I shift in my chair, unsure how to properly sit in my black and white business dress. I came horrifyingly overdressed and other teens in shorts and t-shirts had met me with inquisitive, maybe even taunting looks, when I had arrived. I tried to draw as little attention to myself as possible, but the cracks in the boardwalk made it difficult to walk quietly in heels.
“What are some conservation issues that are important to you?” I look up at the interviewer. I wanted desperately to show her I was fit to be a Zoo Teen. I had poured hours into the application months ago, as did nearly 200 other students. I was lucky enough to be one of the 40 called back for an interview, but only 20 of us would actually make the final cuts.
A million conservation topics rushed through my mind as I wiped my sweaty hands on my pantyhose. I had prepared for this question: Orangutans, forest desecration, ozone depletion, water contamination…
“The Indian River Lagoon,” I hear myself blurt out.
“What can you tell me about that?” She asks through a smile.
I knew that the zoo was actively working on restoring the lagoon, but I had no sturdy facts to back me up. Why did you say that, you dummy?! I thought to myself.I stuttered through my answer and waited impatiently for the next question. The first thing I did when I got home was search “Indian River Lagoon pollution,” promising myself that I would know more about it the next time I was asked.
I was welcomed into the Zoo Teen program a week before Thanksgiving 2018, and for the next year I volunteered monthly, helping with conservation events and engaging with guests. But what I had learned about the Indian River Lagoon (IRL) never left my mind.
The contamination of the IRL began decades ago, during the Space Coast population boom of the 1960s. With NASA launching thousands of rockets from Cape Canaveral masses of people came seeking job opportunities. But with more people came more waste. Sewage was being dumped into the lagoon by surrounding companies, while fertilizer run-off was filling the lagoon at alarming rates. The pollution of the IRL would only get worse within the next few decades.
Today, the once bio-diverse lagoon is now covered in muck and harmful algal blooms. According to Florida Tech, “In some parts of the lagoon, the muck has reached epic proportions, up to 10 feet high, suffocating seagrass beds, a vital part of the lagoon’s ecosystem. Muck is contributing to large scale algal blooms which consume massive amounts of oxygen, choking out marine life. Now the lagoon is afflicted with massive die-offs of fish, sea turtles, manatees and dolphins.”
These harmful algal blooms can cause extreme illness to people who eat fish that have been infected with the harmful algae toxins. The IRL is a popular place for tourists and residents to fish, which is why cleaning up this lagoon is so significant to my community.
There have been numerous attempts at restoring the lagoon. In 1990, the Indian River Lagoon System and Basin Act was passed, making it illegal for sewer plants to dump waste into the water after 1996. There have also been endeavors to remove the muck, rot and dead plant matter in the lagoon’s basin to encourage new growth, but none of this will be enough to reverse the insurmountable damage done to this once magnificent waterway.
That was until the Brevard Zoo launched the Restore Our Shores program. This program focuses on restoring the lagoon by creating oyster mats. These mats begin with cleaned and drilled oyster shells which are then hooked onto a mat and finally placed into the lagoon’s basin. These mats attract free-floating oyster larvae and will allow more oysters to be born. This is momentous to the lagoon, as an adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water ever single day. Unfortunately, due to over-harvesting, the oyster population has been in a drastic decline.
This is why as a teen volunteer I am able to educate guests on the state of the IRL. I am even able to make oyster mats at the zoo and show guests how they can make their own. The Restore Our Shores program has used oyster mats to restore 78 reefs in the IRL, but oysters will not save the lagoon alone.
Although my community is actively working on solving the issues in the IRL, not every community has the resources to do the same. The EPA states that, “Nearly half of our rivers and streams and more than one-third of our lakes are polluted and unfit for swimming, fishing, and drinking.” Although the U.S. is one of the most advanced nations in the world, there are still Americans who do not have access to clean drinking water. Imagine what this problem is like on a global scale, in countries that are undeveloped and poor. Where people must collect their own water from contaminated rivers and lakes and give it to their children and themselves simply to survive. Look at the people in Flint Michigan, where they are suffering from lead poisoning due to drinking water from their own homes. There are many environmental issues that need our time and effort, but without water we will die. It is expected that by 2050, our demand for clean water will increase by 50%.
So the next time you take a sip of clean water from your tap or your refrigerator, remember that not everyone has that chance. If action is not taken, one day you will not have that chance. We have the ability to change the fate of our world's water. Every single person can make the choice to help their communities. Organize a water clean up event. Use your vote to elect people who will clean up your rivers and lakes. At the very least, learn about the water problems in your area and what you can do to help. You have the power to implement change. You alone can implement change. The question is, will you?
A Mucked Up Lagoon. n.d.
Crisis in the Indian River Lagoon: Solutions for an Imperiled Ecosystem. n.d.
Denchak, Melissa. Water Pollution: Everything You Need to Know. 14 May 2018.
Oysters The Selfless Shellfish. n.d.
Pepperman, Kelly. Timeline: Indian River Lagoon problems began decades ago. 18 August 2018.