YOUR VIEW: Brevard Commission Should Send Back Lagoon Plan to Lagoon Oversight Committee for Changes
By Sandra Sullivan, Brevard County Commission Candidate for District 4 // February 21, 2022
YOUR OPINION • YOUR VIEW
It’s time to reevaluate the plan at the 5-year mark, and learn from what is working and not working. Is what we voted for being done for projects for the lagoon and in the auditing that was part of the referendum language that voters approved?
On Tuesday, 2/22/22 the Brevard County Commission is set to approve the new Lagoon Plan for 2022.
I recommend citizens of Brevard be involved and request the commission to send the plan back to the Save The Lagoon Citizen Oversight Committee. Brevard Commissioners know the lagoon continues to decline as were sent the Marine Resource Council Annual Report Card in advance of the formal presentation.
Our beloved Indian River Lagoon (IRL) remains in crisis along its 156 miles of open estuarine water running north to south along Florida’s east coast. It is also important to our economy, accounting for 15,000 jobs, contributing $3 billion to the annual economy, and is related to Brevard’s $27 billion (11.2%) in taxable property values on the lagoon.
There are not only economic impacts for failing to save the lagoon to our economy and real estate values, but also to human health from harmful algae blooms and the loss of species. The lagoon supports more than 4,300 species, including 35 that are listed as threatened /endangered and more shrimp species than anywhere else on earth.
In November 2016, 62% of voters approved Brevard’s ½-cent lagoon sales tax which was expected to generate $300 million over 10 years in the Save Our Indian River Lagoon Trust Fund. With the growth of Brevard, the 10-year life of the tax, it is now expected to raise at least $542.2 million making oversight that much more important.
In addition, according to the lagoon plan, “This sales tax funding would also allow the County to leverage additional dollars in match funding from state and federal grant programs because the IRL ecosystem is valued not only in Florida but also nationally.”
The Citizen Oversight Committee (COC) makes recommendations to the County Commission on how the sales tax money should be spent on the Lagoon Plan. The volunteer COC includes seven members and seven alternates representing seven fields of expertise: economics/finance, education/outreach, lagoon advocacy, real estate, science, technology and tourism.
It is disturbing that 3 members of Save The Lagoon Citizen Oversight Committee brought up concerns at their last meeting that were ignored by the County – two brought up pesticides and one biocides. The advisory board’s purpose of oversight is also tasked to give feedback to the County. The director of Resources, Virginia Barker failed to address these issues of the committee as to whether these board members wanted changes to the draft plan, and worse redirected one member’s concerns to seagrass planting. Why?
In response to that lack of response, records requests were made to the County. It is even more concerning that last Thursday 2/17/22 Budget Review meeting, District 1 Commissioner Rita Pritchett said that she didn’t like the public record requests for Save the Lagoon.
She said, “My concern is, I know we are going to come together as a Commission to take a vote, but I think Ms. Barker is really is getting a lot of push on something, and I think this needs to come before the County Commission before she has to start responding to some of these things that they are calling action items. And she has done a great job and the emails are beating her up a bit and I don’t like them.”
It is disturbing that in effect Commission Pritchett is saying we will delay responding to the records requests until after the Brevard County Commissioners vote on approving the Lagoon Plan.
The question at this point is whether the County is violating Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes “Public Records Law” if they intentionally delay fulfilling public records requests until after the vote by the Brevard County Commission on 2/22/22? Why would the County not want citizens to be informed and have requested records, especially when a Citizen Oversight Committee member made some of these requests?
Also, as shared on social media, a Citizen Oversight member was quoted nearly $1000 for a records request from Brevard County for the lagoon oversight-related request following the last Save The Lagoon Oversight Committee meeting.
For my requests, I am concerned about the lack of audit data in Lagoon Plan and Annual Audit Reports (also missing one year) and doesn’t indicate who is receiving the lagoon dollars; which has necessitated more records requests. We do not know whether RFP/Q policy is being followed, how much money is going to each municipality and who is getting the grants from the state and federal level? In one FRQ I looked up on County Contracts, Tetra Tech was ranked 4th but got the contract even though they were not competitive at the highest hourly rate. On the original lagoon plan, Tetra Tech got the contract in 2016 as a piggy-back to a dredging/stormwater consulting contract in 2014, even though the Lagoon project indicated a separate fund account and far more encompassing task. From what I see this should have gone out to RFP. Right now I have more questions than answers.
