Wildlife-rich lagoon heavily polluted, threatened by building boom

The most biologically diverse waterway in America is seriously ill.

The Indian River Lagoon is repeatedly being choked by oxygen-robbing algae, its surface increasingly dotted with thousands of dead fish, manatees, birds and other creatures — and a study by the Associated Press discovered that the problem is getting worse.

The culprits: farm runoff and an influx of people that have sent lawn fertilizer and other pollutants into the lagoon, which runs 156 miles along Florida’s Atlantic Coast. Environmentalists are distressed to see the lagoon’s rich variety of life threatened, as wildlife was in the Chesapeake Bay, Lake Erie and the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s the death by a thousand cuts,” said Bob Knight, an environmental scientist with the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute who has studied Florida’s waters for 40 years.

Since 2000, more than 1.5 million people moved into the six counties along the lagoon and three Orlando-area counties that drain into Lake Okeechobee or directly into the lagoon. Roads, driveways and parking lots have allowed runoff to make its way into the lagoon more easily, but the waterway has also been harmed by discharge from wastewater treatment plants.

The lagoon’s ongoing woes threaten the region’s $2.5 billion recreation, fishing and tourism economy.

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Algae-filled water along Sewall’s Point shore

Water full of algae laps the Sewall’s Point shore on the St. Lucie River, Fla., June 27, 2016. Despite hundreds of millions of tax dollars spent to reduce pollution in Florida’s 153-mile-long Indian River Lagoon, an Associated Press analysis of water quality data from 2000-2015 found stark increases in pollutants that cause harmful algal blooms. (Photo: Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post via AP)

Men fishing in murky waters of Mosquito Lagoon

Bob Chew, 64, of Edgewater, Fla., left, an avid fisherman and environmentalist, and Capt. Frank Brownell, 62, fish the murky waters of Mosquito Lagoon on the Indian River Lagoon, Fla., Feb. 17, 2016. The 153-mile-long Indian River Lagoon has suffered from harmful algae blooms caused by pollutants like fertilizers and human waste. (Photo: Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

Dead fish floating on Banana River

Dead fish clog the Banana River in Cocoa Beach, Fla., March 22, 2016. The river part of the Indian River Lagoon is America’s most diverse waterway. The fish kill caused by algae blooms prompted voters to approve a sales tax to raise more than $300 million over the next ten years for cleanup efforts. (Photo: Malcolm Denemark/Florida Today via AP)

Aerial view of algae on St. Lucie River

Blue-green algae enveloping an area along the St. Lucie River is shown in Stuart, Fla., June 29, 2016. The Indian River Lagoon is the most diverse lagoon ecosystem in the Northern hemisphere. (Photo: Greg Lovett/The Palm Beach Post via AP)

Booming population, dying lagoon

Tree limbs knocked over by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 litter the shoreline as a boat passes by an inlet in the Indian River Lagoon, Fla., Friday, Feb. 10, 2017 America’s most biologically diverse waterway is seriously ill. Despite hundreds of millions of tax dollars spent to reduce pollution in Florida’s 153-mile-long Indian River Lagoon, an Associated Press analysis of water quality data from 2000-2015 found stark increases in pollutants that cause harmful algal blooms. (Photo: John Raoux/AP)

Aerial view of boats docked at Central Marine

Boats docked at Central Marine in Stuart, Fla., are surrounded by blue green algae, June 29, 2016. The 153-mile-long Indian River Lagoon has been plagued by harmful algae blooms. Water quality testing data analyzed by the AP showed the average phosphorous level _ a byproduct of fertilizers and human waste that algae thrive on, rose nearly 75 percent between 2000 and 2016. (Photo: Greg Lovett/The Palm Beach Post via AP)

Algae bloom along boat hull

The hull of a boat is surrounded by algae at the Central Marine boat dock along the St. Lucie River in Stuart, Fla, July 11, 2016. The algae which is thought to be coming from from Lake Okeechobee as water is released has fouled coastal waterways, closed beaches and had an economic impact as tourists are driven away by the smell and inability to enjoy the waterways. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Sample of algae water taken at Central Marine

Tom Wippick, from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, takes an algae-laden water sample for testing near the Central Marine boat dock along the St. Lucie River in Stuart, Fla., July 11, 2016. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

State official taking water sample from St. Lucie River

Tom Wippick, from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, takes an algae-laden water sample for testing near the Central Marine boat dock along the St. Lucie River in Stuart, Fla., July 11, 2016. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Bird flying over algae in St. Lucie River

A bird flies over algae near the Central Marine boat dock along the St. Lucie River in Stuart, Fla., July 11, 2016. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Dead fish floating in algae

A dead fish is shown floating in algae on the St. Lucie River in Stuart, Fla., July 11, 2016. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Algae bloom on St. Lucie River

Algae is shown on the St. Lucie River in Stuart, Fla., July 11, 2016. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Man blasting water into St. Lucie River

Trace McGuire of Ecosphere Technologies blasts a torrent of water from a water treatment system in an attempt to kill the algae at the Outboards Only marina along the St. Lucie River in Jensen Beach, Fla., July 11, 2016. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Algae-laden water flowing from hose

Water shoots out from a hose as Ecosphere Technologies uses their water treatment system in an attempt to stem algae at the Outboards Only marina along the St. Lucie River in Jensen Beach, Fla., July 11, 2016. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

State official taking water sample from St. Lucie River

Tom Wippick, from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, uses a bottle to collect a sample for testing near the Central Marine boat dock along the St. Lucie River in Stuart, Fla., July 11, 2016. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Algae-laden water lapping shore of St. Lucie River

Water filled with algae is seen along the St. Lucie River in Stuart, Fla., July 11, 2016. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Sticker in window

A sticker is shown in a window near where algae is fouling the St. Lucie River in Stuart, Fla., July 11, 2016. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Man looking at water treatment at St. Lucie River

Dennis McGuire of Ecosphere Technologies, looks on as the company’s water treatment system is used in an attempt to kill algae at the Outboards Only marina along the St. Lucie River in Jensen Beach, Fla., July 11, 2016. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Beer can floating among algae on St. Lucie River

A beer can is shown floating with algae in the St. Lucie River, July 11, 2016, in Stuart, Fla. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Father and son looking at algae on St. Lucie River

Robert Barstow and son Michael look at algae hugging the shoreline of the St. Lucie River in Stuart, Fla., July 11, 2016. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Dead fish on shoreline of St. Lucie River

A dead fish is shown along the shoreline next to the St. Lucie River, in Stuart, Fla., July 11, 2016. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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