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Local groups strive to preserve island water quality

By Staff | Apr 24, 2009

The issue of water quality is something that most, if not all, islanders care about.

And while promoting good water quality is something everyone can get behind – whether from an economic or environmental perspective – nailing down only one definitive and constant source of pollution to our nearshore waters becomes increasingly difficult as you weigh all the factors.

Some say releases from Lake Okeechobee are to blame, while others are more focused on the effects of waste water treatment plants, septic systems and nutrient rich fertilizers.

With an ecosystem as fragile as that of our barrier islands, many residents, government officials and local organizations have taken up the cause to preserve and protect the delicate waters of Captiva and Sanibel.

Finding the sources

“There are two aspects of water quality,” said Sanibel Mayor Mick Denham, listing the uncontrolled releases from Lake Okeechobee coming down the Caloosahatchee and what he terms “urban pollution.”

“That’s the pollution that’s caused by you and I and people like us.”

Denham is the vice chair of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, which includes Sarasota, Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades Counties, and acts as chairman of their water quality committee.

“They’re focusing on the control of urban pollution [and] there are numerous aspects of urban pollution. One is the runoff from fertilizer. The issue there is not the fertilizer itself, but it’s the nitrogen and phosphorus which is in fertilizer. The second aspect is the poorly managed, old septic systems and the third issue is package treatment plants,” Denham explained.

“We clearly know what causes the contamination of our water. If you take Sarasota County and the work they’ve been doing for the past many years, the pollution in Sarasota Bay has been reduced by about 40 percent because of septic system and package treatment plant actions and fertilizer actions,” he continued.

“Package plants are being removed slowly throughout Southwest Florida. There are virtually no package treatment plants in Sarasota and they have eliminated a large number of septic systems in Sarasota. We don’t have any septic systems on Sanibel and we removed the last package treatment plant last year,” Denham said.

In another effort to control water quality, Denham spearheaded the initiative now up for review in the House and Senate called “Healthy Beaches,” a program that, if passed, would require the Department of Environmental Protection to not only identify the bacteria that causes lengthy beach closures, as they do now, but to pinpoint the source of the contamination.

As Denham says and as most could agree, water quality is an essential part of preserving and maintaining a high 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 islands. 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.”

Taking action

It was the very same beach closure worrying Denham that incited Captivans to mobilize their water quality efforts in determining the source of pollutants.

The Captiva Community Panel, in partnership with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, began working on a plan to determine the exact sources of pollution contaminating Captiva waters.

“That wake-up call inspired a meeting between representatives of the panel, the city of Sanibel and Lee County to see what could cooperatively be done to address the pollution issues that prompted the closures,” says Ken Gooderham of the panel, explaining that islanders were realizing that water quality issues resulting from what came from Captivans’ own backyards was a factor just as important as what was being flushed down the Caloosahatchee River from Lake Okeechobee.

“Once everyone started looking at the issue, it was clear we couldn’t define the solution until we could empirically define the problem,” Gooderham said, which meant testing the water in order to identify sources of pollution and use the data to pinpoint and eventually reduce or eliminate that pollution.

Because clean water is essential to healthy beaches and booming tourist destinations like Captiva, the panel approached the Tourist Development Council in hopes of securing a grant from the TDC’s Beach and Shoreline Fund to support a monitoring program.

The panel was successful in garnering $122,925 for the first year of the study.

Since Oct. 1, 2008, the SCCF marine lab has been conducting routine testing in order to establish a database that presents an accurate overview of the pollution coming off the island.

The plan is to continue the study for an additional year if funding is received.

“By the end of Year 2, SCCF experts will interpret the data to draw some fact-based conclusions concerning island-borne pollution, so the community can then start its discussion of how to address those pollution issues with data and fact to drive the discussion,” Gooderham said.

SCCF and the TDC study

Research staff at the SCCF Marine Laboratory are involved in numerous ongoing projects and studies in and around the islands, including seagrass studies, RECON and the TDC Captiva Water Quality Study.

“The CCP wanted to see if SCCF researchers could identify possible sources of pollutants that were affecting water quality in the nearshore around Captiva. One of the main concerns were the bacteria that were resulting in the closure of beaches,” said Mark Thompson, a research associate at the SCCF Marine Lab, noting that the ultimate objective of the project is to determine, definitively, whether contamination is occurring due to local causes, such as stormwater run-off in the rainy season, or whether regional causes, like the Caloosahatchee river, were more important determinants of water quality.

“SCCF’s RECON (River, Estuary & Coastal Observing Network) sensors and other water quality monitoring efforts going on regionally,” Thompson said, “allow us to come up with a more broad analysis of what’s really going on and whether we have local problems or things that influence us coming from somewhere else.”

Potential contamination culprits include waste-water treatment facilities, beach sediments, septic systems, stormwater run-off, fertilizer and regional, or upstream, causes.

According to Dr. Loren Coen of the SCCF Marine Lab, year one of the TDC-funded study was designed to develop a historical compendium in order to fill in gaps in the database and also to sample in a way that was more comprehensive, different than previous testing conducted at the county, state and federal levels (all three of which test only once a month).

