The Riverkeeper: Just a Florida Man Trying to Save Waterways From Toxic Algae
Marty Baum, a sixth-generation Floridian, has committed his life to saving the Indian River Lagoon.
Marty Baum jumped on a friend's boat, his phone blowing up with frantic phone calls from fishermen. Forty square miles of catfish, mullet, redfish and most other common game were dead in the water. Thousands of fish, all belly-up.
"We went out on his boat and I cried," Baum said. "Every little thing that required dissolved oxygen was dead."
Baum is the riverkeeper of the Indian River Lagoon, a full-time waterway advocate whose job is to protect the lagoon's plants and animals. The 62-year-old has watched this 156-mile-long South Florida estuary—home to more than 3,000 species — deteriorate because of vast, creeping algae blooms growing out of the nitrogen-rich pollutants in the water that prompted the governor earlier this year to declare a state of emergency.
But he's not giving up.
On a good day, Baum glides across the Indian River Lagoon's olive-colored water in his boat, turns his tanned face to sky and listens for the sounds of fish jumping and seagulls cawing. He is usually left disappointed.
Thicker, stronger and longer-lasting toxic algae blooms have devastated this slice of Florida coast. A bloom in July carpeted areas of the Indian River Lagoon. Near docks, where the algae was pushed by the wind to about three-inches high, Baum said, the smell burned his sinuses.
"It's the color of antifreeze," he said. "You couldn't hardly breathe. It made you sick to your stomach. Puking sick."
The blue-green algae blooms, made up of cyanobacteria that sometimes emit toxins, have even made their way out of the estuary and into the Atlantic Ocean, washing onto Florida's sandy beaches this summer in noxious green waves, scaring away tourists and locals alike.
The sheer fact that this algae is able to survive in salt water is unprecedented. In fact, the cell walls of this toxic bacteria are supposed to explode when it hits salt, but the bloom has grown to a gargantuan scale that keeps even the Atlantic Ocean from destroying it, University of Miami ecology professor Larry Brand said. Inside the lagoon, the algae thrive in the fresh water.
What remains is nearly a wasteland, but the riverkeeper isn't giving up yet. "My family has a legacy of leaving meaningful things," he said.
Later, while gazing out from his captain's chair, he said he hopes this is the last job he ever has — he'd love to still be riverkeeper the day he dies. "It would be an honor to be carried out of this job feet first."
There are still some animals in the water here on the Indian River Lagoon. There's the dolphin with shark bites on its back — because when most of the fish die, predators turn to other predators. There's the singular crab scooped up by a trap and pulled out after a few days, frustrating the crabber who should have a dozen or more in his catch. There's the pelican that sits under a bridge and gulps up tiny fish that come to feed on the tiny patches of remaining seagrass.
Then there's Baum himself. Baum, whose grandfather made a name for himself just down the coast saving marooned sailors. Baum, who came of age fishing for bass and snorkeling among bustling schools of fish and dolphins. Baum, whose alcoholism destroyed too much of what he loved, and who now refuses to sit on the sidelines and watch another force take away something he cares about.
"I've trained my whole life for this," Baum said. "All of this is a gift."
Baum was raised in Miami, the son of a police officer father and a mother who died too young. Visiting the Indian River was a special treat when he was a kid, gifted in the form of afternoon Jeep rides across the beach with his uncle. Only if his grades were good.
When he was 20 years old, Baum's family moved to Stuart, Florida. He went along to start a business there with his dad. He spent the next decade covered in river water—fishing, boating, drinking beer on empty sandbars, soaking in the stars."It was pristine. You could go outside and fill a five-gallon bucket of clams in half an hour," Baum said. "You could see 20 acres of mullet rise up...I grew up wanting to be a marine biologist."
Then the the drinks got stronger and more frequent. He'd already lost family members to alcoholism. He was nearing his own demise, too. But he started going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings right around the time he started going to community environmental awareness meetings. He's 26 years sober, he said, given a new life, and the river was part of it.