What we do know is the two universities receiving the most funds are UCF and FIT. And these concerns have led me to more questions to do with ethics. Conflicts of interest involve, “Even the appearance of impropriety undermines the public’s faith that the process is fair.”
Why is Courtney Barker, City Manager of Satellite Beach a finance member of the Lagoon Citizen Oversight Committee as is this a conflict of interest? Does this equate to more dollars for her city? Does she recuse herself from these votes that benefit her city? Virginia Barker, Director of Natural Resource did not disclose on Statement of Financial Interest Form that her husband, Mark Bush works for Florida Institute of Technology as Professor in Ocean Engineering and Marine Sciences, a department receiving grants from all levels of government.
Is this a conflict of interest? And further questions are raised given current roles on project given the 2 Barkers joint effort on selling the lagoon plan to the public after the Commission approved the referendum in 2016. Was the city manager put on the lagoon Citizen Oversight Committee on finance to insulate the Save The Lagoon Tax from scrutiny?
I also recently reviewed the documents from the FDEP site on the reporting for the Grand Canal dredging. Red flags indicated the DMAA muck testing arsenic and copper (biocide) reports were missing and arsenic (class A carcinogen) at 3x the residential cleanup was being discharged into the lagoon.
In light of all the concerns, and now push back from the Brevard County to fulfill records requests, it is prudent to push for an external audit as we are at the half way point of the 10 year tax, of what is anticipated to generate a half billion dollars. If we are to have voter confidence, it is prudent with these questions to have proper oversight.
Seagrass indicator of Health of Lagoon
Like many voters, I am troubled by the staggering loss of seagrass in our estuary. Seagrass is an indicator species for the health of the lagoon. The seagrass is dying – 80% of it – thus so is the lagoon species which rely on seagrass for food and shelter.
The problem I see is the lagoon plan is based on nutrient loading and fails to consider other pollutants. In talking to two Citizen Oversight Committee members for the Save The Lagoon Plan, they tell me this is what voters voted for. This is false.
What we voted for with the Lagoon tax was, “To restore the Indian River Lagoon through financing, planning, constructing, maintaining, and operating capital improvements and capital maintenance projects and programs designed to improve water quality, fish, wildlife and marine habitat, remove muck and reduce pollution, shall an ordinance be approved levying a ½ cent sales tax for ten years and requiring deposit of all revenue to a Save Our Lagoon Trust Fund solely for such projects, with citizen committee oversight and annual independent audits?”
Clearly, we voted for much more than cleaning up nutrient loading.
In 2009, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) looked at nutrient loading for IRL and established a direct relationship between seagrass coverage and nutrient mass loading to the lagoon segments. In 2011, the IRL experienced an extensive algae bloom. These blooms, fish kills and loss of seagrass followed in subsequent years —about 50% loss of seagrass coverage occurred from 2011 to 2018.
Very important that in 2011, it became clear to FDEP that seagrass losses were the result of more than just external nutrient loading; and that the relationship between nutrient loading and seagrass coverage was no longer sufficient to project seagrass recovery. That is why we need pollutant testing; which is not in the Save the Lagoon Plan.
Last year during Marine Resource Council they said during their annual Lagoon Report Card meeting, that the lagoon seagrass is continuing to die, even in areas where the nutrient loading is good, suggesting something else contributing to seagrass decline. But what? Data drives decisions and without testing for pollution, we do not know.
Marine Resources new report card is due to come out in a few weeks and they have announced a Code Red Alert, “The Indian River Lagoon coastal community of east-central Florida is dangerously out of balance, putting the region’s health, habitat, and economy at risk. MRC applauds all that is underway to address this imbalance, but much more needs to happen now.”
