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Steps taken to improve ‘impaired’ Sanibel River

By Staff | Nov 8, 2017

An avid biker in his younger years, Sterling Fulmer stumbled upon people fishing along Donax Street while biking on Sanibel, resulting in the thought, “wouldn’t it be something to own a home on a pond.”

The 89-year-old bought property between two vacant lots along Junonia Street on the “pond” after he and his wife vacationed on the island in the early 1990s. With the incentive of going fishing in his backyard, he began removing the Brazilian Pepper trees that grew in abundance behind his home.

“I looked across and saw a gentleman in an old pontoon boat,” Fulmer said, which turned into an hour conversation about the pond actually being the Sanibel River. “He started telling me about the birds, fish and animals and the tropical green water.”

Intrigued, Fulmer purchased a fishing rod and a used kayak and launched it into the water.

“Off I went on my Sanibel River adventure,” he said smiling while standing on the deck he built in the early ’90s.

Fulmer looked out at the river recalling what the gentleman told him and said “It was twice that. It was unbelievable.”

He soon learned that the river was home to a plethora of birds – wading and roosting birds.

“At night you would wonder why the trees weren’t falling over,” Fulmer said due to the amount of birds sitting on the branches.

The beauty of his kayak, he said gave him the opportunity to sit low in the water granting him an experience that still has him smiling.

“I was seeing my reflection in the blue heron’s eyes,” he said.

The fishing was also out of this world.

“The fishing was unbelievable,” Fulmer said, resulting in some days going out twice, once in the morning and again in the evening.

Another memory that stuck out was the first time seeing tilapia nests at the bottom of the river because the water was so clear.

If that was not enough, he said there were many seasons where turtles would come out of the river and lay their nest in his backyard.

“Truly a paradise,” Fulmer said of the river.

Around this time he learned about the Donax plant, which was not too far away from his home. He said he attended many meetings and was assured that the water coming from the plant would be pure, not drinkable, but pretty close.

The construction began for the Donax Wastewater Plant.

A friend called Fulmer and told him to hurry up and come to his place.

“I hopped in my kayak and paddled to his house. The area was covered in dead fish. Species I didn’t know were in the water,” he said.

That sight led Fulmer to drive to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife office on Tarpon Bay Road. He soon found out that the Sanibel River is an impaired waterway, leading to a meeting with City Manager Judie Zimomra and an environmental officer.

“They said they were asking the city for more sophisticated testing equipment,” Fulmer recalled.

He was relieved, in a sense, that the city was acknowledging that there was a problem.

Unfortunately there has been other fish kills he has witnessed in the 25 years living on the Sanibel River.

“I don’t think it will ever be the paradise it was 25 years ago,” Fulmer said. “I haven’t fished for two years and haven’t been in the kayak for a month and a half.”

The gentleman was not pointing any fingers at what caused the impaired river, he just hoped that maybe the state of the river will change in his grandchildren’s lifetime.

Although Fulmer becomes teary eyed almost on a daily basis recalling what a beautiful river it used to be, he still sits on the deck he built with his own two hands taking in the sight, often times enjoying his breakfast by the water.

“The thing is, now it’s moving ahead,” he said of the city working to improve the quality of the water.

According to a document printed by the City of Sanibel Natural Resources Department staff on June 13, 2016, the Sanibel River, also known as the Sanibel Slough, was formed roughly 1,000 to 1,500 years ago “as ridges formed across the landscape and fed water to the low lying swales creating the island’s interior wetland system.” Separated by low beach ridges south of Tarpon Bay, the Sanibel Slough was shaped into two basins – east and west.

The Sanibel Slough had a different appearance in the 1940s with open, grassy and a treeless ecosystem with the exception of a few cabbage palms. In addition, the city reported that cordgrass was the dominant plant in the low lying areas surrounding the slough, as well as sawgrass, bead grass, water-hyssop and sea purslane.

At the peak of Sanibel’s fight against mosquitos, the Sanibel Slough went through a transformation. The city reported that Maurice Provost, an entomologist for the now Mosquito Control District, and his team captured 365,696 mosquitoes in one single light trap confirming the island had a problem.

The slow runoff of water into the shallow interior wetlands was believed to create the mosquito problem due to it being a great breeding ground. The city said Provost’s solution was to “dig the Slough deeper and connect all the parts, so the Mosquito Control District could regulate water levels and allow fish that prey on mosquitoes to have free range of the system.”

