The Coastal Star

Along the Coast: Lagoon restoration gives new life to Intracoastal ‘dead zones’

About 20 volunteers (including Gael Silverblatt, below, at left) took part

in a recent planting of mangrove seedlings just north of the Lake Worth Bridge.

Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star

By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley 

    A fisherman on a yellow and orange kayak paddles toward a mangrove island. Soon he’ll hook a 40-inch snook that will, after 10 minutes of fighting, get away. 

    “I would have loved to get a picture of him,” says Eddie Eagle from Delray Beach. 

    A birder carrying a massive camera walks toward the small shade pavilion at the end of the boardwalk. He expects to see a mated pair of oyster catchers that until now were only found along the coast as far south as New Smyrna Beach. 

    “It’s an incredible, really nice area for seeing birds,” says Al Pelligrinelli of Boca Raton. 

    Welcome to the Snook Islands Natural Area that stretches north of the Lake Avenue Bridge along the Lake Worth Lagoon. 

    “It’s a real gift to the city,” says Gael Silverblatt, the co-chairman of the Snook Islands Volunteers. After all, most of the funding for this multiphase project came from grants and state money; the county supplies staff to oversee the construction. 

    Before the habitat restoration began in 2003, this area of Lake Worth was a “dead zone,” says project manager Carman Vare, who works for Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources Management. 

    A deep trough at the bottom of the lake was created in the 1920s when it was dredged for sand to create the Lake Worth Municipal Golf Course that still attracts duffers today. 

    The hole left in the lagoon was a massive 1.2 miles long, 800 feet wide and, in some areas, 20 to 25 feet deep. 

    It was so deep that light couldn’t penetrate and there was no oxygen in the water. In fact, the only thing that survived at those depths were worms associated with raw sewage, says Vare. 

    Lucky for Lake Worth residents, at about the same time, a restoration project was underway just north at Peanut Island where they needed to get rid of 40 feet of sand. 

    That’s when it was decided that 1.2 million cubic feet of it would be put on barges and shipped south, where it would be used to fill the huge hole, stabilize the muck and create four islands and three peninsulas along the coastline. 

    Today these areas, which were hand-planted with mangrove trees and cord grass, provide more than 10 acres of habitat for birds and more than 2 acres of habitat for oysters. As a result of the work, nature has donated 46 acres of sea grass that has sprung up around the islands. 

    “You can plot and plan and try to engineer things but ultimately mother mature blesses what she likes. We never envisioned this project to be so successful,” says Vare. 

    In its early years, this natural area wasn’t easy for people to enjoy. “You had to climb to the top of the Lake Avenue Bridge to see it,” says Ginny Powell, who does public outreach for ERM. 

    To ease access, docks, a 650-foot fishing pier and a 550-foot boardwalk were added in 2012. And 100 of Silverblatt’s volunteers planted 450 donated native plants to buffer the area from the street. 

    But that wasn’t the end of the restoration. Another one-third-acre island and more oyster habitat were recently added north of the bridge. This project was finished in June when about 20 volunteers hand-planted 1,000 red mangrove seedlings. 

    South of the bridge the work continues with three more islands and oyster habitat scheduled for completion by mid-2014. 

    “These projects have a lot of benefits for the economy, the city and the private sector by providing jobs,” says Powell. “But best of all, they’ve been good for the environment. Talk to any citizens that know about these projects and they are thrilled. I’ve heard no complaints.” 

A note to paddlers 

    If you want to paddle the Snook Islands Natural Area, there’s a floating dock located at the northwest end of the Lake Avenue Bridge. Heading west on the bridge, take the turnoff into the nature center. There’s a drop-off area where you can unload your boat. But before launching, you’ll have to move your car to street parking located a block or two away. 

    We found it much more convenient to put in from the boat ramps of Bryant Park on the southwest side of the bridge, where there’s plenty of parking and restrooms. 

    For more information on the Lake Worth Lagoon restoration, visit www.pbcgov.com/erm/lakes/estuarine/snook/

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