By Natalie Strom
The health and protection of Florida’s surface water quality have been at the center of a debate between Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the U.S. Government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The battle over clean water standards began in 2009, as the EPA attempted to enforce specific standards for myriad water systems in the state. Fighting back, the Florida DEP proposed its own standards for clean water that, as of February, have been upheld within the Florida court system, but are still being challenged by environmental organizations.
As the state of Florida’s tourism industry depends on clean rivers, lakes, beaches, canals and waterways, it is no surprise that these two agencies are attempting to place standards on water quality. However, the ultimate loophole in both plans is that there are no state requirements that enforce water testing. This means that if a city, county, etc. decides not to test its waters for pollutants and bacteria, there is no penalty. If an area does test its waters and reports the findings to the state, only then would the given area be responsible for clean-up. That is, if the waters are actually deemed polluted by the current low standards set by the DEP.
So where does Marco Island stand when it comes to testing surface water quality? In some ways, the city is actually ahead of the game. In February of 2001, Marco Island’s Environmental Specialist, Nancy Richie, began a water quality study of Marco’s canals.
Each sample tests for the bacterias fecal coliform and enterococcus. Total nitrogen, dissolved oxygen, temperature, water pH and turbidity are also tested. Richie takes field observations at each site as well. Since the DEP has not set actual numeric standards for nutrients such as nitrogen, Richie has come up with her own reference point. “I reference Pumpkin Bay for water quality. That’s a bay that’s within Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve that has no man-made canals going into it; there’s no man-made altered structures feeding into that bay. It’s considered a reference to water quality for Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve’s testing. Since we are surrounded by Rookery Bay monitored land, that’s the reference numbers I use,” explains Nancy.
The heavy polluters behind surface water quality have easily been defined. Agricultural run-off accounts for the majority of pollution, causing high levels of nitrogen and low levels of dissolved oxygen. This causes algae blooms and fish die-offs that can also cause heath issues in humans. As Nancy explains, a “healthy” range of reference of nitrogen concentration is between .4 and .8 milligrams per liter. “This level indicates the water cycle is doing its job. So if I’m testing in Marco’s canals which receive run-off from landscaping, sewage and vehicles, and the nitrogen level is falling into the same category as a very natural bay such as Pumpkin Bay, that’s pretty good that our canals are falling within those parameters.”
Richie reports her numbers to the state and in the more than ten years of testing, 99.9 percent of the time, Marco Island has met state standards for Class III waters (man-made canals). She also compares her findings with others that test in the area. Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Commission does weekly red tide sampling along Marco’s beaches, the Florida Department of Health also tests the beaches on a weekly basis. Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve tests the waters of the 110,000 acres it monitors – all of which nearly completely surrounds Marco Island.
There are a number of theories that can account for the “healthy” waters of Marco’s canals. “We benefit from being surrounded by mangroves as well as having two tides a day,” explains Richie. “The City is removing septic systems and installing sewer through the STRP project and we received grant money from the Southwest Florida Water Management District to put filters and scrubbers in over 600 storm water outfalls. These are both huge improvements.” The City has also changed its ordinances to promote Florida friendly landscaping.
Richie also points out that Marco Island is pretty protected from heavy industrial and agricultural run-off because it is surrounded by so much natural land. Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Collier Seminole State Park and even the Everglades watershed help reduce the toxins and bacteria that flow downstream toward Marco Island.
“In just the eleven years of sampling, there’s been a lot of changes,” continues Richie. “In the next 30 years, we’re looking at really dense build-out, especially right above Marco Island. So it’s really important that we do water-monitoring now so we will be able to compare how that will impact Marco’s waters.” Richie hopes that the future will allow for a more comprehensive plan that would include more water testing. As for the last eleven years of data, it’s a start, but much more will be needed to answer the long-term question as to the health of Marco’s surface water quality.