The digging of the drainage ditches began in the mid 1950s, and the original Tarpon Bay water control structure was completed in 1961.

When development escalated on the island, the Sanibel Slough began to deteriorate, especially in 1973 when development increased by 70 percent from the previous year.

“The Sanibel River was having some major issues in the 1970s,” Natural Resource Director James Evans said. “The portion of the river that he (Fulmer) spent the most time on in the 1990s was probably much more pristine than it is today because it was newly created.”

He said the newly created system happened in the 1980s.

The city reported that the 1976 Sanibel Report stated that the “Sanibel’s surface water was substandard.” The poor water quality was attributed to “poorly functioning package plants, leaky septic tanks, and the excess use of fertilizers and pesticides, which added a surplus of nutrients and pollutants to the Slough.”

“We are moving at a very fast pace to address the water quality issues in the Sanibel River. We have the full support from the community and the full support of the Sanibel City Council. The Sanibel City Council has made water quality their number one top priority at both the regional and state level, as well as the local, on island level,” Evans said.

He said in the 1970s and 1980s the City Council spent a lot of time reducing the amount of development and developmental impacts along the Sanibel River, while the council in the 2000s and today are implementing projects to address water quality.

Evans said the final phase of the Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan, which was finished this year, was contracted to the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Marine Lab. He said all of the data has been analyzed by SCCF, interpreted with a list of recommendations for projects to implement to improve the water quality in the Sanibel River.

“We have a plan, we have a very good plan. We have a lot of really good data that we have been collecting over the last five to six years,” Evans said. “We know from the data we have today that water quality is improving in the Sanibel River, but compared to state water quality standards the Sanibel River is still impaired for nutrients.”

The major sources of nutrients, especially within the eastern basin of the Sanibel River, is from reclaimed wastewater that is used for irrigation at the golf courses, as well as at condos along West Gulf Drive. He said when that water is used for irrigation, since it is not treated to an advanced wastewater treatment standard, the nitrogen and phosphorous in the water is still relatively high compared to surface water standards.

“So what happens is when that water is used for irrigation, it is not being directly put into the water, but indirectly it is going into the groundwater and running off landscape into water bodies where it ends up seeping into the Sanibel River,” Evans said.

The City of Sanibel has a plan to upgrade the Donax Wastewater Treatment Plant to an advanced wastewater treatment plant, Evans said, which would cut the nitrogen and phosphorous loading into that system from that source by 50 to 70 percent.

“That is a big investment. We are looking at a $11 million project, but we are asking for the Florida legislature to help us fund that project. We are asking for $2 million this year,” he said.

Another project the city is working on is the Jordan Marsh Water Quality Treatment Park. Evans said the project is pretty much in Fulmer’s backyard near the Sanibel Island Golf Club, along the Sanibel River between Casa Ybel and the Beachview community.

The project, he said will help them remove a significant amount of nitrogen and phosphorous, an estimated 40 percent of the nitrogen load.

“Combined with the Donax Wastewater Treatment Plant and the Jordan Marsh, we should be able to address somewhere between 60 to 80 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorous load to the river in the eastern basin,” Evans said.

Those projects are in addition to switching from septic to a central sewer system on Sanibel, reducing the amount of stormwater going into the Sanibel River, implementing a fertilizer ordinance, Golf Course Best Management Plan and the Sanibel Communities for Clean Water.

“It’s going to take some time. With any system, any time you are trying to remove nitrogen and phosphorous from a system, you are also going to have to deal with the legacy nutrient loading in the system,” Evans said. “What happens is the nitrogen and phosphorous is in the ground and just because you stop the inputs doesn’t mean that it doesn’t continue to load into the waterbodies. Phosphorous can stay in the system for decades.”

Evans said water quality standards are based on trying to maintain a natural balanced fish and wildlife within the system.

“When you have an imbalance, meaning the nitrogen and phosphorous get to a point to where they stimulate alga blooms, that’s where you tend to see imbalances in the flora and fauna. You see declines in the aquatic vegetation and increases in algae. You see decreases in the dissolved oxygen in the water that fish need to breath and survive. If the fish aren’t there, the birds aren’t there,” Evans said.