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Indian + Banana River Lagoon Stewardship

What is the Indian River Lagoon and why is it important?

The Indian River Lagoon is an environmental treasure cherished by millions of Florida residents and visitors. The City of Cape Canaveral is proud to be one of the many municipalities that borders this water body system as it provides stunning sunset views, incredible economic benefits, and a unique habitat worth protecting. The Indian River Lagoon was nominated as an Estuary of National Significance and joined the National Estuary Program in 1990 under the sponsorship of the St. Johns and South Florida Water Management Districts and was formally established in 1991. The Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program is part of a national network of 28 estuary programs established under the Federal Clean Water Act and administered nationally by the US Environmental Protection Agency intended to uphold its preservation. It is safe to say that without the lagoon, Brevard County and the state of Florida for that matter would not be what it is today.

Stretching 156 miles from northwest to southeast, the Indian River Lagoon makes up 40% of Florida’s eastern coast across six counties. From north to south these counties include Volusia, Brevard, Indian River, St. Lucie, Martin, and Palm Beach. The lagoon is not a river but in fact an estuary where saltwater from the Atlantic Ocean mixes with freshwater from various land-based inputs and tributaries. This combination of salt and freshwater creates what is known as brackish water. Freshwater is usually found sitting over saltier water due to the saltwater being denser and therefore heavier. Wind is the primary driver of circulation patterns within the lagoon, rather than a gravity fed current such as that of a river. The lagoon’s width can vary anywhere between one-half and five miles and has an average depth of only four feet. In total the lagoon’s watershed is 2,284 square miles with a surface water area of 353 square miles. About 27% of Florida’s eastern coastal salt marshes are found in the lagoon. Five open inlets connect the lagoon with the Atlantic Ocean. A sixth entrance is located at Port Canaveral; however, this entrance is often closed by navigation locks at the Port’s western periphery.

The lagoon contains more species than any other estuary in North America. There are an estimated 685 species of fish, 370 species of birds, 2,100 species of plants, and 2,200 species of animals found throughout the lagoon. Beaches along the lagoon are also considered some of the densest sea turtle nesting sites in the entire Western Hemisphere.

The 2016 Indian River Lagoon Economic Valuation Update provided by the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council (ECFRPC) and the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council (TCRPC) estimated the total annual economic output of the lagoon in 2014 was approximately $7.6 billion. This did not include an estimated $934 million in annualized real estate value for properties located on or near the lagoon, nor the economic contributions from north of the Ponce de Leon Inlet. When these contributions are also considered, the total economic output can be valued at about $9.9 billion annually. Tens of thousands of local residents are also employed directly or indirectly via activities relating to the lagoon.

The City of Cape Canaveral specifically borders the Banana River Lagoon, which is directly connected to the larger Indian River Lagoon system. The Banana River Lagoon is a 31-mile-long stretch of water that lies between the City and Merritt Island, extending northwards up into the Kennedy Space Center.

Lagoon Issues

Much of the Indian River Lagoon system is under serious stress from several threatening factors. These factors include: reduced water quality due to manmade hydrologic changes, nonpoint source pollution or pollution that is generated over a wide area with no single identifiable source, loss and fragmentation of habitats, overuse of resources, human-induced climate change, and invasive exotic species.     

Over the course of decades, humans have greatly increased the amount of freshwater entering the lagoon. Throughout the region a series of manmade agricultural and drainage canals, as well as stormwater runoff infrastructure, helps to drain large volumes of freshwater into the lagoon system, some of it polluted. It is estimated today that the lagoon receives two-and-a-half times more freshwater than the system would naturally receive. This imbalance is negatively altering the health of the waterbody.

Much of the pollution the lagoon receives today comes from nonpoint sources, meaning they have no identifiable main source. While some is delivered by the system of canals previously mentioned, most comes from thousands of smaller inputs built out across the length of the estuary. Examples can include leaking septic tanks, contaminated runoff from stormwater outfalls, nutrient rich fertilizer (i.e. nitrogen and phosphorous) from lawns, occasional sewer breaks, and even automobiles whose air pollution eventually settles out of the atmosphere and into the waters of the lagoon.

