A look at the problems plaguing the Indian River Lagoon, spanning 156 miles and six counties. By Tim Walters and Jim Waymer
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MERRITT ISLAND — The “perfect storm” began here, in the shallow waters that surround NASA’s premier launch pads.
Extreme cold, drought and decades of pollution enabled a tiny algae to explode with cataclysmic consequences in the Indian River Lagoon.
Scientists first discovered the algae in the Banana River after heavy rains in March 2011. The plankton soon enveloped Merritt Island and spread beyond what biologists had ever seen, stretching 70 miles south to Melbourne.
They dubbed it a “superbloom.”
It was unprecedented. The bloom would nearly wipe out the lagoon’s seagrass, ultimately killing a combined 73 square miles of the vital bottom plant — the linchpin of the marine food web. Other casualties included hundreds of manatees, pelicans and dolphins.
Now an army of scientists, conservationists and volunteers are racing to restore the lagoon, a $3.7 billion annual economic engine, and to figure out what went wrong.
What began as a perfect storm defies perfect solutions, they say. The answers, like the problems, are complex. There’s no one smoking gun, but a cumulative shotgun-blast of impacts from 1.7 million people who live in the five main counties along the lagoon — one of the most biologically diverse estuaries in North America.
Biologists say the lagoon can be rescued.
They point to multiple efforts, including dredges, oysters, volunteers, tax dollars, but most of all — stewards.
Here’s what those who study and make their livings from the lagoon say must happen to heal the waterway.