Thompson compiled existing data relevant to the islands dating back four years, much of it coming from work done by volunteers of the Bayous Preservation Association.

To date, the study has focused on summarizing historical data and sampling waters around Sanibel and Captiva to establish accurate baselines, but Thompson has already begun to extrapolate associations between certain variables.

For example, most beach closures and concentrations of bacteria occur more frequently during summer months at low tides.

“We’re trying to relate the data, what it’s saying, to what’s happening on the island – when there are more people here, whether it’s raining or not,” Thompson said, stressing the importance of testing, not only many times per month, but during rainfall events and specific tides.

“Year two, will focus around getting a second year of basic sampling but then to also do some source tracking, which is rather expensive,” Coen said.

If funded for a second year, project components would include additional sampling after rainfall events during both dry and rainy seasons, periodic seasonal sampling and beach sampling.

“The source tracking as we have planned, helps to point to human or non-human [waste] sources, but it doesn’t track these back to where they’re coming from,” Coen said.

Tracking methods such as optical brighteners in laundry detergents might be a viable and cost-effective method for tracking sources of pollution on Captiva.

More information about these and other Marine Lab projects can be found online at www.sccf.org/content/84/Research.aspx.

Additional efforts

“We know what the problem is, the problem is pollution in our river and it surrounds these islands, including Captiva,” said Mike Valiquette of People United to Restore our Rivers and Estuaries (PURRE), listing Caloosahatchee river water and fertilizers as major hindrances to good water quality.

“We know red tide is out there, it’s been there since the dinosaurs. We know red drift algae is out there, it’s been there since the dinosaurs. We know that when you take fertilizer and put it on a lawn or a golf course and run it through a stormwater run-off system, i.e. culverts in the roads and storm drains, and put that into the river, that fertilizer explodes both red drift algae and red tide,” he said.

And according to Valiquette, PURRE is a solutions-driven organization, dedicated to identifying the problem and solving it as quickly and effectively as possible.

“When we go up to the Corps of Engineers in Jacksonville, all they say is ‘Go clean up your own backyard.’ And they’re 100 percent correct,” Valiquette said, noting that island waters only experience problems with river water during Okeechobee releases during storm season.

“But what about the other months? That’s when we’re polluting ourselves, and they know it, and we know it and that’s why we’ve gone after Sanibel about a fertilizer ordinance. Lee county got a fertilizer ordinance. Bonita is working on it based on discussions with us. Fort Myers Beach is working on it based on discussions with us and we’re now pressing hard on Cape Coral,” he continued.

“So that’s why part of what we’re doing at PURRE is important to Captiva as well, because that’s the pollution source. Charlotte Harbor, [fed by the] Peace River, has its own pollution source – the phosphorus mines way up the river. If you fly over the eastern Peace River, you’ll see destruction from the phosphorus mines,” Valiquette said, noting the devastation that phosphorus rich fertilizers can cause in coastal waterways.

“It’s not that we’re against the fertilizer industry – we just want them to clean up their act.”

Another grassroots organization that has championed good water quality is the Bayous Preservation Association.

When the BPA, formerly called the Clam Bayou Association, finished working with the City of Sanibel to install the culvert on Sanibel-Captiva Road, members of the group realized that the installation was the first step in opening Blind Pass and rejuvenating the quality of water throughout all the bayous.

“The first thing that we realized was that there was a real lack of scientific data about what was happening in these bayous,” said Bill Vanderbilt of the BPA.

Members of the group felt that the only way to legally legitimize and show the county that an environmental project like the reopening of Blind Pass was to prove that water quality, as a result of the closing, had declined.

So after the BPA raised about $30,000 and several volunteers underwent training through the Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserve, the group performed monthly water quality testing, from July 2006 to September of 2008, for 26 months at four different sites: Clam Bayou, Dinkins Bayou, Sunset Bay and Roosevelt Channel.

The BPA tested for water quality indicators such as dissolved oxygen, pH, salinity and water color, and contracted with the Lee County Environmental Lab to test the samples for total nitrogen, phosphorus, turbidity and fecal coliform.

The results of the tests confirmed what the BPA suspected – due to lack of flushing in the bayous, water quality was indeed poor.

“The dissolved oxygen was low, salinity was higher than it should be and all these factors were indicating that water quality in these bayous was not as high or good as it is in areas where they get tidal volume and tidal flushing,” said Annie Vanderbilt of the BPA.

“What’s happened since then is that both the City [of Sanibel] and the SCCF and Lee County have become very interested in those results and all of our results have gone into the data pool with all of the other results that those organizations are gathering,” Bill said, noting that the SCCF is now going to take over the sites the BPA was testing for the few months before the pass is opened and for at least a year after the pass is opened so they can perform “before and after” comparisons of the water quality data.

Blind Pass reopening

Both Annie and Bill Vanderbilt agree that the reopening of the pass will be essential in improving and sustaining good water quality in and around the island waterways, listing improved water clarity, oxygen levels and lower salinity due to increased tidal volume once the pass is open as only some of the potential benefits.

