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Saving the Indian River Lagoon

The Indian River Lagoon, the most diverse estuary in North America, is home to over 4000 different animal and plant species. This extensive biological diversity, found along the 156 mile long Lagoon, results from two climatic zones: tropical and sub-tropical. Sadly, the delicate tapestry of life is threatened by the impact of man.

Expansion of urban development and industry has put pressure on the Indian River Lagoon system. The resulting stormwater pollution, one of the estuary's biggest problems, carries nitrogen, phosphorous, color and suspended particles which work in combination to limit the growth of seagrass. These seagrasses provide both forage and nursery grounds for several fish and animal species. Their decline affects the natural balance of the entire area.

"All is not doom and gloom," say experts involved in solving these problems. Happily, the forecast allows optimism for the future of this precious area and efforts to change the situation are well underway.

"We are taking into account the lessons that have been learned from management mistakes of the past 20-30 years," said Troy Rice, from the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program, who directs a program to save the Lagoon.

This Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program was formed in 1991 and draws on the knowledge of scientists, resource managers, local government, farmers and members of the general public. The program is dealing with sediment problems; "muck" accumulation; concerns about habitat destruction; the role of fisheries and recreation; public awareness; and funding issues.

One of the strengths (as well as one of the challenges) of the program is that several federal regulatory and management bodies contribute to it. Each brings administrators with varying levels of responsibility to the table.

"We're not only biologically diverse but are bureaucratically diverse as well," said Rice. Persuading agency members, resource mangers, policy-makers, members of interest groups, and the public, who may each have differing philosophies, to work in unison is perhaps the program's greatest success, said Rice.

Getting past the "circle of blame" and agreeing on shared responsibility is one of the key elements to collaborative decision-making, said Paul Millar, director of the Martin/St. Lucie Service Center (South West Florida Water Management District).

"We quit pointing fingers at each other," said Millar.

Another key player, Kevin Henderson added that communication skills and the ability to "see the big picture" had helped them make headway. Henderson, executive director of the St. Lucie River Initiative, has focused his efforts on local stormwater problems, working in the community for this private not-for-profit advocacy organization. Through the organization, Henderson has raised public awareness about the St. Lucie River and encouraged homeowners to reduce runoff from their lawns and gardens.

"We fought many battles along the way, but we have gained the most ground making compromises with everybody," Henderson said.

The citrus industry is another body with a place at the table in this debate. Doug Bournique, executive director of the Indian Citrus League, shared perspectives from the region's growers. He mentioned that farmers were changing their agricultural practices in order to enhance the quality of the river. A Best Management Practices (BMP) Manual as well as assistance from IFAS Extension agents has encouraged them to try alternative fertilizing techniques.

However, this change has not occurred overnight. Bournique said that it took some time to win the growers over. When the idea was proposed, the initial reception was not very positive.

"Growers are very much creatures of habit. We had to start slowly," Bournique said.

The BMP's were tailored to fit each farmer's individual needs and soon the word spread that one could save money by using these new approaches. Over time farmers began to trust these new methods and now understand the enormous contribution they can make to the water quality of their estuary.

Trust in one another and maintaining personal contact are elements that promote consensus. People don't want to be told what to do, so if one can find a way that each stakeholder can benefit from a proposal, changing behavior becomes easier. This ability to clearly assess what motivates key stakeholders keeps people at the table.

"I foresee continuing the positive, community-based management initiatives into the future, building upon these established dialogues and relationships will help to protect our estuary for future generations," Rice said.

Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program Director,
Troy Rice (321) 984 4950

School of Natural Resources and Environment