But it's not crystal clear what is ailing the Indian River Lagoon. State officials claim the majority of the pollutants come from broken septic tanks. But activists point to agricultural runoff from sugar fields and cattle pastures, major industries in Florida with a firm hand in the state's economic growth and legislative world. Then there's the added pressure from fertilizer used on residential landscaping to nurture blossoming yards. Either way, the ecological poison has created a haven for the toxic algae, which killed seagrass, fish and mammals, and left the water deprived of vital dissolved oxygen.
"It's on the verge of a collapse from end to end," Baum said.
The riverkeeper, whose position is privately funded by donations, is not one of those online activists peddling petitions. Get him talking about the lagoon and Baum will weave a story about his family's history saving marooned sailors into his modern-day efforts to save the animals, plants and people who live on this strip of Atlantic beaches. And he does not go easy on the government.
"The truth of the matter is it's bipartisan corruption," he said. "The only hope we really have right now is the ballot box. We've been suing since 2002," referring to several cases his organization filed with the state against companies, state agencies and federal agencies requesting tougher environmental standards.
The government can't turn a blind eye here. Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency on June 29, and he ordered water from nearby Lake Okeechobee that would have been released into the estuary to be diverted elsewhere.
Scott has directed blame at the federal government since the main barrier between Lake Okeechobee and the river that leads to the estuary is the federally owned Herbert Hoover Dike.
"It is the federal government's sole responsibility to maintain the federally operated Herbert Hoover Dike, and for more than a decade, the federal government has ignored proper maintenance and repair to this structure," the governor said in a request to President Barack Obama for a federal state of emergency. "As a result, billions of gallons of water have been discharged into the Indian River Lagoon and Caloosahatchee River which is causing toxic algae blooms to cause havoc to our environment."
Right now, the water is mostly still in the lake for lack of options — although some water was released into the St. Lucie River (which leads to the Indian River Lagoon) ahead of Hurricane Matthew. But more water will have to be released eventually to avoid flooding nearby towns.
"The water has become thoroughly and completely frightening," Baum said, adding the dams and dikes that hold back polluted lake water need to be better regulated. "The water's polluted, and until we restore our dam protections and stop the pollution, this is only going to get worse."
Problems in the Indian River Lagoon, a 156-mile long estuary that stretches from Cape Canaveral to Jensen Beach, Florida, began in the 1970s after dams were built along various rivers to keep mosquito populations under control. It worked, but the change in water flow also killed much of the lagoon's salt marshes that kept the water rich with oxygen and provided food for fish and manatees.
From 2009 to 2011, the lagoon lost 31,000 acres of seagrass — the equivalent of about 40,000 football fields of undulating underwater plants that so many species relied on for their daily meals, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Around the 1970s, more Americans wanted to move to Florida—with its sandy beaches and comfortable winters. Swaths of Martin and St. Lucie counties became covered with suburbs, and with them, more waste. Drainage canals redirected the natural flow of water eastward, said Brand, of University of Miami.
As the region became more populated, homes were built and farms were established. Initially, most homes were on septic tanks, and 1970s homeowners became obsessed with keeping their lawns green with artificial, fast-acting fertilizer full of nitrogen and phosphorus. All that washed into the lagoon. So did agricultural runoff from sugar farms south of Lake Okeechobee and cattle ranches north of the lake, he said.
"Now that lake is just a huge pool of nutrients," he said, using the scientific term for nitrogen- and phosphorus-rich waste, usually originating from fertilizer or fecal matter. "No matter where you send that water, you're going to have a problem."
By carving artificial drainage eastward to the Indian River Lagoon, the pollution flowed right to the estuary. Fertilizer, animal waste and human excrement alike are rich with nitrogen and phosphorus—the same materials that help plants thrive can kill seagrass if too much gets into the water.
Between the existing algae blooms in the rivers that led to the estuary, and blooms in Lake Okeechobee that were released, the Indian River Lagoon didn't stand a chance, said Mark Aubel, president of Greenwater Labs in Palatka, Florida. His lab is one of the few independent labs that does toxic algae analysis for government agencies and companies.
