Spoonbill Marsh, an Environmental Marvel

Spoonbill sign

THE CLEAN WATER ACT (CWA) OF 1972 was enacted to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the country’s surface water.” Enactment of CWA led to anti-digradation policies designed to define conditions under which water quality can and cannot be degraded.

When the US Environmental Agency ordered Florida Department of Environmental Protection to stop Indian River County (IRC) from piping “demineralization concentrate” (AKA Brine) from their water treatment plants directly into the Indian River Lagoon, IRC County Commissioners had a dilemma. They needed to act quickly and cost effectively to find an alternative method of keeping the brine from flowing into the Lagoon.

(Brine is a bi-product of the of reverse osmosis treatment of water from the surficial and Upper Floridan aquifers. Although most of the water forced through the reverse osmosis system is pure drinking water, it is estimated that 20-25% is brine, which is saturated or strongly impregnated with approximately 28% salt by weight, which contains phosphorous, as well as nitrogen.)

The IRC Commissioners chose an environmental solution by creating the Spoonbill Marsh, approximately 63 acres large, owned by Grand Harbor. It is located on the western shore of the Lagoon, north of Grand Harbor.

While there was initial environmental opposition to developing the Spoonbill March it was permitted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and designed and developed by C. E. (Chip) Swindell, Jr., principal scientist and president of Ecotech Consultants, located here in Vero Beach.

According to Mr. Swindell, “For over 35 years I’ve done water-related projects in Australia and Guatamala (wetlands/wildlife services/wetland treatment systems) and Spoonbill is the best thing I’ve ever done.”


Spoonbill Marsh Print by Sue Zimmermann

The area where the Spoonbill Marsh is located previously consisted entirely of Brazilian Peppers, since at least the 1960’s. Brazilian Peppers are a Category 1 on the Florida Pest Plant Council’s list of Invasive Plant Species.

Ingested fruits from Brazilian Peppers have a paralyzing effect on birds and other wildlife and can also result in irritation of the throat, gastroenteritis, diarrhea and vomiting in man. (Source: Wikipedia)

To develop and excavate the Marsh all the Brazilian Peppers had to be pulled out by the roots and poisoned.

The way the Marsh works is that water from the Lagoon is pumped into it and goes through “cells” where phosphorous and nitrogen are absorbed by limestone, mangroves and other vegetation; oysters filter out pollution, solids settle and then the Lagoon water flows on into the marsh where it mixes with the brine from the IRC water treatment plants. The combined water is cleaned by the Marsh and pumped back out into the Lagoon.

One result of mixing the Lagoon water with the brine is the growth of “good algae.” According to State of Washington Department of Ecology, “Healthy lakes need algae. Algae are important to the productivity of a lake or water body. Algae are primary producers. They use sunlight (through photosynthesis) to produce carbohydrates and are eaten by grazers such as protozoa and zooplankton (little animals like water fleas and rotifers.) The zooplankton are, in turn, grazed upon by fish, which are eaten by bigger fish, and on up the food chain. A productive lake produces large fish and good fishing for humans as well as supporting food and habitat for wildlife and waterfowl.”

There is also “bad” algae such as Blue-green algae, which reduces oxygen levels, prevents the growth of beneficial algae and produces toxins that are directly harmful to fish and other organisms. There has never been any evidence of bad algae in the Marsh.

By continuously studying the Marsh, Mr. Swindell has documented that it has attracted 74 different wildlife species, a multitude of fish including Redfish, Mangrove Snappers, Tarpon, Barracuda, Mullets and Snook, as well as 100’s of mangroves, plants, oysters and blue crabs. “From a wildlife perspective the March has gone nuts.”

Of course the purpose the Spoonbill Marsh is to clean the brine and Lagoon water. According to Mr. Swindell the salinity ranking of pure water is zero. However, the salinity ranking of water entering the Marsh as brine is 2.5 whereas the water entering March from the Lagoon is 25. What does this tell us about the shape of the Lagoon?

An analysis conducted and overseen by Vincent Burke, Indian River County Utilities Director, for the Year January 2013 – December 2012 with respect to cleanliness of the water related to Spoonbill Marsh is as follows:

Brine entering the Marsh from Reverse Osmosis Plant Discharge: 4,988 lbs. Nitrogen 327 lbs. Phosphorus

Water entering the Marsh from the Indian River Lagoon: 8,278 lbs. Nitrogen 2,165 lbs. Phosphorus

Total of nitrogen and phosphorus entering the Marsh: 13,267 lbs. Nitrogen 2,493 lbs. Phosphorus

Water entering the Indian River Lagoon from Spoonbill Marsh: 4,408 lbs. Nitrogen 496 lbs. Phosphorus

The net effect is that during 2013 the nutrient load removed by Spoonbill March was 8,768 lbs. of Nitrogen and 1,996 lbs. of Phosphorus.

Mr. Swindell credits the IRC County Commissioners “for taking the risk and having the guts” to develop this project. “What they did goes above and beyond what they could have done and I take my hat off the them.”

3 thoughts on “Spoonbill Marsh, an Environmental Marvel

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