Ian caused 7.2M-gallon sewage spill into Indian River Lagoon, Brevard leaders say

Environmental groups fear spills may cause algal blooms harmful to manatees

Hurricane Ian led to sewage overflow seeping through manholes, flooding streets and a 7.2 million-gallon spill into the Indian River Lagoon.

MELBOURNE, Fla. – Hurricane Ian led to sewage overflow seeping through manholes, flooding streets and a 7.2 million-gallon spill into the Indian River Lagoon.

It’s a concern to local biologists who said the lagoon was just starting to show small improvements.

Brevard County officials reported the spill out of its South Beach plant in Melbourne Beach last week. News 6 partners at Florida Today reported this was in addition to 357,300 gallons of waste recorded as of Wednesday that flowed up from manhole covers in the south beaches area.

“There are only so many places that water can go, and you have an option, you can let that water back up into people’s homes or you can discharge it into the river,” said county spokesperson Don Walker.

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The county sent an incident report to the state’s Environmental Protection Department last week that said in part: “High plant influent flows due to Hurricane Ian resulted in the need to discharge highly treated effluent to the river.”

It filed it on Tuesday, even though the hurricane didn’t bring significant rain to the area until Wednesday.

“You get power outages that knock out the lift stations, you have water that inundates our system,” Walker said.

Walker said the county does have generators to back up the lift stations. With northern Brevard receiving much more rainfall than the southern part of the county where the spill happened, he said the generators still were no match for Ian.

“We’re a 72-mile-long county and these things happen up and down the chain so you can’t just put generators at every lift station for a hurricane but what you try to do is move those generators around as you need to,” he said.

He said the spill also shows some improvement in infrastructure during storms.

In 2018, 22 million gallons of sewage spilled into the lagoon after Hurricane Irma. The county was given three years and a $12 million consent order from the state to make repairs afterward.

“What we’ve seen from this storm is a lot less than that storm even though it was a bigger water event as far as rainfall and flooding,” Walker said.

It’s still concerning for some researchers like the Save the Manatee Club, a non-profit organization that monitors the Lagoon.

“We are certainly concerned for any sewage spills as they will further exacerbate the current troubling situation with excess nutrients which have led to repeated algal blooms and seagrass loss. The actual impact will depend upon a number of factors including how big the spills were, their sphere of influence, and other ambient weather conditions,” said the organization’s executive director, Dr. Patrick Rose.

Last year, biologists reported that 90% of the Indian River Lagoon’s seagrass, which feeds manatees, had disappeared in some areas leading to many animals starving to death. 2021 set the record for the highest amount of manatee deaths in state history with 1,101 dying.

Mortality numbers through the end of September this year showed slow improvement, though, with 705 having died so far in 2022 compared to 959 in that time frame last year.

Walker said more improvements will come to Brevard’s water and sewage infrastructure.

Right now, the county is on year nine of a 10-year plan to make improvements. It’s then heading into another 10-year, $460 million plan, which includes a five-year rate hike for residents approved this year.

“We’re also investing money from the Indian River Lagoon half-cent sales tax to do septic to sewer programs that will keep that water from getting into the groundwater and flowing into the river as well,” he said.

About the Author:

Molly joined News 6 at the start of 2021, returning home to Central Florida.