"You end up with the disastrous effects that they had. It was nightmare," he said. "The toxin levels were exorbitant."
The dominoes began to fall over the past five years. First, the seagrass that was keeping the river full of oxygen died because toxic algae blooms blocked their sunlight, Brand said. Then the fish, plankton and crabs suffocated in the oxygen-poor water, or died from the toxic algae blooms that populated the estuary with poisons and sucked up the remaining dissolved oxygen.
Nearly everything else higher on the food chain left the region, or died of starvation.
The fallout has been disastrous. Much of the estuary's fish populations have been wiped out, and manatees and dolphins have been washing up on the sandy shores en mass.
A 2015 study from the Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanic Institute reported at least 300,000 broken septic tanks were draining into Indian River Lagoon, exacerbating a growing problem. The study cautioned that there was a "critical need" for improved sewage collection and treatment, as well as nutrient removal from the lagoon.
In addition, the state Department of Environmental Protection changed its freshwater quality standards this summer, allowing larger amounts of some pollutants that can legally be dumped into waterways, while restricting 39 chemicals that weren't regulated before.
Baum also noted the thick blanket of algae that forms every few months could impact the real estate market — who would want to buy million-dollar homes with neon-green sludge in the back yard?
But jobs are a more pressing casualty. Fishermen, crabbers and captains who take tourists out on leisurely trips can no longer expect plentiful marine catches and large pods of jumping dolphins, Baum said.
As Baum recounted his days as a Navy submarine sonar operator, he stopped his flatboat and called out to a nearby boat. The crabber on board had just hauled up a trap. Two crustaceans scurried around the cage. He tossed one back and put the second on his deck. His paltry catch.
The crabber eyed him cautiously, and Baum introduced himself and asked if he wouldn't mind donating a single crab later for some research he's conducting. Baum said he was looking into the chemical composition of fish and crab flesh to see if certain toxins from the algae blooms can make their way into humans' stomachs through this seafood. The crabber pulled his boat alongside and takes Baum's card.
Baum said he knows all too well the frustration that crabber must be feeling.
"Where I was catching fish every single damn cast (a few years ago), now I wasn't catching fish for two or three days," he said.
The governor's office pledged to add an unspecified amount of money to the 2017-18 state budget to help clean up the Indian River Lagoon, Scott announced in a July press release. But in 2013, when conditions were bad but could have been prevented from getting worse, he vetoed $2 million in funds that would have gone to Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Oceanic Institute, which studies the lagoon, according to the governor's office 2013 veto list.
"We made strategic investments in this budget," Scott said when announcing the state's $74.1 billion budget and his $368 million in vetoes, "while holding the line on spending that does not give Florida taxpayers a positive return on investment."
The governor's recommendations for the 2016-17 budget did not include any funds to restore the lagoon, although funding for other environmental restoration projects such as $50 million to help restore imperiled northern Florida springs were included.
There are days when Baum wonders if this Sisyphean task will ever end. Every day, he goes out on the river, taking note of new algae blooms and construction projects that could impact the estuary. He works with lawyers to file lawsuits against the state to push for faster and stronger protections. He tries to educate boaters about some on-shore changes they can make, like getting rid of septic tanks.
He won't quit, he said, even if his salary isn't anything to brag about. Even if some days the losses seem to come faster than the gains. After all, it's not about him. He's a sixth-generation Floridian, and he wants the beauty of this estuary to return and stick around for the next six generations. This summer, a niece of his and her 3-year-old daughter stayed with him and his wife.
The little child, a curious one, wanted to see the fish in the lagoon, but a massive algae bloom has just broken out. Baum said he wouldn't let her anywhere near the estuary. He wasn't sure what the toxic blooms would do to her, even if she only breathed the noxious burning odors coming from the surface.
Other times, Baum can catch a glimpse of a single dolphin skimming the surface. Or a gull gliding past, searching for an elusive meal. Palm trees sway in a light breeze, a remnant of paradise.
"It's really pretty," Baum reflected. "It's a damn shame it's all polluted and dangerous."