News of the bizarre crisis began in the spring. TV reports flashed footage of manatees — the docile emblems of Florida's waterways — dead and marooned on the shore of the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County.
Some reports blamed fertilizer runoff, which can cause algal blooms and choke a waterway. In the lagoon, which stretches 152 miles from Volusia to Palm Beach County, some 47,000 acres of seagrass have disappeared since 2009.
Changes in the water have contributed to killing fish, crabs, and oysters. Since last July, 109 unexplained manatee deaths have occurred, mainly in Brevard. Statewide, manatees are dying in record numbers. More than 10 percent of Florida's approximately 5,000 manatees have died since January, many by boat accidents, red tide, and the strange illness in the Indian River Lagoon.
Dolphins and hundreds of pelicans also have died inexplicably, suggesting that something in their environment is to blame. When biologists performed autopsies on the plump, whiskered manatees, they found algae lining their bellies. Experts think the dietary shift from seagrass to algae and a transforming habitat are behind the deaths.
"The Indian River Lagoon, that was one of my favorite fishing places," says Patrick Rose, a biologist and president of the Save the Manatee Club. "I don't go to fish there. Not much left."
The plight of the manatee means more than just fewer blimp-shaped tourist attractions. When indicator species begin to go, that's a sign the whole aquatic ecosystem is in trouble. And like many of Florida's waterways, the lagoon system has shown worrisome signs for years.
The deaths and algal superblooms should set off booming alarm bells that the state needs to implement stronger water quality laws, do more to restrict pollution, and increase restoration efforts, say Rose and other environmentalists. But the knell seems to have gone unnoticed in Tallahassee.
In 2009, Rick Scott campaigned for governor on a platform of creating smaller state government and fewer regulations. Once in office, he forfeited environmental oversight and weakened the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). He did that by eliminating key growth management and conservation programs. Among them:
• He cut the budgets of water management districts that control sites such as the Everglades and the Indian River Lagoon by $700 million — eliminating more than 300 positions from the South Florida Water Management District alone.
• He axed $150 million from the DEP's budget and placed former shipyard executive Herschel Vinyard in charge with Jeff Littlejohn, whose father runs a Tallahassee lobbying firm, as second-in-command.
• He dismantled the Department of Community Affairs, the $800-million-per-year state agency that monitored development, calling it a "job killer" that stymied business.
• He ended an initiative begun under Jeb Bush in 2001 to protect the state's thousand-plus springs. The initiative had spent more than $25 million before it was defunded.
Scientists and environmentalists describe Scott's policies as faulty and shortsighted. They claim an aquatic ecosystem collapse will kill the economy. Indeed, studies of the Indian River Lagoon and the Everglades count the economic value of the waterways in the billions. Every dollar invested in restoration yields $4 in return, according to a 2010 report conducted by Mather Economics for the Everglades Foundation.
Scott alone is not to blame. The Glades once received $200 million of funding per year, but the budget was cut in half and then reduced further under Gov. Charlie Crist in the late 2000s.
Bob Knight founded the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute in 2010 under a nonprofit initiative called Florida's Eden. Now an independent operation, it has considered Florida's largest springs — including Ichetucknee and Rainbow springs in Central Florida — and determined they generate $300 million in economic value. They feed rivers, which allow for boating, swimming, and other recreation. Even that figure is too low, says Knight, because it doesn't count secondary effects like how the springs raise property values.
But some of Florida's bubblers, such as White Springs, midway between Jacksonville and Tallahassee, have gone dry. This kind of problem can decimate popular tourist towns. Knight's organization develops restoration plans for springs, which the government could implement, he says. But the DEP hasn't been enforcing water quality laws. And the legislature dilutes those laws to streamline permitting.
"We know what needs to be done," Knight says. "But there's no commitment to even abide by the laws that we have to protect springs."
The DEP issues permits with little regard for sustainability, he says. This practice leads to developers polluting and overpumping the Floridan Aquifer, which supplies drinking water to millions of people. Pollution has led to blue-green algal blooms and weak flows throughout the state's enormous spring system. And overpumping can lead to sinkholes.
Veteran scientists at the DEP are afraid to speak out, Knight says, because department heads force out dissenters. In 2012, the Tampa Bay Times discovered the agency had suspended wetlands expert Connie Bersok for refusing a permit for a controversial ranch project. The agency then ignored her advice and issued the permit. An administrative judge later ruled that Bersok should never have been suspended and lambasted the DEP for granting the permit.
Then there is the wider issue of waterway quality standards. This past March, the DEP wrested control from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for setting nutrient water quality standards. Nutrients, such as the nitrogen and phosphorus found in fertilizer, fuel algae growth. David Guest, managing attorney for the environmental group EarthJustice, says the DEP will create some of the weakest standards in the nation. "When you have a pollution problem, [the DEP's] solution is to legalize and not to deal with it," Guest says. Scott signed the bill to put the DEP back in charge last week.
Asked about the accusations levied at the DEP, spokesman Patrick Gillespie said in a statement: "Florida has the most comprehensive water quality standards in the nation, and the Department continues to prioritize getting the water right, in terms of water quality and quantity... Reaching an agreement on Florida's numeric nutrient criteria with the U.S. EPA this year, coupled with new state rules and legislation passed by the Florida Legislature, will result in cleaner, safer water for all Floridians."
Rose of the Save the Manatee Club, however, isn't convinced. The aquatic biologist has worked with manatees for 40 years. In 1981, Gov. Bob Graham tapped him to serve as an original committee member and scientific adviser for the Save the Manatee Club. In the 1990s, he acted as the U.S.'s first federal manatee coordinator. He spent 18 years in Tallahassee strengthening water laws and manatee habitats.
He's learned that protecting manatees has far-reaching effects beyond the creature itself. Even if people know nothing about aquifers, algal blooms, or the environment, they love the manatee. These dopey-looking mammals become rallying cries.
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So, Rose asks, how do you save the manatees? Simple. Make stricter water laws.
In the past month, Scott's administration has shown a slight shift. In the 2013-14 budget, set in May, Scott boosted the DEP's budget by $271 million to $1.2 billion. Later that month, the DEP discovered $10 million to put toward spring restoration. The state also has begun providing extra funding to the Everglades, river cleanup, and the land-conservation program Florida Forever. They are incremental changes, environment advocates say, adding that Scott has done little to regulate the industries generating the pollution.
In any case, it will take years for seagrass to return to places where it vanished from the lagoon.
The mysterious manatee deaths slowed in May, but a toxic brown algal bloom reappeared soon thereafter in the northern part of the lagoon. Brown tide, never reported in Florida until last year, might become a permanent fixture of the lagoon. "You put these systems past the tipping point, and it doesn't just go slow," Rose says. "It goes very rapidly."