Urbanized areas can compound these issues even further by not allowing natural runoff filtration through open soil. Stormwater, or water derived from rainfall, cannot permeate through concrete and asphalt surfaces; forcing it instead to runoff (hence the term stormwater runoff) down into streams, canals, and drains that eventually empty into the lagoon. As this water makes its way towards the lagoon it can pick up pollutants such as fertilizers, herbicides, particulate matter, chemicals, organic debris, and litter.

As a result of these harmful inputs the lagoon has suffered from fish kills, algae blooms, and seagrass die offs. Development along the lagoon’s shoreline has also led to a reduction in critical habitat. To this day the lagoon is stricken with high nutrient loads and diminished water quality that makes visibility almost zero in many areas. For those who have lived long enough in the area, some may remember a time when the lagoon’s waters were so clear that one could see all the way to the bottom in even the deepest of sections.

Restoring and preserving this estuary is a matter of regional economic security and environmental wellbeing. Fortunately, there have been dozens of projects implemented across the City and Brevard County designed to reduce pollution and improve ecosystem health through the 2016 voter approved Lagoon Half Cent Sales Tax and self-implemented municipal projects. This half cent sales tax helped to establish the Save Our Indian River Lagoon Program. The program is designed to address excess nitrogen and phosphorus pollution to the Indian River Lagoon through various projects to reduce pollution inputs, remove legacy loads of pollution, and restore natural filtration systems. It is estimated that the plan will bring in up to $484 million in revenue over 10 years to fund projects that will reduce or remove about 1.3 million pounds of excess nitrogen and 106,000 pounds of phosphorus annually from the Indian River Lagoon.

As a guide for the program, the Save Our Indian River Lagoon Project Plan was created to identify and prioritize projects to be funded by the half cent sales tax. The plan was developed in partnership with scientists, economists, environmentalists, and multiple government agencies. It outlines local projects planned to meet water quality targets and improve the health, productivity, aesthetic appeal, and economic value of the lagoon. The most recent update of the plan was approved in March 2020. It is reviewed and updated annually by the Save Our Indian River Lagoon Citizen Oversight Committee. The committee - which is made up of - reviews timeliness of project delivery, actual and updated project costs and actual nutrient removal effectiveness; reviews new literature and local studies on the types of projects included in the plan and potential alternative project types; evaluates alternative project proposals received from the community; and recommends adjustments to the Project Plan to be approved by the Board of County Commissioners. Committee meetings are accessible for public viewing and a schedule of each meeting is available on the County’s website. Project updates are also available for public viewing at any time via the County’s website.

Examples of projects include the restoration of oyster beds, the planting of mangroves along living shorelines, new and improved baffle boxes, the removal of septic tanks in favor of connected sewer systems, muck dredging, and the construction of monitoring sites to observe pollution levels.

It is often said by scientists that restoring the Indian River Lagoon is not a sprint but a marathon. No one single project will rehabilitate the estuary. Many projects, over the course of many years, will one day see water quality improve and species return in abundance. It will take a concerted effort on all our parts to make a lasting difference.

What is the City doing to help the lagoon?

Adopt-A-Mangrove Program
The City of Cape Canaveral has established the Adopt-A-Mangrove Program to provide interested property owners with the opportunity to “adopt” mangroves. This is a voluntary program that will assist with the planting and care of these important plants, which serve a critical role in the health and wellbeing of the Indian and Banana River Lagoon systems. Rules and guidelines must be met and followed by interested mangrove “Adopters” who wish to partake in this volunteer community outreach initiative before planting on one’s property can begin. These guidelines are meant to ensure resident safety, City code and state compliance, and local environmental wellbeing. Not meeting any one of the following can result in the refusal of participation by City staff. Please read the Adopt-A-Mangrove Program Guide to further information.

