Living in Florida, we all know about preparing for storms. Whether we are stocking the pantry, putting up hurricane shutters, or just postponing a trip to the beach, keeping an eye on the weather and “battening down the hatches” when necessary are all part of life here. Yet, unless a storm does obvious damage, we seldom think much about its aftereffects. A summer thunderstorm can arrive and depart, leaving behind cooler air and distant glimpses of lightning, without our giving it a second thought as the clouds disperse.
Nevertheless, the water left behind by such storms does have effects, and for the well-being of the environment, especially the Indian River Lagoon, stormwater management is an important issue. It begins with two questions: After a storm, where does all the rainwater go? And what does it carry with it?
Dave Fuss, the director of land stewardship for the Indian River Land Trust, has a sense of perspective on these questions that is born from experience. The Land Trust’s mission is directly related to preserving the lagoon, a cause in which proper stormwater management is essential. In addition, Fuss spent nine years with a county stormwater department in South Carolina before relocating to Florida.
As to why stormwater management is important, he explains, “Rain carries whatever it picks up from your yard into the street gutter. That includes fertilizers on lawns, oil and chemicals from cars, and organic debris as well.” As your lawn dries off, the water may be out of sight and out of mind, but it could end up in a stream, on a beach, and ultimately in the lagoon, still carrying pollutants with it.
This kind of “nonpoint-source pollution” can be contrasted with “point-source pollution,” such as a pipe dumping industrial waste. With point-source pollution, the enemy tends to be large, grounded in a specific location, and easy to identify. Nonpoint-source pollution, on the other hand, involves small amounts of contaminants coming from all over and adding up to serious harm. Fighting nonpoint-source pollution can be likened to Gulliver fighting Lilliputians.
The canals and drainage ditches that crisscross Indian River County, and into which considerable stormwater flows, are a related issue. Many of them were dug during past efforts to drain portions of the St. Johns River in order to free up land for agriculture, Fuss notes. “That led to an increase in the volume of fresh water going into the Indian River Lagoon, changing the balance of fresh versus salt water,” along with the pollution problem.
As an example, Fuss gives a typical pattern of land usage in Florida: “A citrus grove turns into a cattle pasture, which turns into a housing development.” Throughout this time, stormwater is being discharged into the canal, and with increasing development come increasing amounts of pesticides and other contaminants.
“The wisdom of the past was, ‘Let’s just get this water out of here so we can develop agricultural fields, or so we can put houses here.’ And that was fine when the population was relatively sparse,” Fuss explains. As with most environmental issues, stormwater becomes a more serious problem with increasing population. “Now, it causes unintended consequences,” contributing to algae blooms, fish die-offs and casualties among manatees. “Stormwater is not the only reason for these problems endangering the lagoon; but without controlling stormwater, the problems cannot be solved.”
How, then, can stormwater be controlled? Engineers and environmentalists are employing a wide variety of strategies, but often, a first step is the capture of stormwater. Water can be removed from canals or the canals themselves can be redirected. Such techniques have led to the trend of “stormwater parks” where the waters can be contained and treated. But how is the treatment accomplished?
Treatment often relies on the amazing ability of natural systems to cleanse themselves once pollutants are no longer being added. For example, algae growing in a stormwater pond can absorb contaminants; then the algae themselves can be collected and disposed of. Native herbaceous wetland plants can be cultivated for the same purpose; they can then be harvested and disposed of, after having done their job of helping to cleanse the water.
A strategy known as the “treatment train” is increasingly popular; this whimsically named technique involves channeling the water along sand and native vegetation as it flows into the pond. That way, the cleansing process begins as the water is still flowing.
The engineering behind all these efforts helps to protect the environment and can also lead to the establishment of special areas of beauty and preservation. Stormwater parks can serve as havens for wildlife; some of them welcome human visitors as well, and they can be delightful areas for hiking and bird-watching.
Stormwater Park in Sebastian, with its entrance on Englar Drive, features nature trails that wind among oak hammocks, pine flatwoods, scrub and wetlands. Osprey Acres Stormwater Park and Nature Preserve on Fifth Street Southwest in Vero Beach is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Tuesdays. It encompasses an area that was slated for the construction of 400 houses but was purchased by Indian River County for the sake of preservation as well as stormwater management.
Another Vero Beach project is the Egret Marsh Stormwater Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, which is not open to the public but which does welcome school groups and other prescheduled tours. As the name implies, it is not only a place where stormwater is treated; it is a beautiful home for amazing bird life.
The principle of growing algae in stormwater to provide natural cleansing is used on a large scale at Egret Marsh. In fact, 10 million gallons of stormwater can be filtered there each day. The specific method is known as an “algal turf scrubber,” an adaptation of a process used to keep aquariums clean. “This facility was the first of its kind in the world to use the technique on this scale,” says Alexis Peralta, the official stormwater educator for Indian River County.
Where do the algae come from? The stormwater itself carries the algae seeds, so nothing needs to be added. The water is simply piped onto an enormous concrete surface, and then the algae are allowed to grow naturally. After the algae population becomes luxuriant, it is harvested with tractors and disposed of.
