On a sultry summer night, 12 ships were heading to Spain laden with silver, gold, emeralds, and pearls. Just seven days after setting sail from Havana, Cuba they met a deadly obstacle, a hurricane. Eleven of the ships were lost, over 1,000 sailors perished, and much of the precious cargo sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Buried for centuries, salvagers discovered Spanish treasure in 1961 along the central Florida coast. A local newspaper referred to their region as the “Treasure Coast,” and the name stuck.
The ships met their untimely fate just offshore of the Indian River Lagoon. A thin sliver of water stretching 156 miles along Florida’s east coast, many treasures, golden and otherwise bless this region.
The Indian River Lagoon is teeming with life, filled with oyster and seagrass beds, mangrove swamps, and coral reefs. Florida manatees overwinter here and sea turtles nest on the ocean beaches. One of the most biodiverse regions in North America, it’s home to over 4,300 species of plants and animals.
More than just a pretty place for flora and fauna, the Indian River Lagoon also packs an economic punch. More than seven million people flock to the region each year for fishing, boating, kayaking, camping, and other recreational activities. The lagoon is a critical nursery ground for fish, supplying approximately half of the annual fish harvest on Florida’s east coast. Truly a treasure of prosperity, the overall economic value of the lagoon is an estimated $7.4 billion each year, a staggering one-seventh of the region’s economy.
But there are problems in this little slice of heaven. Nearly a century ago, the Indian River Lagoon and the St. Lucie estuary, found at the southern end of the lagoon, were artificially connected to Lake Okeechobee further inland through a canal. When the lake’s water levels are high, agencies release polluted freshwater downstream to the estuaries. These freshwater discharges impair water quality and disturb the salinity balance.
This connection to the lake spurred a multitude of problems. First of all, it destroyed valuable habitats, such as seagrass beds and oyster reefs, which are nursery grounds for fish and shellfish. The polluted discharges fueled toxic algae blooms along the Treasure Coast in 2018. In turn, these blooms posed a public health risk, killed fish, and closed beaches. This was nothing new; algae blooms had devastated the coast in 2013, and again in 2016.
This swirling mass of slime plundered the financial treasures of Florida’s coast. The economic losses for Martin county, a direct recipient of the discharges, were huge. According to a report from the Florida Association of Realtors, over $400 million worth of damages to real estate values occurred from the dumping of Lake Okeechobee water over the last 10 years.
Recapturing the booty
Fortunately, there is a solution to these ravages plundering the treasures of Florida’s coast: restoration of the Everglades. Recently, we’ve achieved several notable successes. For instance, the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual is the first attempt in over a decade to revise the management of the lake’s waters.
Together, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District created a balanced approach to managing the lake. The updated manual promises to reduce harmful coastal discharges by allowing the lake to rise a little higher and sending more water south to the Everglades.
Another key piece in the Everglades puzzle is the future reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee. Creating a new outlet for water storage, it will allow much more water to be sent south, on its historic flow path through the Everglades, instead of being dumped to the coast. A recently completed project, the C-44 reservoir, should also improve water quality and salinity levels in the St. Lucie Estuary.
While this muck of putrid pollution problems oozed on, in 2015 treasure hunters discovered $4.5 million in gold coins offshore of Indian River Lagoon. Coincidence? Maybe, but it’s a good reminder that our coast is full of treasures, some hidden, some in plain sight. Habitat restoration will help protect them!