Last Updated on February 4, 2023

The Environmental Learning Center in Vero Beach places visitors up close to the Indian River Lagoon. This magnificent estuary – where the tide meets a river – stretches nearly 160 miles from Ponce de Leon Inlet in the north near Daytona Beach to Jupiter Inlet in the south. One of 28 Estuaries of National Significance in the United States – others include Massachusetts Bay and Long Island Sound – nearly 700 fish species, almost 400 bird species, over 2,000 plant species and over 2,200 other wildlife species call the Indian River Lagoon home.

This ecological wonderland is in trouble, however. The shocking manatee die-offs of 2021 and 2022 are centered in the Indian River Lagoon. Manatees here are starving to death because the seagrass beds they graze on are being killed by pollution. That pollution comes from agricultural runoff – manure, herbicides, pesticides, fertilizer – residential runoff – septic discharges, lawn clippings – road and development runoff – motor oil, gasoline and coolant leaking from cars – runoff from phosphorus mining.

The waste and pollution created by people and houses and farms and mining and development and roads run off of those places into waterways, including the Indian River Lagoon upon which the Environmental Learning Center Vero Beach FL sits.

Supercharging the problem of polluted water running directly into the Indian River Lagoon are massive discharges of filthy water from Lake Okeechobee. The 730-square-mile lake in central Florida visible from space receives polluted water from around the state, much of it coming from rapidly growing Orlando more than 100 miles to the north.

All of that dirty water is stored in Lake Okeechobee which has been dammed and diked over the decades to raise its sides to hold more and more water. This is the result of villainous big sugar corporations whose plantations lie just to the south of Lake O. Hundreds of thousands of acres of sugar are planted beyond the southern boundary of Lake O and Big Sugar uses the lake as its personal irrigation system. Water is stored up and then trickled out in just the right increments to aide the heavily subsidized sugar plantations grow their toxic crop. When lake levels become too high, billion gallon discharges are sent east through the St. Lucie River towards the Indian River Lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean and west through the Caloosahatchee River toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Instead of allowing the polluted water to gradually flow toward the Everglades and naturally cleanse itself along the way, under the direction of Big Sugar, dirty water is rushed east and west through rivers dredged to speed it along, dumping it into the Lagoon where it creates algae blooms which choke the seagrass beds, or into the Gulf where it wreaks similar havoc.

The Big Sugar plantations act as a cork for the water coming out of Lake Okeechobee which should flow south into the Everglades. As a result, the Everglades are parched while the Indian River Lagoon and Gulf choke on overflows of water so filthy it could be considered toxic waste.

The Environmental Learning Center in Vero Beach Florida lies at the heart of this crisis.

Visiting ELC in Vero Beach

The 64-acre Environmental Learning Center in Vero Beach aspires to educate, inspire and empower all people to be active stewards of the environment and their own well-being. It regularly hosts a variety of educational programs and activities including bird watching, yoga, meditation and guided kayaking tours. Admission is $10 for adults. Hours are 8 AM to 5 PM Monday through Friday and 8 AM to 4 PM Saturday and Sunday.

Hard packed grassy trails and boardwalks lead guests around the property with the highlight being a raised boardwalks through the mangrove forest separating the visitor’s center from the Indian River Lagoon. The Environmental Learning Center in Vero Beach FL provides “off-road” push chairs with oversized wheels to facilitate guests with mobility challenges in exploring the grounds.

Overlooks among the mangroves allow for commanding views of the forest and Lagoon and a canoe dock here allows for easy access to the water for guided or DIY kayaking and canoeing. If you’d rather not power yourself, pontoon tours are also available. Keep an eye out for resident dolphins in the Lagoon!

A “Sustainability Walk” introduces visitors to a multitude of man-made environmental calamities facing the planet and the Indian River Lagoon including air and water pollution, habitat loss, over fishing, marine debris, the extinction crisis, climate change and resource scarcity.

ELC for Kids

The Environmental Learning Center in Vero Beach is a great destination for kids with plenty of room to run around and yell and go wild. A touch tank lets them feel sea cucumbers, starfish, hermit crabs and sea urchins. Aquariums and other hands-on engagement opportunities can easily fill an hour or more.

The incorporation of native plants throughout the landscape brings in a wide variety of butterflies which are sure to delight young and old alike.

The Power of Native Plants

View of the Indian River Lagoon from Environmental Learning Center in Vero Beach
View of the Indian River Lagoon from Environmental Learning Center in Vero Beach. Photo by Chadd Scott.

As a member of the Florida Native Plant Society, I especially enjoyed emphasis placed by the Environmental Learning Center in Vero Beach Florida on native flora. Native plants are identified in signage around the property, as are their benefits in combating the extinction crisis and purifying water.

The sea grass manatee live on are a native plant. As are all the pollinator plants required by butterflies and insects and birds. The ELC even has a small selection of native plants for purchase.

The double-headed ongoing planetary catastrophes of climate change and the extinction crisis feel overwhelming to any individual to combat. One meaningful action that can be taken by most people, immediately and at a low cost, is incorporating native plants into their landscapes. The removal of invasive and exotic plants and turf grass from American landscapes would have a dramatic impact toward combating climate change and bringing the diversity of life on earth back from the brink. Eliminate pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers from your lawn. Water less. Leave the leaves. Native plant advocacy organizations around Florida and the country can get you started helping save the planet beginning in your own back yard.

When visiting Vero Beach, Rovology prefers staying at the Kimpton Vero Beach Hotel and Spa. A suitable and more economic substitute is the Home2 Suites by Hilton Vero Beach I-95 right off the interstate. Whichever you choose, make plans for lunch at the carry-out-only Pizza Mia pizza window (1115 21st Street, Vero Beach), a local’s favorite!

Learn more about Big Sugar’s devastating effect on Florida’s environment, the tragic history of Lake Okeechobee and manatee die offs on my “Welcome to Florida” podcast.