By T. Dwayne McCay, Ph.D.
Knowledge begins with discovery—any good researcher will tell you that. The best researchers know that discovery involves studying situations from all possible angles. This means asking questions—even unpopular questions—to ensure good data are gathered so problems may be fully analyzed and evaluated. That’s exactly what Florida Tech researchers will do in their upcoming study of the Indian River Lagoon.
Critics have seemed to suggest that Florida Tech investigators are advocating for wholesale flooding of seawater into the Indian River Lagoon as a quick fix for decades of ignoring rapid population growth and its ecosystem impact. That’s untrue, and the stakes for our lagoon and our community are far too high to allow glib generalizations and uninformed opinion to distract from the pursuit of discovery.
I would like to describe what Florida Tech professionals have always done when conducting research on our lagoon. We bring science to bear in solving real-world problems. We are not lobbyists for policy changes. We provide solid data for policy makers.
A long history of lagoon science
Florida Tech has a decades-long history of providing science to support the preservation and restoration of lagoon resources. Significant symposia on campus, as early as 1981, have highlighted many of the problems developing along the lagoon. The origins of the Marine Resources Council of East Central Florida were also on Florida Tech’s campus. The university’s discoveries on the damaging impact of lagoon muck have helped inform restoration efforts.
In more recent years, the university founded the Indian River Lagoon Research Institute (IRLRI) to focus on better understanding lagoon health. A team of more than 20 faculty members with decades of scientific research experience related to the lagoon form this multidisciplinary research group. Collectively, Florida Tech scientists and engineers explore solutions to the deterioration of the lagoon, including muck and nutrients, lagoon flow, nutrient reduction, sediment loading, ecosystem recovery and management and engineering technologies.
Part of the mission of the IRLRI includes outreach and education to help the community and lagoon stakeholders understand the importance of lagoon problems and their role in creating solutions. The IRLRI collaborates with numerous institutions and agencies pursuing the common goal of improving the lagoon’s ecosystem through understanding.
What this study will do
The Indian River Lagoon, as a bar-built estuary, is far different than the well-known Tampa Bay and Chesapeake Bay systems. Many parts of the lagoon are poorly flushed. With this latest funding of $800,000 from the Florida legislature, the Florida Tech IRLRI will continue exploring customized solutions for improving water quality in our lagoon with the initial phase of a pilot project to begin investigating the impacts of restoring periodic historical ocean inflows to the lagoon. This is not a proposal for an artificial inlet. Rather this first phase of the study will gather data on water quality, organisms and circulation conditions at one or more potential locations for future temporary introductions of seawater. We must know what the conditions are so we can assess potential impacts.
What this study won’t do
Florida Tech researchers won’t be making the difficult policy decisions that must be implemented to protect and restore the lagoon. Our local legislators have demonstrated their continuing commitment to finding lagoon solutions with their support of this type of research, and as the scientists who study the problem from every angle, we must provide them with the best data we can to inform their decisions.
For more than five decades, Florida Tech researchers have offered the best possible science to support those responsible for implementing strategies to save the Indian River Lagoon. Our researchers will continue doing what they have always done—providing the best science they can to empower those engaged in protecting, enhancing and restoring precious lagoon resources.
To do anything less marginalizes this critical natural resource and serves ignorance, not science.
T. Dwayne McCay, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Florida Tech, and a lifelong researcher and educator. You can read more about the university’s ongoing Indian River Lagoon research and education programs here: www.fit.edu/indian-river-lagoon.