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Florida Today: Matt Reed: ‘Think’ before we act, spend on lagoon

Monday, April 14, 2014

Marine scientist Edie Widder, Ph.D., quoted Albert Einstein in urging a smarter approach to saving the Indian River Lagoon:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

In other words, our precious estuary is quickly losing plant and animal life. But we could save it faster if leaders wait and first sponsor research that defines the worst sources of pollution from Titusville to Stuart.

“We’re killing the lagoon,” Widder said, pointing to an alarming statistic for Brevard. “Losing 47,000 acres of seagrass? That’s like losing a rain forest.”

Here, scientists and leaders have spent months describing the symptoms and enacting summertime bans on lawn fertilizer. The state Legislature plans to steer millions to Brevard to dredge up muck.

Better safe than sorry, the thinking goes.

But we still have no data to identify the worst pollutants, no funding to map the sources of those pollutants, no “baseline data” to help measure improvement.

We have no idea how well the bans and spending will work.

We need numbers, and fast.

Corporate citizen

Enter one of the so-called bad guys, leading the way in doing some good.

The Scotts Miracle-Gro fertilizer company has committed $500,000 for a two-year study to be led by Widder’s nonprofit, the Ocean Research & Conservation Association. Joining the study will be scientists from the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce and the University of Georgia.

The research will analyze water flowing from two canals near Fort Pierce, at the southern end of the lagoon. Scotts CEO Jim Hagedorn lives in nearby Stuart and reached out to Widder.

“We can’t sit idly by anymore,” said Mark Slavens, Ph.D., company vice president for environmental affairs. “We need to be part of the conversation. We know there are ways our product can have an impact.”

The study will track water quality over the seasons using devices called Kilroys. It also will test muck and sediment for toxins. It will map likely pollution sources. It should help distinguish how much comes from storm runoff versus historic buildup in the earth and water table.

Scotts will have no involvement in the data collection or analysis, the participants said. An independent committee will oversee the project. The scientists will release the results. Scotts will cope with whatever they show.

In an editorial board meeting with FLORIDA TODAY, Slavens acknowledged that the company has hired lobbyists to oppose local fertilizer ordinances because it didn’t believe the rules were based on real water-quality data (they weren’t). To comply with state rules, the company had already reformulated its products to cut nitrogen by 30 percent and phosphorus by 50 percent while increasing the portion that is slow-release, Slavens said.

“We wanted a different approach, a collaborative approach,” Slavens said. “We wanted to team with a conservation and scientific organization.”

More needed

It’s a start. And as a model for corporate involvement, it deserves a chance.

Such testing in Brevard County would costs $25,000 per square mile, Widder said. Brevard County has applied for $380,000 in state funding to test three areas: The Haulover Canal at the north end, Dragon Point at the confluence of the Banana and Indian rivers and the Melbourne (U.S. 192) Causeway.

Target date for a final report: August 2016, more than two years of “thinking about the problem.”

And experience on the Treasure Coast has exposed other issues that need improvement if we want Einstein’s full five minutes left to think about solutions:

• Faster permitting. It can take three months to obtain the various permits for one Kilroy monitor from the U.S. Coast Guard, the state Department of Environmental Protection and other agencies, Widder said.

• A lead agency to serve as a war room and clearinghouse for research, plans and funding. Here, the St. Johns River Water Management District has led estuary planning and dredging projects for years.

• More money from local governments and corporate partners for further research.

“This isn’t an experiment,” Widder said. “This is finally monitoring the real world.”

Contact Matt Reed at 242-3631 or

$5 million effort

The Scotts Miracle-Gro lagoon-research grant is part of a

$5 million, three-year program by the company to sponsor water-quality research and produce advertisements that educate residents on responsible garden care.

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