Kevin Costner taught us “If you build it they will come.”
It’s hard to imagine a place where this is truer than Florida. Consider Disney and Viera, Universal and Avalon Park, Palm Coast and Splendid China (maybe not Splendid China). When built, they came. And they brought their wallets with them.
If you build something that is pleasing with a purpose, people will flock to it. “If you build it they will come.” More than pop culture, a corollary. But if the corollary stands, does the inverse as well?
If you destroy it, will they leave? Allowing something pristine and beneficial to degrade into putrid lifelessness; will people leave? And take their wallets with them?
Five Florida counties comprise the Indian River Lagoon system; Volusia, Brevard, Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin. The Indian River Lagoon is an Estuary of National Significance and one of 28 national estuary programs in the U.S. It includes the Mosquito Lagoon, the Banana River Lagoon and a number of inlets and tributaries including Turkey Creek and the St. Sebastian River.
The lagoon is distressed, and that’s a concern to more than environmentalists. It’s beginning to affect the area’s business community as well.
Karen Horak, a realtor with Endless Summer Real Estate in Satellite Beach, says her clients are putting waterfront purchases on hold as they see how the state and local governments handle the situation.
“It’s put a reality factor in the mix, something buyers didn’t think about before,” she said. “It really gives you a sense of what could happen to our lagoon, how fragile and priceless it really is, and how there could be permanent damage if we don’t take care of it.”
The prospect of fewer boaters, fishermen and real estate transactions hurts.
It certainly has gotten the attention of regulators at all levels. St. Johns River Water Management District Supervising Environmental Scientist Chuck Jacoby says the Indian River Lagoon has been declared impaired by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
To the south, billion-gallon discharges from Lake Okeechobee mean ongoing salinity shocks to the lagoon. Estuarine organisms simply cannot handle the scale or timeline of such adverse changes in water quality. The lagoon also suffers from chronic urbanization.
“The key thing about the lagoon is that due to development, its watershed (the area of land draining into the lagoon) is 60 percent larger than it would have been naturally,” Jacoby said. “Now the lagoon is receiving more input, and we need to adjust how we handle the water.”
Unimpeded stormwater runoff and groundwater contamination form some 300,000 septic systems along the lagoon creating a nutrient-loaded estuary that feeds algal blooms.
The Indian River Lagoon has become “The Brown Bay.”
That’s no way to treat an asset contributing an annual value of more than $3.7 billion. This is the figure placed on the lagoon in a 2007 study by the environmental engineering firm of Hazen and Sawyer.
The study included recreational expenditures, increased real estate values, income from 15,000 jobs, commercial fishing, research, restoration and education – a valuation that likely has increased in the intervening years. One thing it is missing, though, is a cost-benefit analysis.
Duane DeFreese, Ph.D., of the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Project, says the study does not consider return on investment. “That is something we need within our natural resources conservation analysis. If you don’t know the return on the investment, then you can’t know the true economic value it holds for the region.”
Currently the lagoon is garnering international attention. A “Brown Tide” algae bloom has resulted in a massive fish kill up and down the estuary. These particular algae, complicated in appearance and ability to sustain blooms, result in oxygen depletion and ultimately a whole lot of smelly dead fish.
DeFreese says you have to take the long view, looking at lagoon remediation as an investment in Florida’s global brand.
Echoing realtor Horak, DeFreese says, “What are the assets that make this state a great place to live, work and raise children? Economic data suggests Florida’s waters are a major component of our economic vitality. Water is the basis that drives our unique spot on the North American continent, but it can also be our Achilles’ heel if we don’t take care of it.”
The Indian River Lagoon is impaired. Remediation through total stormwater retention and treatment coupled with region-wide conversion from septic to sewer will require a significant investment. The return will be the increased value the lagoon delivers both economically and in quality of life.
Jacoby says, “We all have to be part of the solution. We may not have paid the full cost of living where we want to live.”
The Indian River is not the only body of water of concern in Florida. The Apalachicola River has been in the headlines recently as one of the most endangered rivers in the nation. And, recently Pinellas County commissioners met to discuss how to use $7.2 million of BP settlement money, making dredging of the Anclote River to help the Tarpon Springs waterfront a real possibility.
Dick Nunis is a legendary imagineer and 44-year Disney veteran whose tenure included serving as chairman of Walt Disney Attractions. He is known for encouraging “Blue Sky Dreams.” About his vision for the Sunshine State, Nunis said, “Imagine Florida as the first clean-water state in the nation.”
We’ve looked at some of the challenges and the potential economic benefits from decisive action. In a subsequent article, we’ll look at a $17-billion investment being made in the Everglades that is expected to reap promised returns, as well as the investment decision yet to be made about Florida’s imperiled water.