Waterbodies are the ultimate receivers of everything.
What’s good for recreation and habitat is good economics:
The quality of our waterbodies is a huge concern not only for recreational use, but for our local and regional economy. This is true statewide and here in Sarasota as documented by the economic study completed by the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program. In Sarasota and Manatee counties:
· Bay-related activities support 21,000 jobs
· Property value uplift associated with proximity to the bay is worth $3.6 billion
· Visitors spend more than $15 million on fishing licenses, gear, and boat rentals. (1)
Diminished water quality and associated harmful algal blooms (red tide, for example) have resulted in diminished economic returns for our state, and specifically for our local economy. (2)
And the problem seems to be gettingworse:
The latest survey (2020) of seagrass coverage in Sarasota Bay has just been released: sea grass has declined by 18 % in two years.3 This means that Sarasota Bay LOST 2313 acres of sea grass BEFORE recent events at Piney Point.
Is it a job, or the weather, the access to rivers, bays, and beaches? Whatever your reasons, we all have similar goals in maintaining the security, integrity, and enjoyment of our natural resources around us. But as each decade passes, the security of our resources, especially our water quality, is slipping further away.
Our waterways are being assaulted from multiple directions—here’s more information than you ever wanted to know, but it is what you need to know.
Our state is surrounded on three sides by water therefore, our land-based activities directly influence our waterways:
· Everything we construct changes the flow of water across the land into our waterways.
· Every chemical, every piece of debris we add to the land surface has the potential to find its way into our waterways.
The latest survey (2020) of seagrass coverage in Sarasota Bay has just been released: sea grass has declined by 18 % in two years.(3 ) This means that Sarasota Bay LOST 2313 acres of seagrass BEFORErecent events at Piney Point.
Add to that:
#1. Sewage spills and wastewater plant discharges,
#2. The industrial discharges from Piney Point,
#3. The inefficiency of stormwater ponds required to be constructed with each new development, and
#4. Then day-to-day activities of each of our residents.
It would appear the resultant economic and environmental damage to our quality of life is potentially staggering.
We care about seagrass, a filter, because it is an indicator of water quality, is the base of the food chain for a majority of commercial fish species, and it holds carbon, which mediates climate.
· Seagrass is an indicator of bay health; the more grass the more species diversity.
· Seagrass is a primary food for manatees, yet the FWC reports that, statewide and especially on the east coast, many more manatee deaths this year are tied to inadequate food supplies…inadequate sea grass. (4,5)
Seagrasses are also being diminished by an overgrowth of macroalgae (seaweeds) which are a natural part of the bay ecosystem. However, when macroalgae grow excessively they can cause harm to seagrasses—these overgrowth events are occurring with increasing frequency and magnitude, here and worldwide and are thought to be tied, in part, to increased nutrient levels (6)—one more reason to reduce nutrient loading (especially nitrogen) into our waterways. When seagrass disappears, some manatees have eaten macro-algae that the FWC has speculated led their death. (7)
For many years small, separate packaging plants that discharged treated wastewater— of varying quality— into the bay, handled wastewater in Sarasota. Slowly those plants have been closed with wastewater treatment being consolidated into centralized facilities. However, from 2013 to 2019, Sarasota County discharged reclaimed water high in nitrogen from these facilities into the bay.(7 A) As a result of an FDEP Consent Order to stop these polluting discharges, progress is occurring.(8) The Bee Ridge Wastewater Treatment Plant is currently undergoing transformation to advanced wastewater treatment (AWT)—to be completed in 2025. Read about other projects being implemented as a result of the Consent Order at this link: 8https://www.scgov.net/Home/ShowDocument?id=46674 The county is planning to spend ~$500 Million on Capital Improvement Projects aimed at improving water quality.(9) Support Sarasota County’s efforts to convert to AWT capabilities for existing wastewater plants. Why? Because AWT will reduce the amount of nutrients—nitrogen (especially) and phosphorous—in the water being discharged and will improve our bay’s water quality and the quality of life for the organisms within the bay. Write your Commissioners urging them to continuously prioritize and fund these upgrade initiatives through to their completion, and to initiate additional water quality improvements such as those promoted by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation in their Water Quality Playbook.(10) and fully fund them within the county’s Strategic Financial Plan. In addition, keep an eye on local jurisdictions and Manatee County’s initiatives since they too influence what happens in Sarasota Bay. In June 2020 a broken pipe leading from the Town of Longboat Key to a Manatee County wastewater treatment plant spilled between 26 and 28 million gallons of raw sewage into Sarasota Bay.(11 )
Piney Point is the site of a former phosphate mine where there remain a phosphogypsum (radioactive materials) stack and water in holding ponds (not radioactive) (12) contaminated with mining by-products. Additionally, dredged waste from Port Manatee was stored in these ponds. These remnants cover a land area in excess of 600 acres – roughly over one square-mile in size.
A breach in the wall of one of the holding ponds containing this contaminated water occurred in late March and resulted in the contaminants leaking into adjacent environmentally sensitive waterways (Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve is nearby). Due to multiple reasons, from excess storm precipitation to liner breaks, Piney Point overflows/discharges have happened numerous times through several decades.(13) This time the threat was so great, numerous businesses shut down and residents were evacuated—the entire nation turned its eyes in our direction. To keep the 480 million gallons of contaminated water from breaching the wall, 27 crews pumped it out—at a rate of 35 million gallons per day—into the natural environment.(12) The immediate crisis of potential loss of life, and business and home destruction was averted.
