2017-07-13 / Top News

What's in our WATERS

BY ROGER WILLIAMS

A COMPREHENSIVE NEW ANALYSIS OF WATER and wildlife in each of the 10 estuary systems sewn into the fabric of the western Everglades offers two conclusions: There is cause for despair and there is cause for hope.

The 2017 “Estuary Report Card” — a 302-page look at water systems from Venice to the Ten Thousand Islands produced by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida — describes both what’s in the water, or isn’t, and what can be done to remove it or to restore it, as required.

Several years in the making, the report relies on data from state government and research organizations measuring pathogens, nutrients, oxygen depletion, levels of salinity or turbidity, metals in the water and the biology of given estuaries.

It also offers the most recent look at remaining mangroves, wetlands and the extent of conservation lands in each of the estuaries.


“If the intention of this report is honest and earnest, and not to be used as a (political) cudgel, it can be extremely valuable. You have organizations with good expertise on these issues.” 
— Rep. Matt Caldwell, a District 79 Republicancampaigning for commissioner of agriculture in 2018 “If the intention of this report is honest and earnest, and not to be used as a (political) cudgel, it can be extremely valuable. You have organizations with good expertise on these issues.” — Rep. Matt Caldwell, a District 79 Republicancampaigning for commissioner of agriculture in 2018 The estuaries include Coastal Venice, Lemon Bay, Greater Charlotte Harbor, Pine Island Sound, the Caloosahatchee, Estero Bay, Wiggins Pass and the Cocohatchee, Naples Bay, Rookery Bay and the Ten Thousand Islands.

The Report Card is also an action plan for government officials and for residents whose lives are wedded inevitably to the health of one water system or another.

“We want this to show a way forward,” said Rob Moher, president and CEO of the conservancy, a powerful advocate for conservation and healthy resources.

“We’ve gotten to a point where the goal is simply to prevent further degradation of the resources. We have to do that before we can improve them.”


“People need objective information to understand the magnitude of the risk and the problem. The conservancy has been really good about referencing their statements and basing their statements on science.” 
— John Cassani, Calusa Waterkeeper “People need objective information to understand the magnitude of the risk and the problem. The conservancy has been really good about referencing their statements and basing their statements on science.” — John Cassani, Calusa Waterkeeper The report includes specific pointers for policymakers, and for individuals living anywhere in the region.

Both Pine Island Sound and the Ten Thousands Islands received the highest grades for wildlife habitat — the only A+ grades—but they earned a D and C+ respectively for water quality.

Greater Charlotte Harbor received a B– and a C+, but the Caloosahatchee received a D– for both, as did Naples Bay.

“When we use pieces of this report to emphasize a point with policymakers it can resonate, and we hope help them think through the issues,” explained Nicole Johnson, director of environmental policy at the conservancy, based in Naples.

“For example, Naples Bay is doing poorly in the water quality category, and conservation (acreage) in the Naples Bay watershed is only 1 percent of the total.”

One of the report’s recommendations for policymakers is to support programs to acquire more conservation land or water.

“So Collier commissioners thinking about conservation might be aware that 68 percent of the county is in public ownership,” Ms. Johnson added. “But when they learn that only 1 percent of the watershed is conserved — that helps.”

Up and down the coast, water systems have been pushed to the breaking point. While everybody knows that, the 2017 Report Card helps put it in perspective with solid, verifiable data.

For example, a reader can learn here that “from 2011 to 2016, there were 889 recorded cases of fish kills (sudden deaths of populations) in Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Lee, Manatee, Polk and Sarasota counties, where the watersheds in this report exist.”


Naples Bay scored a D- in water quality and wildlife habitat. 
COURTESY PHOTO Naples Bay scored a D- in water quality and wildlife habitat. COURTESY PHOTO Sarasota and Lee counties were at the top with 215 and 179. The causes were algae blooms, low dissolved oxygen concentrations, pollution and red tide events.

Range of reactions

While no one debates such facts, or argues about the number of jobs that depend on tourism in Florida (1.2 million), or the $11.5 billion impact of the marine industry just in South Florida alone, or the $9.3 billion impact of the commercial fishing industry, how to react and what to do about are sometimes contentious issues.

Local and regional officials as well as state legislators from coastal districts all received copies of the report, issued both online and in print on June 6. (See the links that accompany this story to look at any or all of the report.)


Red tide off the coast of Sanibel Island. 
COURTESY PHOTO Red tide off the coast of Sanibel Island. COURTESY PHOTO Some have glanced at it so far, they say, and reactions have ranged from ambivalence and cautious praise to admiration.

“If the intention of this report is honest and earnest, and not to be used as a (political) cudgel, it can be extremely valuable. You have organizations with good expertise on these issues,” said Rep. Matt Caldwell, a District 79 Republican who is campaigning for commissioner of agriculture in 2018.

“Policymakers have good partners in some of these (environmental) groups. The conservancy has been at the forefront on the Edison Farms project, for example — it’s a huge water quality benefit.

“I wish we could pay the right price for it but I leave that to the county.”