Mangroves are a critical aspect of Florida’s marine ecosystems. Sometimes called the “kidneys of the coast,” mangroves filter water they are situated in and can maintain water quality that helps coral reefs and nearshore seagrasses grow. Due to their dense root structures, mangroves also help to stabilize coastlines by reducing shoreline erosion, decreasing incoming wave energy, minimizing storm surge heights, and potentially providing a windbreak. This program falls in line with the City’s goal of planting at least 300 new Mangroves on its lagoon shoreline within five years.

Baffle Boxes (second-generation)
As a traditional stormwater best management practice (BMP), baffle boxes use partitioned chambers that connect to stormwater drains that prevent trash and organic debris from moving into waterways. As water flows into the device, pollutants are filtered or settled out. These devices prevent sediments from exiting stormwater drains through an innovative nitrogen-removing bioreactor before flowing into the Banana River/Indian River Lagoon. The City’s largest baffle box is located on West Central Blvd and was upgraded in December 2017 to a state-of-the-art second-generation box with funds from the Save Our Indian River Lagoon (SOIRL) project. Baffle boxes are also present on all major stormwater outfalls throughout the City. For more information on the Save Our Indian River Lagoon Project Plan, visit Brevard County Save Our Lagoon.

Canaveral City Park Water Exfiltration System
As part of the revised stormwater master plan (2014), the City completed a stormwater improvement project that included exfiltration tanks placed under the Canaveral City Park baseball field in 2016. The project included the installation of 4,000 stormwater chambers beneath two outfield areas and one infield area of Canaveral City Park that capture approximately 931,000 gallons of stormwater. Once inside these chambers, stormwater is allowed to percolate down into the underlying soil where it is naturally filtered. The contributing area of treatment is equivalent to 30.3 acres. Upon completion of the stormwater chamber installation activities, the Park was returned to its original land use while capturing runoff and preventing it from entering the Banana River Lagoon.

In 2019 the underground system was modified to be able to accept excess reclaim water from the City’s Water Reclamation Facility so as to reduce the number of discharges into the lagoon and thereby also reduce excess nutrients. If conditions are correct, reclaim water can be transferred directly from the plant to the exfiltration system where reclaim water will gradually flow down into the porous soil below and be filtered. To date this system has helped divert well over 13 million gallons of reclaim water from the lagoon and counting.

Additionally, the City has numerous proposed stormwater improvement projects listed in the revised stormwater master plan (City of Cape Canaveral Basin Management Action Plan Compliance Strategy), that when completed will allow the City to meet its target goals of further reducing nitrogen and phosphorus from stormwater runoff. Other examples include similar underground exfiltration systems beneath City Hall and the Cape Canaveral Fire Department.

Fertilizer Bans
The City of Cape Canaveral has a summer ban on fertilizer application from June 1 to September 30. No applicator shall apply fertilizers containing nitrogen and/or phosphorus to turf and/or landscape plants during the prohibited application period, or too saturated soils. The City Code of Ordinances Chapter 92 outlines all the specifics of this ban: https://bit.ly/2vNVhaQ. In short, this chapter regulates and promotes the proper use of fertilizers by any applicator; requires proper training of commercial and institutional fertilizer applicators; establishes training and licensing requirements; establishes a prohibited application period; specifies allowable fertilizer application rates and methods; fertilizer-free zones; low maintenance zones; and exemptions.

This chapter requires the use of best management practices that provide specific management guidelines to minimize negative secondary and cumulative environmental effects associated with the misuse of fertilizers. These secondary and cumulative effects have been observed in and on the City of Cape Canaveral's natural and constructed stormwater conveyances and surface waters. Collectively, these water bodies are an asset critical to the environmental, recreational, cultural and economic well-being of City of Cape Canaveral residents and the health of the public. Overgrowth of algae and vegetation hinders the effectiveness of flood attenuation provided by natural and constructed stormwater conveyances. Regulation of nutrients, including both phosphorus and nitrogen contained in fertilizer, will help improve and maintain water and habitat quality.

