A few simplistic billboards tucked among the pines along Interstate 95 near Titusville welcome motorists to Florida: “Home to bears. Toxic Water. Dead manatees.”
The signs show a toilet draining directly into the lagoon, with a dead manatee, a sea turtle and a few fish.
“RIP 1,874 manatees 2021-2022,” the billboards say.
They are paid for by the Bear Warriors United, the same nonprofit group suing the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, accusing the agency of failing to enforce clean water regulations by allowing too many septic tanks and sewage spills to foul and kill the sea cow’s staple seagrass diet.
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Septic tanks are among the top contributors of excess nitrogen and phosphorus to the lagoon, studies in recent years show. Too much of those two nutrients fuels algae blooms that block sunlight to seagrass, killing the manatees most important food source.
Bear Warriors, which usually acts on behalf of black bears, fighting to end hunts, has taken up the manatee cause in the wake of 800 manatee deaths last year and a record 1,101 manatees deaths in 2021.
Through Jan. 20 of this year there have been 56 manatee deaths, including eight deaths in Brevard. There were 97 manatee deaths during that same timeframe in 2021, and 68 deaths in 2018. The five-year average for the same timeframe is 54 deaths, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission statistics.
Environmentalists’ lawsuits more than two decades ago led to Florida creating statewide arrays of go-slow zones, in hopes it would save the sea cows from being killed by strikes from speeding boats
But pollution that fuels excess algae kept killing manatees, anyway.
Now environmentalists are suing the state again, this time to stop the pollution that boating groups long had warned was a much bigger long-term threat to the species than boats going too fast.
The manatee death toll got so bad that by in March 2021, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had declared the die-off an Unusual Mortality Event.
Then, in a first-of-its kind pilot project to try to stave off further starvation, state and federal biologists fed manatees at the Florida Power & Light power plant last winter and through the end of March 2022.
Bear Warrior’s initially filed suit sought an injunction requiring DEP to:
- “Permanently cease its authorization and permitting of the discharge of nitrogen from septic tanks and wastewater plants” into the northern Indian River Lagoon;
- An order requiring DEP to “provide medical monitoring and veterinarian care together with proper nutritional forage to all manatees in the northern lagoon until sufficient seagrass can sustain manatees there;
- Orders enjoining DEP from issuing approvals for septic tanks or sewer plant hookups for new construction within the northern lagoon watershed;
- Declare that DEP has “incidentally taken” manatees in the northern lagoon within the meaning of the Endangered Species Act. The federal government defines an incidental take as unintentional but not unexpected actions that result in a threatened species being killed, harassed or otherwise harmed.
“DEP has total regulatory control over sewage,” Lesley Blackner, an attorney on the case, said via email. “Whether it goes into septic tanks or sewage treatment plants that dump directly into the IRL (Indian River Lagoon) during rain events or leak into groundwater because the system is overloaded and pipes break and rust. The use of the IRL as a toilet has killed the lagoon and all the creatures that call it home, including manatees, Florida’s most iconic marine species.”