A Plague on our River
Look into the reflected sunset, at the pink-ribboned sky pillowed with gold fire, and you might convince yourself that the Banana River is the same river you once knew. Beneath the glass, a thriving, crystalline estuary, flush with living creatures — dolphin, densities of mackerel, shrimp, sea trout. But gaze deeper and a brown pall seeps in, murks the surface like spilled coffee...
In 2012, the Indian River Lagoon suffered its most devastating seagrass kill in recorded history. Sixty percent of the living bottom was stripped clean, as if by heavy machinery. Almost instantly, newspapers began reporting the body count. Dead this year alone: 182 manatees, 32 dolphins, 300 brown pelicans, countless corpses of silver mullet. The manatees, bloated on drift algae, perished with unnatural gasps, gorged yet undernourished, like cows forced to graze on a cranberry bog. The dolphins floated up thin and rangy––jungle cats starved by the wasteland.
Look deeper into the mirage: memories take shape on the surface, milk-white against the brown, as a faded backstory or a murder mystery...
Locals will tell you it all began in the ‘50s, with the construction of the causeways. These permanent links from mainland to barrier island acted as a series of dams, stagnating the north-south flow of the river. Then the Space Age rode into town on massive amounts of storm and construction runoff, on fumes and mercury, and brought about the demise of the oyster beds and filtrating sponges. The postwar history of the Banana River is a case study in chronic pollution and nutrient loading. Yet, even into the first decade of the 21st century, the river maintained a relative clarity, and the seagrass beds flourished.
On the morning of January 4th, 2010, and for eight of the next nine mornings, Cocoa Beach’s temperature dropped into the 30s. Tom Price, an environmental engineer from Melbourne Beach, believes this cold spell killed off much of the natural drift algae and created an excess of biomass, a sort of “organic vacuum” in the river. “Whatever grows fastest gets the nutrients,” Price said. “And the things that grow fastest are the phytoplankton algae, the greens or the browns.” He is referring to the blue-green “superbloom” of spring 2010, and the infamous brown tide (Aureoumbra lagunensis), which arrived a year later and devoured the blue-green. This brown algae, which emits a faint smell of sewage and chokes sunlight off the river bottom, was, according to Price, the trigger that set off the seagrass holocaust.
After the brown algae came the red macroalgae, fatal snack of manatees. Such was the river’s progression, like something out of Exodus: blue, green, brown, red.
“The thing that grows the slowest is the seagrass,” Price said. A tropical seagrass meadow can take a decade to fill in, but where algae shades out the sunlight, no grass can grow. The real concern, he said, is a river that reaches a tipping point and morphs permanently from a seagrass-based ecosystem to an algal one.
Scientists agree that the blooms would never have reached the levels they did without the help of humans. Nitrogen and phosphorous runoff from river communities fed and supported the proliferation of the algae. Just weeks before the devastating brown tide, the City of Cocoa Beach, in a morbid example of What Not to Do During a Catastrophic Algal Bloom, dumped 10 million gallons of untreated sewage into golf course ponds with overflows to the river.
Ah, the bunglings of man!
“Just think about what makes this place attractive,” said local artist Rick Piper. “The river’s the jewel. That’s what we want to protect.”
The St. John’s Water Management District, the governmental body charged with this protection detail, recently launched a $3.7 million program to monitor pollutants, conduct seagrass transplant experiments, and study drift algae. In 2008, the FDEP implemented Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) restrictions, which limit the tonnage of “allowable” nutrients leaked into the river. But the TMDLs are more a gesture than a meaningful action. Certainly they are not enough to prevent future superblooms. “It’s a slow process,” Price admitted, “But it’s the only one.”
If daily load restrictions are a foot in the door for conservationists, State Rep. Steve Crisafulli represents the shoulder pushing against the other side. Last month, after the city of Rockledge mandated a restriction on its own fertilizer use, Crisafulli — golden boy of Big Citrus — suggested a state-backed moratorium to quash any such city ordinances. Why would someone try to stop communities from engaging in their own clean-up efforts? Ah, Crisafulli! But forget this political mischief… what, after all, is the heavy hand of the State if not another bungled instrument of man?
Some locals call for a flushing out of the river with new ocean inlets. The Canaveral locks might do the job, if not for the traffic and the Herculean task of silt control. Another potential inlet site lies just below Cocoa Beach, at Patrick Air Force Base. But bold projects such as an inlet would take years, if not decades, to gain public approval. “A new cut would improve local water quality,” Price said. “Look at the area around Sebastian. But it wouldn’t be the same lagoon we knew.”
This might be something we have to come to terms with: that we may never again see the “same lagoon we knew.” For now, we hold to the thinnest strings of hope.
Take a paddle out over drift algae bearding the Thousand Islands, into some quiet branch of the river. You will see life there, in the glitter of white butterflies, in the casual plop of fingerling mullet, or the call of some lonely bird. But it is unsettlingly quiet in the lee of the islands, as on a street corner in the seconds after a horrible automobile crash, when the tires are still spinning and the breaths are all held.
In any civilization where man goes astray, the flood comes eventually to wash him clean. So these seawalls and condos and groves and golf courses and sewage domes which sicken the river shall, one day, succumb to it. The tides are washing in brown sentinels, harbingers of retribution, equal returns on an ethic of false beauty.
But paddle on, guardians of the river, keepers of the jewel.