Floating Vegetative Islands (FVIs) or "Beemats"
The City of Cape Canaveral has constructed a number of wet detention ponds in order to reduce pollutant loads to the Banana River. Wet detention ponds provide stormwater treatment through the settling of heavy sediment particles and biological uptake within the pond’s ecosystem. The City has enhanced the pollutant removal effectiveness of existing facilities through this project by adding five Floating Vegetation Islands (FVIs) to three existing ponds – at Manatee Sanctuary Park and the Water Reclamation Facility. Nutrients removed from the water are stored in the plant mass and routinely harvested, preventing resuspension of nutrients when plants die. There are approximately 1.9 acres of surface water in the three ponds selected for this project. Three percent of the water surface area is planted with FVIs to achieve 20% removal efficiency above and beyond treatment obtained in the ponds. FVIs will be planted with several plant species and secured in deep water areas until harvesting time when the mats will be pulled to shore and water quality improvements measured. The City will continue to implement projects that remove nitrogen and phosphorus in stormwater and improve water quality in the Banana River.

Low Emissions Vehicles

The City has begun to transition its own vehicle fleet to all-electric and hybrid vehicles in an effort to reduce fuel consumption - increasing savings - and air polluting emissions. To date, the City has one fully electric vehicle and four SUV hybrids. Each is projected to help the City abate hundreds of tons of pollutants that could otherwise make their way into the lagoon through what is called atmospheric deposition, or the process whereby precipitation, gases, particulates, and aerosols move from the atmosphere to the Earth’s surface. It is estimated that large portions of excess nitrogen within the lagoon’s water column is derived from vehicle emissions, specifically from nitrous oxides (NO). Nitrous oxides are one of many types of pollutants emitted from internal combustion engines. All-electric vehicles have zero tailpipe emissions, while hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles have significantly reduced emissions because part of their operations are powered by onboard batteries (i.e., idling, low speed travel, etc.).

Additional electrified vehicles will be added to the fleet where appropriate and feasible as older vehicles are retired. By 2021 the City expects at least 20% of its fleet to be electrified.

Low Impact Development Practices

As part of a greater effort to better manage the City of Cape Canaveral’s unique challenges with being a barrier island and the effect this has on the Banana River Lagoon (and the Indian River Lagoon system overall), the City is committed to developing plans aimed at reducing stormwater impacts while improving overall water quality. Currently, the City uses stormwater Best Management Practices (BMPs) to meet this goal. In addition, the City seeks to integrate creative low impact development (LID) practices that retain rainwater on-site and encourage it to soak into the ground rather than allowing it to run off into ditches, stormwater drains, or water bodies such as the Banana River Lagoon where it would otherwise contribute to flooding and pollution problems. The goal is to develop practices that do a better job of mimicking natural processes in order to lessen the impact of storm events. Lastly, it is important to note that while BMP and LID practices are environmentally beneficial, they can also enhance neighborhood beauty through landscaping that doubles as natural stormwater infrastructure. The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) and Keep Brevard Beautiful (KBB) both offer guidelines on how to promote Florida-friendly landscaping.

Ongoing Water Reclamation Facility Upgrades

The City’s Water Reclamation Facility (which also doubles as the City’s Public Works Services Department) is responsible for treating all of the sewage within the 1.9 square mile area that is Cape Canaveral. Over the last several years the Water Reclamation Facility has been undergoing a near continuous period of upgrades designed to maximize efficiency, lower operating costs, and reduce lagoon impacts via the reduction in need for direct discharges of treated reclaim water and increased filtering capabilities.

In the mid-2010s a new 2.5 million gallon holding tank was built at the facility to provide more onsite storage of reclaim water, allowing for less discharges and more in-city irrigation. New filter systems, piping, and nutrient monitoring sensors have also been or are in the process of being installed.

What can you do as an individual to help the lagoon?

There are many things that you can do to help the Indian River Lagoon that may seem small and insignificant, but collectively could make a real difference. Examples include:

Blow grass clippings

Pickup after your pet

Wash your car over your lawn

Put trash in proper receptacles + pick up litter

Choose lagoon friendly fertilizers or don't use fertilizers at all

Schedule a septic tank inspection

Adjust your sprinkler heads

Don't pour chemicals or dump items down storm drains

Get a lagoon friendly lawn

Spread awareness and stewardship

Additional Resources

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