The Lake Worth Lagoon Has Overcome A Lot. Climate Change Is A New Threat

Mar 12, 2018

The story of the Lake Worth Lagoon is a tale of survival.

Over the past 100  years, urbanization has imperiled the intracoastal area between Palm Beach County’s barrier islands and the mainland. Settlers and developers dug inlets that introduced saltwater into the freshwater lagoon, making it brackish. Species from oysters and sea turtles to mangroves and seagrasses suffered.

Paul Davis, a former coastal resources director for Palm Beach County, recounts the history of the Lake Worth Lagoon to visitors at John D. MacArthur Beach State Park.
Credit Kate Stein / WLRN

"Part of the lagoon near the West Palm Beach Canal, it was considered a dead zone," said Paul Davis, a retired director of the coastal division for Palm Beach County's Department of Environmental Resources Management. "Nothing could grow there and it was unlikely that anything would grow there."

But local conservation efforts helped get state and federal restoration funding. Water quality improved and populations of oysters, seagrass, mangroves and sea turtles grew. Ecotourism trips brought visitors and elected officials to see restored islands and the return of species including the oystercatcher.

In the past five years or so, however, lagoon conditions appear to have worsened again. Davis says in particular, there’s been a reduction in sea grass, and that the changes may be linked to climate change.

"Our typical rainy season is no longer as wet as it used to be," he said. "Our dry season is a lot wetter than it used to be."

Of all the habitats in the Lake Worth Lagoon, the gently sloping nearshore areas have the most plants and aquatic animals. They're also being lost quickly: Former Palm Beach County coastal director Paul Davis says seawalls have been built along the majority of the lagoon's coastline.
Credit Kate Stein / WLRN

The seagrass decline could also be related to changes in water quality, or changes in wave patterns from seawalls and boats. Sea level rise may exacerbate some of those threats, as people build higher seawalls and saltwater pushes farther inland.

But Davis says the situation isn’t hopeless. He says the lagoon is resilient and can recover -- again -- if people "have the fortitude and determination" to address urbanization-related issues.

"I've seen tremendous changes, things that would we would not have expected to occur," he said. "It can be done."