The effect and fate of the over 215 million12 gallons of contaminated water leaked/pumped into our sensitive waterways is another matter. A preliminary analysis by USF scientists indicates that in the short-term the effect seems to be “localized, and not widespread”, and the initial pulse of pollutants has been diluted. However, the scientists note that many unanswered questions remain, such as what is the fate of nutrients and heavy metals for the long-term, especially in the context of storms and algal blooms? And, will there be a long-term effect on seagrasses and ultimately fish populations? (14) As of this writing, near Port Manatee, there is a steady increase in the organisms that cause red tide.(15) Multiple agencies continue to monitor the water quality and algal bloom occurrence.
What remains is a former mining site with problems. The owner – HRK Holdings Inc., FDEP, and Manatee County Port Authority all were decision makers in the use of the property, and hence, they seemingly share in the blame and ultimately in resolution—although they don’t appear to agree upon this. To ensure their accountability, a lawsuit is being filed against all three entities by the Center for Biological Diversity, Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, Suncoast Waterkeeper, ManaSota-88 and Our Children’s Earth Foundation. (16)
And, what’s different this time is that the specific threshold of disaster in 2021 seems to have brought decision makers into action. The Florida Senate put forth a budget proposal to spend $100 million of federalfunds from the American Rescue Plan to clean up Piney Point.(17) Additionally the Governor has ordered FDEP to develop a long-term closure plan for the former mining site. And he redirected $15.4 million of FDEP funds to explore innovative technologies to pre-treat the water. (18) The details of the long-term closure plan are in development.
Have you noticed the stormwater ponds (manmade lakes) that dot our constructed landscape? They are engineered to meet state environmental resource permitting (ERP) rules to both improve the quality of water that passes through them and to move the water quickly to prevent flooding (hydraulic ability). Two decades of research show that they perform well hydraulically, but not nearly as well when it comes to improving water quality.(19)
All stormwater ponds are not equally efficient when it comes to cleaning the water. Those that remain dry between rain events (retention ponds) are highly effective at removing pollutants. he wet detention ponds (those that are always wet – those typical of suburbia and commercial parks) are less effective. For example, they only remove 20 to 40% of total nitrogen, a key nutrient associated with local water quality declines, and they remove 60-70% total phosphorous.(20) None of these numbers represent total efficienc and the nitrogen removal inefficiency is startling.
The TAC is actively working to create a new rule to reduce nutrient and pollutant loading from stormwater—these are their primary goals. They meet every month, and the public can participate in the meetings and provide comment. To stay on top of what is happening, refer to the resources here: (21) https://floridadep.gov/water/submerged-lands-environmental-resources-coordination/content/clean-waterways-act-stormwater
In addition to following along, apply pressure to ensure the rule revision process is an expedient one. Contact your state legislature representatives requesting they make the work of the Clean Waterways Act Stormwater Rulemaking TAC a priority.
Start locally within your immediate realm of influence. This is the easiest thing to do, exert control over what is within your immediate reach.
Evaluate what is in your ownership and/or under your control and make better whatever needs to be made better:
· Plant native plants
· Fertilize only if you must and do so only after Sept 30 as specified by the County's Fertilizer Ordinance.
· Maintain your vehicle to prevent leaks
· Dispose of all chemicals appropriately
· Re-route drain spouts so that they discharge over vegetation rather than over concrete
· Pick up pet waste
· Pick up garbage/trash/litter – can your community Adopt-a-Road to keep it clean?
· Start a community project (small or large) – contact the Sarasota County Neighborhood Environmental Team (NEST) Coordinator (941-861-6378) for guidance and ideas
Use your voice, your email, social media, or snail mail to:
· support and prompt Commissioners to initiate and fund water quality improvement projects,
· Sign the petition to demand EPA protect us from phosphogypsum radioactive waste here: https://phosphogypsumfreeamerica.org/?fbclid=IwAR2JJAT30_mbYsJhEC94-UFOrMFA384oxB_h0dIRr7xsjDsgQYbjdf5inug
· prompt state legislators to expedite an effective rework of the ERP rules for stormwater pond design
· donate time and money to organizations that magnify your voice through their actions, such a via lawsuits, to hold entities accountable
· participate in public processes: speak at public hearings, write and/or call your representatives, comment on specific activities during the approval/permit process.
Sources and Footnotes:
(7A) Christine Quigley, Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, Personal Communication
(18) https://www.flgov.com/2021/04/13/governor-ron-desantis-directs-dep-to-develop-long-term-closure-plan-for-piney-point/ (19)http://www.erd.org/ERD%20Publications/EVAL%20OF%20CURRENT%20SW%20DESIGN%20CRITERIA%20WITHIN%20THE%20STATE%20OF%20FLA-2007.pdf
Spring is here and Sarasota residents are getting busy raking, mulching, trimming, planting, and fertilizing.
This work matters! But, after all that work, how do we make it last?
· One answer is to plant native plants.
· Another answer is timing. There is a right time to plant, water, and fertilize.
Since we live in a sensitive watershed, if you think you'll be fertilizing, be sure to do so prior to the June 1 deadline specified by the County's Fertilizer Ordinance. This link provides specific fertilizer guidance: https://www.scgov.net/government/public-works/water-quality-for-bays-estuaries/fertilizer-management
As we all spruce up our community, refer to these additional great links that offer eco-friendly landscaping guidance:
If you live near a shoreline, consider using this guidance: