Monday, June 12, 2017

Florida's Polluted Waters

It comes as no surprise, but the report card on Southwest Florida's watersheds is still jarring.

Capping years of analysis, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida's recent report shows that waterways and estuaries from north of Lake Okeechobee to Ten Thousand Islands are badly polluted and that wetlands and mangrove loss is severe.

The study grades ten estuaries and rivers on water quality and wildlife impact, the latter defined as conservation land remaining after urbanization -- an apparent smack-down on economic growth the Conservancy finds environmentally unfriendly.

But on balance the assessment is a good one. I find it encouraging the Conservancy is focusing on this, a truly important issue, instead of playing to the balcony on fracking and other headline grabbers that have little substance. Kudos for the good work here.

Of the ten water bodies evaluated, which are the worst? Naples Bay and the Caloosahatchee River, both racking up a D- in each category. Both are cesspools of fertilizer runoff, the Caloosahatchee from farm land north and south of Lake Okeechobee and Naples Bay from the City of Naples and the Golden Gate Canal. Naples Bay also boasts copper levels among the highest in the country, thanks to years of unmanaged cupric sulfate treatment to eradicate algae fed by over-fertilization.

But that's not the worst news. The worst news is that none of the ten waterways had water quality graded higher than a C (Rookery Bay). Six had D's or D-minuses, and four had C's or C-minuses. While high nutrient and heavy metal levels were the main culprits, the study also found excessive bacteria (animal waste and leaky septic tanks), low dissolved oxygen and occasional pH and turbidity problems.

It's not a pretty picture, discouraging for those of us who live here and certainly not an advertisement for tourism.

What can be done about it? Columnist Brent Batten of the Naples Daily News quotes Rob Moher, head of the Conservancy, who urges people to dispose of waste properly, minimize fertilization and irrigation, seal septic tanks and use permeable pavers. All good advice.

And it would help if Collier County enforced its ordinance on landscape management practices (11-24).

Longer-term, reactivation of the Conservation Collier land-purchase program might have an impact, although I'm skeptical we'll see the effect in our lifetimes or, at least, in my lifetime.

But the picture isn't all bleak. The Conservancy didn't include Clam Bay in its study, and perhaps it should have. Maintained with great care by Pelican Bay, the estuary is clean and its mangrove forest is largely intact. Nutrient and oxygen levels meet Department of Environmental Protection standards, as does dissolved copper, once badly out of spec. Wildlife is abundant and a management plan ensures the preserve meets stringent environmental guidelines.

Admittedly, Clam Bay at 560 acres is a small piece of the watershed pie. But it's a good example of how relentless attention can make a difference. Grade it A-.

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