A million and a half cubic yards of muck.
That’s enough to pile 300 yards high on a one-acre football field, and that’s how much Brevard County leaders want to remove from Florida’s ailing Indian River Lagoon.
In the lagoon muck is the decomposing accumulation of everything that ever has flowed here. Lawn clippings. Leaves. Sediment. It is a black, slippery reservoir as deep as 10 feet of nutrients that nourish the harmful algae blooms at the heart of the waterway’s spiral.
Muck flows from a pipe like sewage smelling of rotten eggs.
“It’s pouring out of here at maybe close to 6,000 gallons a minute.”
Behind Matt Culver stretches a seven-acre pool of muck, encompassing most of this island tucked off the beaten path in the lagoon. On the surface float chunks of brown algae. A backhoe digs in, dumping muck in piles beside the cesspool.
“The way it looks is the reason we’re taking it out in the first place. Because nothing wants to live in it.”
Culver of Brevard County’s Natural Resources Management Department says the muck used to be at the bottom of the 156-mile Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s east coast, one of North America’s most biologically diverse estuaries. A widespread fish kill last year, the worst in memory, was the latest calamity here. Carcasses consumed the once crystalline water.
“It’s estimated that the muck that we’re dealing with here, there are over 5 million cubic yards of muck in the county. So that’s a lot of material. And so we’re hoping to remove on the order of over a million, a couple million cubic yards over the next 10 years.”
But where to put the muck is the thing.
The island is one of about a half-dozen retention sites. John Trefry of the Florida Institute of Technology eyes a nine-acre site off U.S. Route 1 in Palm Bay where the muck has been left to dry in the sun.
“I don’t think I’m aware of anything quite at the level of what we’re trying to do here.”
A backhoe piles muck on dump trucks, which will haul it to farms for use as a soil additive.
Trefry says muck is a problem everywhere but especially in the Indian River Lagoon.
“There’s no inlets or exchanges with the ocean for 90 miles. Everything that comes in stays in.”
He says eventually the muck could be stored on barges as space becomes a concern.
“No matter where we are we generate waste, and whether the waste is something as simple as clay and dirt and vegetation it has consequences when it builds up somewhere else. And as a growing planet with 7.5 billion people we just have to be so careful with what we do with our waste.”
Back in the lagoon Matt Culver of Brevard County’s Natural Resources Management Department motors to a dredge at the center of a Cocoa Beach residential canal.
“Unfortunately this whole system such as it is in Cocoa Beach, when they designed this when it rains the water from the streets and the houses just runs right off into the canal systems.”
A pipe will carry the muck more than a mile from the dredge to that tucked-away island where the muck will be left to dry. Eventually a barge will be brought in, and the muck will be trucked out, emptying the island for the next round of muck.