The Surfrider Foundation: Protecting Oceans, Waves and Beaches since 1984

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Youth Take to the River to Solve Problems

The Treasure Coast’s youngest scientists pondered mushroom filters and bacteria while they researched ways to solve the Indian River Lagoon’s pollution problems.

For weeks and even months, students from Sebastian to Stuart scooped up jars and bottles of water along the lagoon. They tested for phosphorous, salinity and pollution, and tried to make their best guesses on ways to stop the problems they found. The projects earned top honors at their regional science fairs and now will compete with others at the state level.

The young scientists said they chose the lagoon as the subject of their projects because it is such a big part of the Treasure Coast and its economy. “It’s a really vital waterway,” said Stuart Middle Schooleighth-grader Caroline Nolan, 13. Nolan’s project explored whether a filter made of mushrooms could be created to remove nutrients from wastewater discharging into the lagoon.

“This is a big area for tourists,” said Sebastian River Middle School sixth-grader Gus Brugger IV, whose father is a charter fisherman. Gus, 12, wanted to find out the cause of the nutrient pollution in the water. He remembered the massive fish kill a few years ago in Sebastian and wanted to find the source so maybe the fish would return to the waterways. He also wanted to find out what killed the sea grasses.

“I think we should help the environment. You come out here to live closer to nature, not hurt it. Why would you not want to do something about it?” Gus said.

Gus tested the water in Sebastian in many different areas, setting up a filtering system to determine which water sample was the most polluted. He found the heaviest pollution came from waters in the residential canal north of the Wabasso Bridge, where many homes still use older septic tanks. His conclusion: Residents should connect to the sewer system if they can.

“We just have to stop pollution. We should do everything we can to help the community,” Gus said.

Caroline’s family often spent weekends boating in the lagoon.

“But because of the toxic algae, we weren’t able to do that,” she said.

Sebastian Charter Junior High School eighth-grader Alexi Dong, 13, looked at the salinity levels of the water in the lagoon and nearby canals to see whether they affected the death rate of tiny aquatic creatures. While her tests concluded salinity had no effect, she noticed the dumping of freshwater into brackish, a combination of freshwater and saltwater, water caused an imbalance.

“This can cause a shock to animals used to living with salt in the water,” Alexi said.

Animals such as manatees and fish could die because of the salinity content, she said. Her solution is to set up stations to periodically add salt to the water.

St. Joseph Catholic School seventh-grader Osiris Ramos of Stuart also tested salinity levels in the lagoon and St. Lucie River to see whether it affected certain types of jellyfish. He found more jellyfish lived in areas where there were lower levels of salinity. Osiris said he started noticing the jellyfish in areas where he went swimming.

Students said they knew about the condition of the lagoon before they began their projects, but the level of awareness increased as their research continued.

“It is in a huge crisis because things are dying,” Alexi said. “We need to find a solution soon.”

The students said they most likely will continue with their research for next year’s science fair. Some plan to continue with testing even though they have finished with the project.

“I want to see what is going on for my own personal view,” said St. Edward’s School eighth-grader Stephen Kaiser, 12. He tested bacteria levels in the estuary in Stuart and Fort Pierce and the impact they had on certain types of sponges. “It is such a problem.”