Edison Farms, owned by an out-of-region lending company, is a 4,000-acre, 6.25-square mile parcel in the Density Reduction/Groundwater Resource area (the DRGR) of Estero now offered for sale with a $49 million price tag. There, developers have sought to build thousands of homes and establish commercial space.


“My take is they have done a lot of very good scientific research or gathering of data, so there’s a lot of good information available in this report. I am particularly supportive of continuing to fund monitoring estuaries because of the degradation issue.” 
— Kathleen Passidomo, District 28 Republican “My take is they have done a lot of very good scientific research or gathering of data, so there’s a lot of good information available in this report. I am particularly supportive of continuing to fund monitoring estuaries because of the degradation issue.” — Kathleen Passidomo, District 28 Republican Conservationists, meanwhile, including the conservancy, have fought to permanently remove the land from the development roles. They celebrated a decision by Lee commissioners recently to offer $42 million to the owners, the highest of three appraisal prices.

“This is one of the largest opportunities we’ll have from now into future, to make significant savings,” said Commissioner Frank Mann.


“This is one of the largest opportunities we’ll have from now into future, to make significant savings.” 
— Commissioner Frank Mann “This is one of the largest opportunities we’ll have from now into future, to make significant savings.” — Commissioner Frank Mann “Any water in the southern part of the county finds its way to Estero Bay, and to a large extent much of that water will pass through Edison Farms.

“So we can’t let it get developed,” Mr. Mann said. “We want it never to contribute to the pollution that developed lands all do to a greater or lesser extent. And that property does recharge and filter water through natural processes. By keeping it, we won’t contribute to pollution, and it continues to recharge aquifers.”

There was no word at press time whether the owners, represented by Lee County based Realtors, Land Solutions Inc., would accept the $42 million offer.

For Charlotte Commissioner Bill Truex, “the report is a great guideline for us to try to review, understand and develop strategies to improve water quality in the harbor. We have the Charlotte Harbor area (B -, C +, Lemon Bay (B, D-), and the Coastal Venice area (C-, C-).


Algal bloom in the Caloosahatchee River. The river scored a D- in water quality and wildlife habitat. 
COURTESY PHOTO Algal bloom in the Caloosahatchee River. The river scored a D- in water quality and wildlife habitat. COURTESY PHOTO “What we send south can affect Pine Island Sound (D for water). So policymakers have to look at what they can do in their own areas to improve the situation.”

In his opinion, however, “maybe half of them will glance at it — I hope a lot more.”

Collier County Commissioner Penny Taylor said, “It’s appalling to be living on the Gulf of Mexico and see how impaired the water really is. I think we can do better. I admire and complement the conservancy for taking the initiative.

“I would hope other officials — state officials — use this report,” she said. “We have challenges ourselves, here, in Naples Bay and Rookery Bay and this gives us a road map to identify accurately what the conditions of our water are, and to start addressing them as local officials.”

“I’m optimistic. I don’t think I’m a lone voice at all. Commissioner Burt Saunders was the first in the history of Collier to suggest taxes be used to preserve green space in the 1990s, in a program called Pennies for Paradise. It was rejected but other (programs emerged). He was the first one and he sits next to me up there.

“The sentiment of our people is such that they demand it. So if we listen to our constituents and understand how we use water and where it goes — and I do think we do — we can use this report to help ourselves.”

John Cassani, was named Calusa Waterkeeper early this year. The statewide nonprofit Waterkeeper organization appoints water experts to monitor individual water systems. Mr. Cassani is more optimistic about the reaction of private citizens to the report than he is about public officials.

“This report is helpful by letting the greater public understand what’s happening on a regional scale,” he explained.

“The public starts to add it up. ‘I value boating, or fishing,’ or ‘my property is on the water that’s being degraded as a result of declining water quality.’

“People need objective information to understand the magnitude of the risk and the problem. The conservancy has been really good about referencing their statements and basing their statements on science.”

Septic, for example

One of the key battles many officials are fighting is the resistance of some property owners to convert septic to sewer systems, or even to upgrade septic systems when they don’t appear to be having trouble.

The report even offers advice to individuals about maintaining clean and efficient septic systems.

“At the local level, we’ve been trying to improve water quality across the board,” said Kevin Ruane, mayor of Sanibel Island. The island lies at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee where terrible algae blooms and outbreaks of red tide have occurred in recent years, not only choking the natural biology of the water systems there, but strangling tourism for periods of time — the lifeblood of the island economy.

Some of that is the result of beleaguered and poorly monitored septic systems all the way upriver to Lake Okeechobee, some 80 miles.

“We’ve gone to various municipalities to promote conservation efforts, for example fertilizer rules or best management practices at marinas, or the value of converting from septic to sewer — and if not, then determining what is the best kind of septic,” he said.

A self-described “fiscal conservative” and Republican, Mayor Ruane led a group of mayors to Tallahassee last year to insist legislators find a way to halt unseasonable floods of excess water from being released east and west from Lake Okeechobee by the Army Corps of Engineers, down both the St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee systems. Those releases play a prominent role in water degradation, both in Charlotte Harbor and in the Indian River Lagoon near Stuart on the east coast.

