where fine material winds up.

But with scant federal funds to help, dredging more of the ICW through Brevard anytime soon would be a pipe dream, officials say. "We don't have a dredging project right now in the five-year window for Brevard County," Crosley said.

FIND estimates maintenance dredging of the ICW will cost $12 million to $16 million annually during the next 50 years, with half of the costs expected to be borne by property owners within the district.

Much of the muck originates from yards.

"Sod is a significant source, especially from the barrier island side," said John Trefry, a Florida Tech geochemist who's studied the lagoon's muck deposits.

In the 1990s, he estimated muck covered about 10 percent of the lagoon bottom. But after three hurricanes in 2004, the muck coverage may have doubled as storms stirred up muck that had gathered in canals.

"That really changed the dynamic. Now, it's been spread around so much, it's really like a malignancy, if you will," Trefry said.

He says dredging the close-to-shore muck hot spots in areas where past harmful algae blooms have ruined seagrass might yield more environmental benefit than dredging the ICW.

Lacking local funds, Brevard and other lagoon counties are looking to the state.

Local officials hope to make an environmental case for removing muck and want state regulators to count muck dredging toward Brevard's required nitrogen and phosphorus reductions.

One strategy is to keep muck out of the lagoon in the first place. In October, county commissioners decided to pursue almost $900,000 in state money to study and reduce lagoon muck. More than $457,000 of that would be used to remove weeds that rot to form muck in ponds, which, ultimately, empty into the lagoon. It also would pay to map how thick and toxic the muck is in specific locations, especially near seagrass.

If the state ponies up muck-dredging money, a likely candidate would be the Eau Gallie River.

Recently, a $150,000 study by a Jacksonville consultant found that dredging 625,000 cubic yards of muck from the Eau Gallie River and Elbow Creek would cost $17.9 million to $24.7 million. And that's just one of dozens of projects that might be needed to help the lagoon.

Brevard officials estimate it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to fully implement a local muck-dredging program.

County officials want a change in state law so Brevard could have the option of implementing a local sales tax to pay for muck dredging, oyster restoration and other projects to improve lagoon water quality.

Any such tax would have to be approved by county voters.

Cocoa Beach had its own dredge and crew to maintain the city's 37 residential canals which total nine miles and 17 miles of channels. But the city mothballed the dredge in 2008. A new dredge would have cost $850,000, said Wayne Carragino, the city's dredging coordinator.

Now, the city plans to farm out the work. Cocoa Beach received a $175,443 grant from FIND to rebuild a spoil island, so the city can pump 23,000 cubic yards of material from its 200 Channel onto the island. The city expects to begin work next year on the $800,000 dredging project.

Meanwhile, Indian River Isles residents worry about their boats clogging up with muck from their canal. Tropical Storm Fay's record deluge in 2008 overwhelmed the canal's drainage pipe, causing surrounding land to erode into the canal.

The county repaired the pipe and dredged out a small area nearby. But residents say the county drainage system continues to send dirty water and debris from U.S. 1 ditches into their canal.

Homeowners proposed paying half the estimated $115,000 tab to dredge the shallowest stretch of the canal, but the county and state refuse to chip in, they say.

For the lagoon at large, Trefry sees solutions beyond just dredging: better soil control, more dams and ponds, and keeping stormwater baffle boxes clean.

One solution is free: minding our grass clippings.

"That's really something that we the people could do a better job of: Not washing lawn cuttings and yard trimmings into the streets and storm drains," Trefry said.