By Kevin Spears
February 20, 2017
A determined and costly battle has begun against a sulfurous monster in the Indian River Lagoon, using a massive weapon of muck destruction.
The 150-mile ribbon of partly salty, partly fresh water that hugs Florida’s Atlantic coast is gagging on what many call “muck.” Created by decades of pollution, it smothers the seabed in layers several feet thick and reeks of rotting eggs.
This month, a dredge — a voracious, underwater vacuum cleaner — began devouring the slime described as black mayonnaise. With a suction snout at its front and a discharge pipe at its back, the floating machine is pumping muck and river water into a 4-mile-long pipeline fast enough to fill a residential pool in three minutes.
The destination is a place of mechanized elimination of what’s killing the Indian River; an inauguration of the site was held last week as a breeze swept across muck spuming from a pipeline.
“That’s the smell of success,” a state official told those gathered, many of whom were expecting that with Brevard County’s passage of an environmental tax last year, the kind of muck removal they were witnessing would gain momentum.
Spread across south Brevard County next to a landfill, the operation features a pair of rectangular, plastic-lined ponds. Each spans 20 acres at 9 feet deep. Slurry dredged from the Indian River, which is about 90 percent water and 10 percent solid material, will fill one pond at time.
As muck sinks, clear water is drained to a small reservoir for further clarifying and eventual delivery back to the Indian River.
When a pond is full of muck, it will be allowed to dry enough so that heavy equipment can shovel it off to the landfill.
The dredge is anchored in Elbow Creek, which meets the Eau Gallie River near the Indian River in the city of Melbourne.
More than 600,000 cubic yards of muck — a dump truck holds about 20 cubic yards — are targeted for removal from the Eau Gallie River by the end of next year.
It’s not nearly the first or even the biggest effort to get rid of Indian River muck.
The project resulted from a grassroots campaign started by Amy Harrell, who lives next to Elbow Creek, that spurred state support.
With dredging, Harrell said at that the public event, “the Eau Gallie River and Elbow Creek can be what God intended.”
But the Eau Gallie dredging, and its assembly-line-style disposal of muck, came together as the Indian River Lagoon was struck by a crisis of fish kills, manatee deaths and eruptions of harmful algae that made national news.
“What we have is an avalanche of muck,” said one of the event speakers, Jerry Sansom, who has long been active in Indian River matters.
Sansom added: “Nobody wants to build a home next to a sick waterway.”
Last year, Brevard County voters approved a half-cent hike in sales tax that will raise more than $300 million in a decade for lagoon restoration; two-thirds of that revenue will be spent on dredging millions of cubic yards of muck.
Virginia Barker, director of Brevard County’s environmental agency, said muck wreaks deadly havoc on many levels.
The substance is made of ingredients of sewage, stormwater runoff and rotting vegetation, and continually recycles those pollutants in the Indian River.
Muck also wipes out the “underwater rain forest” that provides shellfish, fish and turtles “with a place to hide, eat and grow up,” Barker said.
John Trefry, a scientist at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, said dredging in creeks and rivers tied to the Indian River Lagoon is important.
“Eventually, you’ve got to get out into the lagoon where there are some large deposits because that’s where the restoration has to occur,” Trefry said.
A challenge, he said, will be in identifying which deposits are the most harmful.
He said not all muck is alike, and what’s in the Indian River isn’t technically even muck: there’s too much fine soil in it and only about 20 percent rotting vegetation.
Muck in Lake Apopka near Orlando, by comparison, is nearly 90 percent rotting vegetation.
But what’s crippling the Indian River “is still black and gross,” Trefry said.