“I don’t have a problem with septics as long as they work and they’re being maintained,” he said.

But that’s the problem, in the eyes of Commissioner Truex.

“We have to have the intestinal fortitude to stand up and do what’s right on this issue, and conversion from septic to sewers is something a lot of people still don’t think it is necessary. You think if you’re not having a problem you can see, nothing’s wrong with your septic.”

But old systems that cause homeowners no problems often leak dangerously into water systems.

“You can take a beating for proposing we change this,” said Commissioner Truex. “Even the (federal) EPA says on its website that septic works, but they leave out rest of the story — the systems have to be (state-of-the-art), they have to filtrate the solids out and be maintained. Those old systems are not working.”

According to state code, he said, the minimum distance any septic tank should be from the mean, seasonal high-water line (how far up in the soil water comes, on average) is two feet. But the new recommendations say five feet.

“So in Charlotte County we’ll be putting in more monitoring stations for water quality, and that’s a key to improving results.”

Advocacy vs. science, politics

Naples-based State Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a District 28 Republican (Collier, Hendry and parts of Lee County), agrees.

“My take is they have done a lot of very good scientific research or gathering of data, so there’s a lot of good information available in this report. I am particularly supportive of continuing to fund monitoring estuaries because of the degradation issue.”

One of the weaknesses in the report, according to the conservancy and others, is that water quality data is sometimes unavailable.

Mr. Cassani said the reason is no mystery: Regulation has been diminished during the administration of Gov. Rick Scott.

“I think the GOP in Florida owns this issue now. Enforcement is almost nonexistent in the state and has been since Gov. Scott’s administration took office. What do you expect? If you’re not going to hold jurisdiction, you’ll see water quality decline.

“There is no pressure on jurisdictions to meet water quality standards. The state just isn’t requiring these local jurisdictions to address issues seriously.”

“We’ll focus on bringing more attention and more knowledge to areas that matter — to public health issues such as bacteria, heavy metals and algal toxins in the water,” he said of his organization.

“It’s costly but we will start sampling for this information,” said Mr. Cassani.

Sen. Passidomo said she and other legislators need to separate advocacy from the science.

“I need to be able to look at technical information, the science behind the information, and then come to a conclusion as to how to handle these issues,” she said.

“The conservancy, and rightly so, is an advocacy group. But that’s not the thrust of a legislator — we need to look at the science and make our decisions.”

The science is key at the conservancy — but it goes hand in hand with advocacy, suggested Ms. Johnson.

“Communities understand their problems, for the most part,” she said. But they may disagree about how to go forward, and how much to spend doing it.

Sometimes, the question is unspoken, suggested Mr. Moher: Are we going to pay for the fix, or let our children do it?

Action now is not only less expensive, but more honorable, said Ms. Johnson.

“The report card shows with a snapshot in time how severe problems are, but also it shows what can we do at a personal level, and what can be done at a governmental level.”

A lot, is the answer — laid out neatly under such categories as “Recommendations for people,” and “Recommendations for policymakers.”

“But a report like this could seem a double-edged sword,” Ms. Johnson acknowledged.

“We in Florida are promoting tourism and business, all of these things that use beautiful beaches and idyllic images to promote them, but the report card brings to the forefront another fact: There are major problems.” ¦

What’s in our water

See the report

>> www.conservancy.org/reportcard

Recommendations for people:

>> Dispose of your waste appropriately (don’t put fertilizer, motor oil, paint, grass or pet waste into stormwater drains. Wash the car on the lawn. Compost food waste.

>> Minimize impact of yard (for example, don’t fertilize before a rain).

>> Conserve water (especially water used for irrigation).

>> Maintain septic tank: have it pumped every four to five years; don’t flush wipes; spread out laundry over the week.

>> Participate in cleanup days.

>> Convert your yard into a Florida-Friendly Landscape with native plants.

>> Volunteer to test water quality for a program: Often, too little data exists to know if water bodies are meeting state standards. One program is the Charlotte Harbor Estuaries Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring Network.

>> Contact government representatives (ask them to approve projects that improve estuarine health).

>> Sign up for a Conservancy Action Alert.

>> Join the conservancy.

>> Support local, state and federal policies that protect wetlands.

>> Support land acquisition efforts.

>> Go out and enjoy nature.

>> Share your knowledge.

Recommendations for policymakers:

>> A. Act to prevent additional loss of wetlands.

>> B. Support hydrologic restoration (get funding, collaborative partnerships).

>> C. Restore water quality (on site if possible, support programs that lead to proper runoff.)

>> D. Update statewide stormwater management standards for new development and redevelopment.

>> E. Protect critical environmental lands for water and wildlife by buying land.

>> F. Create planning tools that direct intensification away from sensitive natural resources.

>> G. Monitor quality consistently and thoroughly all the time; upload data to STORET, an acronym for the EPA database “Storage and Retrieval.” There, information from the water management districts, local government and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is stored. That data is used to determine if a water body meets water quality standards. Where there is no data, organizations or governments aren’t doing their jobs.

—Source: conservancy.org

Return to top