Deep Dive: What will it cost to fix the Indian River Lagoon?

The Indian River Lagoon, looking south from the Jensen Beach Causeway Bridge

When is $100 million not a lot of money?

When it comes to saving the Indian River Lagoon.

In December, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the allocation of $100 million in state funds through the Indian River Lagoon Protection Program for 21 projects to reduce the flow of harmful nutrients into the lagoon. And he’s included an additional $100 million for the program in his budget proposal for fiscal year 2024-25. 

That’s great news for the environmentally beleaguered lagoon.

But is it enough? In a word, no.

Back in November 2021, the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program assembled a list of more than 1,000 projects needed to restore water quality in the lagoon. 

The cost: about $5 billion in 2020 dollars. If implemented over 20 years, about $250 million would be needed each year.

That may sound pretty close to DeSantis’s annual pledge. But it’s really just the start.

Lots of projects, lots of money

Back in 2007, Congress authorized Indian River Lagoon-South, a suite of projects designed to reverse environmental damage to the stretch of the lagoon in Martin and St. Lucie counties caused by pollution and unnatural, large freshwater discharges.

Total cost: $4.04 billion.

One of the projects, the C-44 Reservoir and Stormwater Treatment Area, designed to store and treat water pouring into the St. Lucie River Estuary and lagoon from the C-44 Canal and Lake Okeechobee, was completed in 2021 at a cost of $526 million.

The money came from the federal government, the state and Martin County voters who approved a 1-cent sales tax in the early 2000s to raise $27 million to pay for 12,000 acres where the project was built.

But the reservoir has been experiencing “seepage” issues. U.S. Army Corps officials have said repeatedly it’s not a major problem. But the bottom line is that the reservoir can’t yet hold all the water it should. So more money may be needed.

Other projects in what’s known as IRL-South include:

  • The C-23/C-24 Reservoir and Stormwater Treatment Area, two reservoirs and an STA to store over 4 billion gallons of water a year that now drains into the North Fork of the St. Lucie River, polluting it (and the lagoon) with nutrients, bacteria, herbicides, pesticides and more. 
  • The C-25 Reservoir and Stormwater Treatment Area, which is being designed to capture, store and treat local stormwater runoff that flows through the C-25 Canal into the lagoon in northern Fort Pierce. 
  • Muck removal from the north and south forks of the St. Lucie River and the river’s middle estuary.
  • Addition of oyster shell, reef balls, and artificial submerged aquatic vegetation near muck removal sites for habitat improvement.

But as the late-night cable TV commercials say: Wait, there’s more!

Help the Lake O watershed, help the lagoon

What happens to water throughout South Florida affects the lagoon. Specifically, the more water that flows in its natural pattern from the Lake Okeechobee watershed (which extends as far north as Orlando), the less water there is to pollute the lagoon.

So, back in 2000, Congress authorized the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), a whopping 60 projects, which later would include the Indian River Lagoon-South projects, to be completed over 30 years at a cost of $8.2 billion in FY2000 dollars.

Just a couple of those projects that would improve water quality in the lagoon, are:

  • The Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir Project, which includes a 10,100-acre reservoir to hold water flowing south from Lake Okeechobee and off the EAA sugarcane fields and a 6,500-acre stormwater treatment area to clean the store water before it’s sent farther south to Everglades National Park. 
A manatee and school of fish glide through the water in Martin County’s Sailfish Flats, where the Indian River Lagoon meets the St. Lucie River. Note the lack of seagrass in the photo.

This EAA Reservoir is the linchpin of several projects designed to cut damaging Lake Okeechobee discharges to the St. Lucie River and Caloosahatchee River estuaries and the Indian River Lagoon, especially if filling the reservoir with lake water is prioritized over EAA runoff. The state, which owns the land, has spent $290 building the stormwater treatment area, while the federal government will build the reservoir at an estimated cost of $3 billion.

While the project is moving forward — officials last week held a ribbon cutting to mark the completion of the stormwater treatment area’s cell 1 — there remain concerns about the effectiveness of the project design, and whether the state will ultimately need to acquire more land and build more storage and cleansing marshes.

  • The Caloosahatchee River (C-43 Canal) West Basin Storage Reservoir, a reservoir in Hendry County scheduled to be completed in late 2025 at an estimated cost of $903.7 million. The project west of Lake Okeechobee is important to the lagoon because it will allow more excess Lake O water to move west, instead of east toward the St. Lucie River and the lagoon.

Through fiscal year 2023, the federal government and the state have each spent $2.6 billion on CERP construction projects.

The feds (that’s all the taxpayers in the country) have also spent lots of money on non-CERP projects that ultimately will benefit the lagoon: about $400 million to help restore the natural course of the Kissimmee River, which helps slow the flow of water into Lake Okeechobee, and over $1.4 billion to rehabilitate the Herbert Hoover Dike, which will allow the lake to hold more water and keep it out of the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

So, what’s the bottom line? How much will it cost to save the Indian River Lagoon?

Now, because of inflation, changes in project scope, and new projects added to the original plan, completing CERP will take until about 2050 and cost about $23.2 billion (in FY2020 dollars), according to an estimate by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service released Dec. 27.

Septic-to-sewer conversions, like this one shown in St. Lucie County, are a major part of the strategy to reduce nutrient pollution in the Indian River Lagoon.

Necessary billions

But it would be money well spent.

The Indian River Lagoon Watershed is home to more than 4,300 species of plants and animals, making it one of the most bio-diverse habitats in North America, and supports an annual economic contribution of more than $730 million, according to a 2008 report. That figure is likely far higher now.

Of course, taxpayers will have to foot the bill, even though we know that agriculture is the largest contributor of nitrogen and phosphorus, the chemicals in fertilizer that drain into the lagoon and its tributaries to cause toxic algal blooms. 

But even if state leaders mustered the political will to force farmers to stop polluting today, there would still be enough latent nutrients in the Lake Okeechobee watershed to send 500 tons of phosphorus into the lake for 20 to 50 more years, according to a study commissioned by the South Florida Water Management District.

So while not polluting in the first place is a lot cheaper than building multi-million- and multi-billion-dollar projects to get it out downstream is a better long-term strategy, in the interim at least we need that $100 million annually for the Indian River Lagoon Protection Program — and a whole lot more.