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Something is wrong in Florida's Indian River Lagoon, which runs 150 miles along Florida's Atlantic Coast. Over the past year, record numbers of dolphins, manatees and pelicans have turned up dead. Scientists, residents and elected officials in Florida are all trying to understand what's happening in an ecosystem that seems seriously out of balance.
Here's NPR's Greg Allen.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Despite its name, Indian River is not a river at all. It's a long, shallow salt-water lagoon sandwiched between barrier islands and the mainland. The ecosystem is one of the biologically diverse in the world, with more than 600 species of fish, oyster beds, wading birds and marine mammals.
KRISTEN DAVIS: We'll see a lot of turtles, green turtles, sometimes loggerheads. We see a lot of birds, a lot of different egrets and roseate spoonbills.
(SOUNDBITE OF A MOTORBOAT)
ALLEN: Kristen Davis is a biological scientist with Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce. She steers a small pontoon boat to check on a network of monitors that keep track of water quality in the lagoon. The water is calm, the day sunny. A ray jumps out of the water as we motor along. It's one of the perks of the job for Research Professor Dennis Hanisak.
DENNIS HANISAK: Coming up on one of the poles up here is our LOBO Number 1. So, LOBO is a Land Ocean Biogeochemical Observatory.
ALLEN: It's a sophisticated, real-time electronic monitor that helps Hanisak and Davis track the lagoon's vital signs: temperature, pH, salinity, oxygen levels and other factors like turbidity and water color. Along the lower end of Indian River, Hanisak says the lagoon's health is not good.
HANISAK: This year, you know, with the Lake Okeechobee discharges, you know, we see very low salinities. We see very high nutrients. We see very high water color. We see high turbidity.
ALLEN: Florida's received a lot of rain this year. While that's good in some ways, for the lagoon, it spells trouble. As Lake Okeechobee has risen, water managers have diverted much of the excess flow down canals, taking it west to the Gulf of Mexico and east to the Atlantic. The fresh water lowers the salinity in the lagoon, and carries silt and other solids that affect clarity. And perhaps most critically, water from Lake Okeechobee carries high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, pollutants that Hanisak says have had a big impact.
HANISAK: So when you see nitrogen and phosphorus added to the environment, one of the first things you hear about is algal blooms, because they are the ones that directly acquire those elements.
ALLEN: Because of the release of water from Lake Okeechobee, the lower end of Indian River Lagoon this summer has been plagued by large algae blooms, some toxic. They've killed off delicate sea grass beds and been a blow to a regional economy that depends on the lagoon for recreation and commercial fishing. It's the third year in a row of bad news in the lagoon. In 2011, the northern end of Indian River was devastated by an algae super bloom, an event that was followed last year by a different outbreak.
BRIAN LAPOINTE: We have reached a tipping point in the Indian River Lagoon now.
ALLEN: Brian Lapointe is a research professor at Harbor Branch who's investigated the algae blooms and the death of marine mammals in the lagoon. In the past year, more than 60 dolphins and 120 manatees have died. Lapointe says, at least with the manatee deaths, the cause is clear. As sea grass has died, Lapointe says manatees have turned to a type of macro algae, a red seaweed that, with the imbalance in the ecosystem, has become toxic.
LAPOINTE: And this is what the manatees are now eating. This is what they're left with to eat. And they're eating, you know, a lot of this, 40, 50 pounds a day or more.
ALLEN: The manatee and dolphin deaths, along with the algae blooms, have led many in Florida - including politicians - to declare a crisis. Florida's Senate formed a select committee to search for answers. Senator Joe Negron chaired a hearing recently in Stuart, a town on the St. Lucie estuary.
STATE SENATOR JOE NEGRON: We are past the time for talking and PowerPoints and deliberations. We are here to find some short-term solutions to the current environmental crisis.
ALLEN: Speaker after speaker told the committee there are no short-term solutions. The Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains the levees and water level in Lake Okeechobee, says releases of polluted water from the lake are unavoidable. Because of all the rain, they're necessary to avoid a possible catastrophic breach of the lake's levees.
At the hearing, Joseph Perata said he lives in Palm City, where a sign has been posted at the boat ramp.
JOSEPH PERATA: And it says: Avoid contact with water in the St. Lucie River. Advisory, big sign: Do Not Swim. We have a health problem.
ALLEN: The only real answer, scientists say, is to stop draining Lake Okeechobee into Indian River lagoon and restore its natural flow through the Everglades to the South. That's a long-term solution still many years and billions of dollars away.
But stopping the water releases from the Lake, Lapointe says, still would only address part of the problem in the lagoon. A larger issue - one that may be even harder to deal with - is septic systems. In three counties on the lagoon, he told the committee, there are 237,000 septic tanks.
LAPOINTE: Do the math. Over one million kilograms of nitrogen a year are going towards Indian River Lagoon from septic tanks alone.
ALLEN: Crisis or not, there's little political will in Florida to begin requiring communities to move residents off septic tanks.
In his 40 years of work on Indian River Lagoon, Lapointe has seen similar crises come and go. A few years of drought may ease the algae blooms and politicians may lose interest. But if this is indeed a tipping point, how communities and elected officials react this time he says, will have long-term consequences for Indian River Lagoon.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.