January 24, 2017
ORCA: No 'silver bullet' for source of Indian River Lagoon pollution
By Tyler Treadway
FORT PIERCE — Researchers at the Ocean Research & Conservation Association announced Wednesday evening they have discovered the primary source of pollution in the Indian River Lagoon.
"The problem is us," Edith "Edie" Widder, ORCA's founder and lead scientist, told a gathering at Pelican Yacht Club. "There's just too many of us living along the lagoon, and we're putting a lot of stress on the environment."
The Fort Pierce-based marine research group presented its findings from several years of research in and around the lagoon, including a study paid for by a $625,000 grant from Scotts Miracle-Gro, the world's largest lawn fertilizer dealer, designed to find the source of pollution coming from canals into the St. Lucie River and lagoon.
Jim Hagedorn, Scotts chairman and chief executive officer, owns a home on the St. Lucie River in Stuart.
ORCA focused on the C-24 Canal because the upper half stretches into agricultural land, a mix of citrus groves and cattle ranches, while the lower half flows through suburban Port St. Lucie.
Researchers found high levels of nutrients and toxins along the full length of the canal.
"We had hoped we would be able to pinpoint the source of pollution," Widder said before the presentation, "that we would be able to say, 'Agriculture is the problem,' or, 'Lawns are the problem.' But there isn't a silver bullet that you can point to and say, 'If you get rid of this, you'll clean up the lagoon.' It's all of us."
The most dramatic finding, Widder said, was high levels of toxic blue-green algae throughout the canal fed by ammonia in addition to nitrogen and phosphorus, the nutrients usually cited for spurring algae blooms.
Canals have what Widder calls "cryptic" algae blooms because they hide in the water rather than form the mats of green goo that covered much of the St. Lucie River last summer.
What's scary, Widder said, is that vegetable farms are being irrigated with the toxic water — not just from the C-24 Canal, but probably from algae-filled canals throughout the state.
Widder said ammonia "is like fast food" for blue-green algae blooms. The ammonia comes from several sources, including fertilizers using a synthetic form of urea, a chemical naturally found in urine. Enzymes in the soil convert the urea into ammonia.
Urea is the primary ingredient in Scotts Turf Builder Lawn Fertilizer, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Household Products Database.
When the Scotts-funded research was announced in February 2014, Mark Slavens, the company's vice president of environmental affairs, said the firm wanted "to know what impact our industry has. If we need to make changes, we’ll make changes, whether it’s in product formulation or in improving ways consumers use our products.”
Asked if the study's findings would prompt Scotts to change the makeup of its fertilizer, Jim King, the company's vice president for communications, said he'd delay comment until after the Wednesday presentation.
But he noted urea is a key ingredient in most agricultural and lawn fertilizers, and "do-it-yourself home fertilizers" such as Scotts make up just 2 percent to 3 percent of the fertilizer used nationwide.
Scotts already has adjusted its fertilizers sold in Florida because of environmental concerns, King said: removing phosphorus in 2011 and increasing the amount of slow-release nitrogen to 50 percent last fall.
Scotts has been "a great partner," Widder said. "They didn't try to interfere with what we were doing at all."
ORCA plans to ask the Florida Legislature for $655,000 this year, enough to equip 15 of its 25 Kilroy remote-controlled water monitors in the lagoon and its tributaries with sensors to measure ammonia.
· Nutrient pollution in canals leading to the lagoon probably will get worse as some citrus groves left fallow because of disease are converted to vegetable crops.
"Row crops are a more intense, more fertilized kind of agriculture," Widder said. "But all of us want to eat vegetables, so I don't know what the answer is."
· Researchers found mammal fecal matter "the entire length of the canal," Widder said, from cattle in the upper end and from septic tanks in the southern end.
· Tests showed "staggering" amounts of muck in the canal, Widder said, as much as 20 inches deep in some places.
Muck holds nutrients and toxins that can be released into the water when stirred up.
"We need to stop pointing fingers at people as the problem when it come to pollution," Widder said. "It doesn't do us any good."
Projecting a photo of a child onto the screen behind her, Widder added, "They're going to be pointing a finger at us."