Meanwhile, the water goes on through “polishing ponds” in a treatment train system. As for the algae, “We were trying to compost it and make it into organic fertilizer,” Peralta says, “but the stormwater has many seeds from weeds in it. Nobody wants fertilizer with weed seeds!” Thus, the mass of algae—an organic material—is simply transported to the nearby landfill.
Ingenious though the process is, the beauty of Egret Marsh lies in the fact that it “not only filters the stormwater but creates a wildlife habitat,” as Peralta puts it. In fact, she explains, when the Florida Department of Environmental Protection inspected the facility, the authorities concluded that “they would not want the place shut down even if it could no longer process stormwater.”
Egret Marsh has proved its value as a wildlife sanctuary, especially when it comes to the only species of stork that breeds in North America.
With their carefully timed migrations, tender parenting, their ungainly yet dignified faces and beaks, the storks of the Old World fascinated ancient civilizations. Here, this bird family is represented by the wood stork. Standing 3 1/2 feet tall, with a 5-foot wing span, this black-and-white bird with its long, curved bill is a distinctive presence even when it stands alone. Now picture seeing 150 of them gathered in a single area! Such are the numbers that have been spotted at Egret Marsh.
Why is the sanctuary so popular with wood storks? It is not by chance. Egret Marsh features a specially designed “wood stork habitat” landscaped with undulating ridges. Peralta explains why wood storks are drawn to the ridges: In the past, these birds had been in peril “both for their feathers and because they are super picky eaters.” The establishment of Pelican Island Wildlife Refuge, followed eventually by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, provided protection from plumage hunters, benefiting many species.
However, the problem of finicky eating habits was distinct to wood storks. These birds forage in the water for fish as well as crabs, frogs, and insects. However, they prefer water that is at a precise level—between 6 and 8 inches in depth. The ridges in the landscaping at Egret Marsh are cleverly designed to accommodate them. “Whatever the water table is at, there is a comfortable level for the wood storks.” It was the wood stork habitat in particular that impressed the FDEP.
Along with its value to storks, the habitat abounds with a variety of bird life. A summer afternoon’s visit reveals a green heron nest with its mint green eggs and the mother heron watching over them protectively. Purple gallinules, with their royally colored, iridescent plumage, are tending to their young ones. Tricolored herons—graceful creatures that John James Audubon called “the Lady of the Waters”—further adorn this wetland environment. Unusually, the song of an Eastern meadowlark, faint but melodious, echoes through the air.
Egret Marsh has some other surprises in store. The concrete mat that forms the algal turf scrubber might seem to be a purely technical feature; however, it too has proved to be a favored habitat for birds. As water and algae accumulate there, various species of birds are attracted. Amazingly, up to 200 sandhill cranes have been seen there at once, and roseate spoonbills, up to 40 at a time, have also been sighted. And then there is the black-necked stilt.
A black-and-white bird with very long, spindly red legs, this species is not commonly seen in the Vero Beach area. However, black-necked stilts have actually taken to nesting on the concrete mat of the algal turf scrubber. They construct their nests by forming the algae into shapes Peralta likens to “little volcanoes.” Then both parents take turns incubating the eggs. In hot weather, keeping the eggs at the right temperature can mean cooling them instead of warming them, so the parents will soak their belly feathers in water before sitting on the nest.
The hatchlings are downy creatures that can leave the nest within an hour or two, walking tentatively during their first day as they learn to use those long legs. At the time of our interview, Peralta notes that Egret Marsh is currently home to 28 black-necked stilts, including 16 babies and juveniles.
Endearing nestlings, congregating wood storks, and green herons with green eggs might all seem far removed from the engineering techniques of stormwater management. Yet these wonders are all to be found in a place that was originally designed to address the problem of stormwater management in Vero Beach. Places like Egret Marsh can simultaneously help preserve the lagoon and become rich habitats in their own right. And it all begins with a single question: After a storm, where does the water go?
Art & Ecology
A storm drain seems like an unusual place for an art project. However, Indian River County is using a creative approach to engage young people, as well as the rest of the community, with the environmental importance of stormwater management.
At several locations in Vero Beach, you may notice storm drains that have been adorned with colorful artwork. Alexis Peralta initiated the project, and she has been grateful for the support it has received, especially from Crystal Ploszay of the local decorative concrete business Unicorn Epoxy, who volunteers her time and even provides the specialized paint for the artists.
The first storm drain in the project was painted by local artist and biologist Deanna Derosia, whose creation features a brilliantly plumed roseate spoonbill and proclaims the project’s theme: “Only Rain Down the Drain!”
Another storm drain, painted by Gifford Middle School students, depicts a leaping dolphin. Other images include sea turtle hatchlings, gentle manatees, and a cheerful cephalopod that looks as if it swam right out of the Beatles’ song “Octopus’s Garden.”
Why is this theme of “Only Rain Down the Drain” so important? Peralta explains: “Many people think that the storm drains are connected to the sewer, but in our area, they are separated systems. Storm drains are here to protect us from flooding, but in turn, we must protect the storm drains from pollution.” It is the same fundamental concern that underlies all stormwater management in our area: Whatever ends up in a storm drain can eventually end up in the lagoon. The painted storm drains are a creative way to send this message.