Since 2010, we’ve lost between 60-80% of the seagrass – with most areas 90% less grass with a loss around 46,000 acres of natural seagrass. Seagrass is a foundation species meaning it is important to many other species up the food chain. The manatees dying is the most visual how we see of the lagoon dying while countless other species rely on the seagrass that are also impacted. How many other species are we losing?
Manatee Mortality Event
The loss of manatees is just the canary in the mine for the health of the lagoon. FWC has recovered 177 dead manatees in Brevard in as of 11 Feb 2022 which represents almost 70% of the dead manatees in Florida are in Brevard – approximately 4.2 per day in Brevard.
Florida reported 1,101 manatee deaths in 2021 with 359 of those in Brevard County – averaging almost one a day in Brevard. This mortality event is the highest number of deaths on record in a single year, and Brevard County represents the most in the state.
It is important to note that the seagrass loss is not unique to the Indian River Lagoon, but is happening across Florida and indeed across the globe. To that end, there is considerable scientific literature from across the globe that we should be leveraging.
For example, changing from broadcast spraying of herbicides to band spraying and not spraying during wet season can significantly reduce herbicide run-off and to return to mechanical harvesting of aquatic weeds would remove the nutrient loading while also reducing herbicide use. This picture is from South Patrick Shores SR513, Florida Department of Transportation spraying Aquastar (an aquatic herbicide which is 53.8% glyphosate), a ditch where numerous manatees are currently eating foliage. FWC counted about 130 manatees in the ditch and Berkeley Canal recently.
Why is the Lagoon dying?
That determination that there were other reasons than nutrient loading to seagrass loss was 10 years ago, before the Save The Lagoon Tax was approved. So since it was known there was more at play than nutrient loading in the decline of seagrass, why did the Save The Lagoon plan base its metric on ONLY nutrient removal, and not also other metrics such as pollutants?
The current Lagoon plan is based on the metric on pounds of nitrogen removed to measure the success of a project. Indian River Lagoon Plan metric cost of removing nitrogen is $426/lb in 2022 versus $298/lb in 2017. This is about a 45% increase in the cost of removing nutrient loading since the plan began.
As a side note, some critics have questioned whether projects actually deliver the estimated reduction in nutrient loading in practice, so the cost may be higher. And as long as we are dumping millions of gallons of sewage into the lagoon, as in the recent 7.2 million from Sand Point discharge from force main, we are going backward faster than progress.
ORCA found Glyphosate and copper in testing that are polluting St. Lucie River with the highest glyphosate level nearly 1.3 parts per billion in a Stuart canal surrounded by waterfront homes and copper at as high as 170 parts per million. Copper is a biocide that kills seagrass and is often added to pesticides, fungicides and herbicides as well as boat bottom paint. It runs off from citrus farms and other agricultural areas to the lagoon.
What We Voted For
We did not vote to remove nutrients, we voted to save the lagoon. From my perspective, the current plan fails to address what we voted for as residents of Brevard and suggests the need to be peer-reviewed by scientists of multiple educational institutions. It is time for corrective action as the lagoon decline continues.
In addition to adding pollution testing, the lagoon cannot be cleaned up successfully when the biggest challenge we have for lagoon health is in the area of growth management without policy changes such as robust Low Impact Development (like Pinellas County has done). Additionally, Florida Statute 487.051(2) preempts cities and counties from enacting any regulations restricting the use of pesticides including herbicide.
The Indian River Lagoon is a federally protected estuary – as is Blue Springs. Blue Spring has a moratorium on herbicide spraying, so why can’t the lagoon? Yes, there is state law banning a ban of herbicides; but the federal designation may be a work-around to get a moratorium on herbicides near the Indian River Lagoon. Additionally, the County increased its budget for herbicide application by 2.5 times on October 31, 2021 – perhaps like Martin County, could the county have a moratorium on herbicide spraying by the County?
It’s time to reevaluate the plan at the 5-year mark, and learn from what is working and not working. We can all do our part to help certainly; but this is also a problem to be solved at every level of government not just with dollars but moving forward will also need to address policy at local, state and federal level.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sandra Sullivan is a Republican candidate for Brevard County Commission District 4 and has advocated for the Indian River Lagoon at numerous times at Brevard County Commission and Save the Lagoon meetings since 2018.