Wildlife-rich lagoon heavily polluted, threatened by building boom

The most biologically diverse waterway in America is seriously ill.

The Indian River Lagoon is repeatedly being choked by oxygen-robbing algae, its surface increasingly dotted with thousands of dead fish, manatees, birds and other creatures — and a study by the Associated Press discovered that the problem is getting worse.

The culprits: farm runoff and an influx of people that have sent lawn fertilizer and other pollutants into the lagoon, which runs 156 miles along Florida’s Atlantic Coast. Environmentalists are distressed to see the lagoon’s rich variety of life threatened, as wildlife was in the Chesapeake Bay, Lake Erie and the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s the death by a thousand cuts,” said Bob Knight, an environmental scientist with the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute who has studied Florida’s waters for 40 years.

Since 2000, more than 1.5 million people moved into the six counties along the lagoon and three Orlando-area counties that drain into Lake Okeechobee or directly into the lagoon. Roads, driveways and parking lots have allowed runoff to make its way into the lagoon more easily, but the waterway has also been harmed by discharge from wastewater treatment plants.

The lagoon’s ongoing woes threaten the region’s $2.5 billion recreation, fishing and tourism economy.

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