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Denham gives Sanibel, Captiva waters a strong voice with ‘Healthy Beaches’ bill

By Staff | Apr 14, 2009

When bacteria that’s big and bad enough to close down the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva strikes, it’s not just disappointed beach-goers that suffer.

According to Mayor Mick Denham of Sanibel, the consequences of beach closures extend far beyond the confines of bummed out beach enthusiasts and greatly effects both Sanibel and Captiva’s delicate tourist economy.

“If you get a contamination on the beaches, everybody in this nation hears about it, and suddenly, you get people calling the chamber of commerce saying ‘Is it safe to visit Sanibel and Captiva?'” Denham said. “Every year, for a week or so, usually when it’s rainy, we have to close our beaches and everybody starts questioning whether they should come to Sanibel and Captiva for their vacation.”

Creating and sustaining good water quality, Denham noted, is not only crucial to island economy, but is essential in maintaining good quality of life on the islands.

“It’s leisure, it’s the economy, it’s tourism, it’s property values and it’s the health of our island. It’s all of those things,” he added. “I do not focus on water quality purely because I’m an environmentalist. I’m focused on it because it’s an economic issue for the island, for the islanders and for everybody who lives around the estuary.”

Denham, a champion of water quality, has been a dedicated and integral force behind Sanibel’s removal of septic systems and package treatment plants on the island in an effort to improve the quality of the island’s coastal and interior waters.

In addition, Denham maintains that the presence of septic systems and package treatment plants play a starring role in the ongoing water quality saga and are a major source of the enterococcus and fecal coliform bacterium that lead to beach closure.

About two years ago, Denham explained that Sanibel experienced another significant beach closing for two weeks due to significant contamination in the island’s gulf waters.

“As a consequence of that, I felt that we needed to have some legislation to allow DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) a stronger role in trying to control pollution,” Denham said.

What resulted was a movement spearheaded by Denham through a piece of legislation called “Healthy Beaches,” a bill that, if passed, would require the DEP to not only report the bacteria as they do now, but to identify the actual source of contamination, should it occur.

“The reason for the Healthy Beach program was nothing more than to say, ‘Look, when a pollution occurs on the beaches and closes them down, the DEP and the health department are going to do more than say we have a contamination,'” he said. “This program basically says the DEP needs to go and be detectives to find out where it’s coming from and issue a statement to the public about where the source of the contamination is.”

“I proposed it to the legislators and they decided it was a good bill and ran with it. It passed the House last year and failed in the Senate. This year, it’s going to be in front of the House right after Easter,” Denham added, noting that he’s optimistic about the bill passing this year.

“I’ve gotten full support on this from the local DEP. They are fully supportive of what we’re attempting to do,” Denham said, noting that so far, Governor Charlie Crist has also proved supportive of the initiative.