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Florida Battles With Tricky Removal Of Costly Muck In Indian River Lagoon


Florida is home to one of North America's most biologically diverse estuaries, the Indian River Lagoon, and it's not doing well. It's choked with decomposing lawn clippings, leaves, sediment, basically everything that has ever flowed there. Now there's an effort underway to rid the lagoon of the muck. Amy Green of member station WMFE reports.

AMY GREEN, BYLINE: The Indian River Lagoon stretches a third of the length of Florida's east coast. Here, dolphins and manatees skim the surface; sea grasses cradle young marine life; migrating birds soar. But this beauty masks a big problem. On an island, muck flows from a pipe, and it smells like rotten eggs.


MATT CULVER: It's pouring out of here at maybe close to 6,000 gallons a minute.

GREEN: That's Matt Culver. And just behind him is a seven-acre pool of muck. Chunks of brown algae float on the surface. A backhoe digs in, dumping the gloppy stuff in piles beside the cesspool.


CULVER: The way it looks is the reason we're taking it out of there in the first place is because nothing wants to live in it.

GREEN: Culver works for Brevard County's Natural Resources Management department. He says the muck is as deep as 10 feet in some places. And here's the problem - it fuels the harmful algae blooms that last year triggered the worst fish kill in memory. The once-crystalline water was littered with fish carcasses.

CULVER: It's estimated that the muck that we're dealing with here - there's over 5 million cubic yards in the county as a whole that we have to deal with, so that's a lot of material. So we're hoping to remove, you know, on the order, you know, over a million - you know, a couple million cubic yards over the next 10 years. But where to put it is one of the big things.

GREEN: For now, one idea is to scoop it out and move it to retention ponds where it can dry out. John Trefry of the Florida Institute of Technology says it's a massive undertaking. A million and a half cubic yards of muck is enough to pile 300 feet high on a football field.

JOHN TREFRY: I don't think I'm aware of anything quite at the level of what we're trying to do here.

GREEN: At a retention site off U.S. Route 1 in Palm Bay, a backhoe piles muck on dump trucks, which will haul it to farms for use as a soil additive. Trefry says muck is a problem everywhere, but especially in the Indian River Lagoon. That's why muck removal is part of its restoration. Projects are aimed at diverting storm water from the estuary. There's new money for replacing septic tanks with sewer systems. Many municipalities regulate fertilizer use during the rainy, summer months.

TREFRY: There's no inlets or exchanges with the ocean for 90 miles. Everything that comes in, stays in. And so we have been trapping in this sort of little trap of a lagoon that doesn't flush all of our inputs of soil and vegetation. So in that way, this 90-mile stretch of the lagoon is a bit unique.

GREEN: He says eventually the mud could be stored on barges, but it doesn't solve the bigger problem.

TREFRY: Whether the waste is something as simple as clay and dirt and vegetation, it has consequences when it builds up somewhere else. And we just - as a growing planet with seven and a half billion people, we just have be so careful of what we do with our waste.

GREEN: Back on the lagoon, Culver reflects on the long task ahead.

CULVER: It took us 30 years - maybe 50 years to get this sludge built up, to create the degradation that we're starting to see here locally. And it's going to take us years to clean it up.

GREEN: He says letting the muck dry out alone takes many months to a year. That makes disposing of the stuff the costliest part of getting the muck out of the Indian River Lagoon. For NPR News, I'm Amy Green. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Amy Green
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