“From the County’s standpoint, that’s the whole reason for this project – to improve the water condition,” said Robert Neal of the Lee County Department of Natural Resources.

Neal says the reopening of Blind Pass stemmed from the installation of the culvert connection in Clam Bayou and Dinkins Bayou, where mangroves were dying off.

The purpose of the installation was to increase the flushing of the system.

“Previously, it basically never flushed. Once the pass is open, it will flush every four days. That means the water will exchange and there will be new water in there every four days,” Neal said, noting that the flushing will bring in new nutrients, in addition to removing the bad nutrients before they can cause algal blooms.

The same goes for the formerly and frequently stagnant, murky waters of Roosevelt Channel.

“The water lacked oxygen. This exchange of water will increase oxygen levels. Before we dredged it, it was not in very good shape.

Neal is positive about the results the reopening of the pass will undoubtedly provide, like encouraging a more diverse community and eco-system.

“There will be more fish and more birds, so it’s going to be something we can actually see.”

SCCF will have a hand in tracking the progress of water quality once the pass is opened.

“Currently the Marine Lab has a lot of monitoring and research efforts, not just water quality, underway or proposed in grants submitted to various agencies. These include habitat status and trends, and also restoration of critical or nursery habitats,” Coen said.

“With funding we’ve acquired from Florida Sea Grant, we are sampling the Pass before and after Blind Pass is opened, and comparing its water quality to Redfish Pass,” he continued, adding that, while it’s currently a very different system, having clear blue color and superior water quality to Blind Pass in its current state, Coen hopes Blind Pass, once opened, will begin to look more like Redfish Pass over time.

The scientists at the SCCF Marine Lab, through on-site testing, are also focusing on the effects improved water quality will have on sea grasses in and around the Blind Pass area.

Since the dredging will be changing the character of Blind Pass to such a dramatic degree, it’s essential that the Lab have comparative data from before and after the opening to gauge the effects.

“We’ve made an effort to try and sample in an intensive way before and after the pass is opened at 66 stations around Blind Pass and Redfish Pass,” said SCCF Marine Lab’s Dr. Eric Milbrandt.

Sampling will be done using SCCF’s mobile RECON sensor, as well as the two fixed location RECON units at Blind Pass and Redfish Pass.

“What we’ve been finding is that the turbidity [and] also the tannins are higher in Blind Pass than in Redfish Pass,” Milbrandt continued, noting that turbidity (high turbidity water is brown and cloudy) and CDOM (colored dissolved organic matter, or tannins) decrease water clarity, which limits the growth of sea grasses.

Blind Pass also exhibits hypersalinity and lower oxygen levels. Salinity levels that are out of the normal range also limit the species of sea grasses that can grow, while low oxygen levels present problems for marine animals.

“As water quality improves, so too will the growth of sea grasses and the depth at which sea grasses can thrive,” said Milbrandt.

SCCF is also keeping a close eye on seagrass health in the Caloosahatchee.

After a winter of little rain, the Caloosahatchee waters are clear and there is generally enough light in the river for sea grasses, but “there are a whole lot of problems getting sea grasses growing again,” said SCCF’s Dr. Rick Bartleson.

Bartleson has been growing Ruppia at the Lab and transplanting it in the river near Fort Myers.

“To protect the new plants, we’re putting out some exclosures to keep some of the grazers out until the sea grasses start growing,” said Bartleson.

Ruppia is tolerant of a wide range of salinity levels and will be able to tolerate moderately higher volumes of lake releases during the summer.

Tape grass, which grows near Fort Myers under natural conditions, cannot tolerate the current high salinities in that area.

The reason salinities are abnormally high in the area is because Franklin Lock cuts off the flow of freshwater from upriver and there is no longer any fresh groundwater feeding into the Caloosahatchee

Tape grass does not thrive in these hypersaline environments, but Ruppia is proving to be a successful substitution.

Where science meets politics

Sometimes, water quality advocates reach the point where furthering the progress of environmental initiatives becomes less about science and more about politics.

“We’ve worked on all levels – from the grassroots organizations, through the municipalities, cities, the county, through the state agencies, the DEP and the water management districts and on up to the federal with the Army Corps and the EPA,” said SCCF Natural Resource Policy Director Rae Ann Wessel.

“When you’re working to solve water quality problems, you can’t leave anyone out.”

Wessel says that water quality issues require prioritization because there will always be more water quality issues than there are time and money to solve them.

The next step, according to Wessel, is seeking out opportunities, – attending meetings, participating in various initiatives – so that when the opportunity does arise, you are there to seize it.

But Wessel also says that even the most essential of environmental initiatives can take a long time.

“That’s the reason you have to keep working on it. I was working on the Caloosahatchee oxbow restoration for 10 years before money showed up that allowed us to complete the first oxbow restoration. We’ve also been talking about Lake Hicpochee for the last 15 years and then last year it made the project list for Caloosahatchee River Watershed Protection Plan,” Wessel said.

“Nothing happens quickly. It often takes years, sometimes decades, to see the results, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.”