Experts discuss adding an inlet to Indian River Lagoon

Published On: Oct 30 2013 11:01:31 AM EDT   Updated On: Oct 30 2013 11:53:23 AM EDT
sebastian inlet

Brevard County residents want to forge new openings through the barrier island of the Indian River Lagoon to flush the stagnant estuary’s pollution out to the sea.

Local 6 news partner Florida Today reports a new inlet could go along some of the barrier island’s lowest locations, like just north of Patrick Air Force Base, at some remote spot along the Kennedy Space Center or in the South Beaches area. Or maybe a wider Sebastian Inlet or a pump-out station at Port Canaveral.

The idea might sound far-fetched but four of the lagoon’s six inlets are manmade,and the other two natural inlets were fixed in place with jetties.

“It is feasible, it is doable,” Gary Zarillo, a professor in the department of marine and environmental systems at Florida Tech, said of the prospects of a new lagoon inlet. “Of course, it’s going to be expensive. Most likely it would have to be stabilized if it’s going to be permanent.”

With brown tide and other algae blooming this year, many are once again pushing a century-old idea of a new inlet to let in more ocean water to flush out pollutants and algae. But any new openings to the ocean would have to overcome steep sticker-shock and lengthy federal and state permitting hurdles, as well as concerns about beach erosion, potential lawsuits and other unwanted consequences.

But the idea isn’t as farfetched as it might seem, experts say.

At the Brevard Zoo, Zarillo will give a presentation about the possibility of new inlets during a meeting of the advisory board to the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program. He models where inlets are created, widened or moved.

The inlet discussion comes at the request of Douglas Bournique, an advisory board member and member of the St. Johns River Water Management District’s Governing Board. Bournique had brought up the idea at the panel’s previous meeting in April. He wants a small, shallow recreational inlet.

At the same April meeting, advisory board member John Windsor, an environmental scientist at Florida Tech, challenged the idea of a new inlet and the notion that the lagoon was once pristine before so many people moving here.

Windsor said the idea of a new inlet has been explored many times and debated since Brevard’s earliest permanent settlements in the 1800s. He cites letters from Brevard pioneer William Gleason to county commissioners in 1886 in which Gleason suggested a new inlet on the Banana River, south of Cape Canaveral, according to a summer 2003 newsletter by the Brevard County Historical Commission. Gleason wrote the letters after 30-plus inch rains had resulted in bland-tasting oysters and widespread fish kills.

Gleason estimated that the 1886 inlet would have cost about $300 , according to the newsletter.

Today, it would be in the hundreds of millions, says Martin Smithson, director of the Sebastian Inlet District. And the project would have to consider impacts to sea turtles, seagrass, beach mice and other protected species.

“I do not believe we could get through the federal permitting process to get a new inlet approved,” Smithson said. “I think realistically, 10 to 20 years of permitting ... and tens of millions of dollars. Construction would probably be $100 million dollars or more.”

Sebastian Inlet District spends $3 million to $4 million a year maintaining the inlet. The district also has endured years of litigation because of the inlet’s impacts on beaches to the south. In 2004, the district settled a lawsuit with three property owners south of the inlet. “It cost the taxpayers $5 million to fight that lawsuit,” Smithson said.

“Most of our problems are in urbanized areas,” Smithson said of the lagoon’s water quality, “and those are going to be the areas where it’s going to be least accepted.”

Watch Local 6 for more on this story.