The issue of water quality is one that has gathered a considerable amount of interest during this election season. Marco Island was spared much of the terrible impact from the damaging discharges from Lake Okeechobee along with the resulting algae blooms and the strong effects of red tide this last summer season.
Over the last several years, those discharges have been necessitated due to heavy rains and the subsequent need to reduce pressures on the decaying earthen dike that protects tens of thousands of Floridians that live on the eastern side of Lake Okeechobee. The Army Corps of Engineers announced in July that it has allocated $514 million for the much-anticipated repairs to the dike. The Corp is estimating the project will be completed in 2022.
Those algae blooms have had a serious impact on the livelihood of businesses and residents from the Naples/Bonita area north to Charlotte County. When you combine those discharges of nutrient laden waters, combined with the extreme heat and the infusion of large amounts of pollutants, both from agriculture, farming and the impact of population growth north of Lake Okeechobee, it all makes for a toxic combination that has fueled the explosion of blue/green algae. Those events this summer have captured the attention of Floridians and the nation.
The discharge of waters that are heavily infected with toxic algae blooms has infiltrated Florida’s east and west coasts. They have threatened the areas’ important tourism industry and the value of real estate on both of Florida’s coasts.
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio has commented in the last 60 days that if the algae bloom those discharges create are allowed to “continue unabated,” Florida could be fundamentally altered.
State leaders are anxiously awaiting a vote within the U.S. Senate to approve the Water Resources Development Act. This legislation was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in June 2018. It will allow the funding of the much-anticipated reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to store excess waters, rather than shifting them down the Caloosahatchee River on the west coast and into the St. Lucie River on the east coast.
On Marco Island
Red tide is another form of an algae bloom which naturally occurs within our waters. From time to time it can be found to affect Marco. This year the blooms were aggravated by the blue/green algae invasion, which came down the Caloosahatchee. This caused more serious problems north of Marco, in combination with the red tide, and has become a hot topic of conversation.
The increase in frequency of red tide blooms on the island may also be impacted by the introduction of manmade causes here, such as fertilizers and human waste from off the island.
Marco Island residents invested $250 million dollars to help stem the flow of possible human waste into canals and waterways from the aging and potentially failing septic systems when they chose to complete the centralized wastewater collection system a few years ago. That project, which caused serious angst amongst residents, was known as the Septic Tank Replacement Program (STRP). No longer would residents be allowed to utilize septic tanks to handle their human and household waste discharges.
The expensive update of the Marco Island waste treatment facilities and a comprehensive rework of the collector system was a major proactive step to protect the environment in and around the island.
Collier County has yet to require several areas under its control to take similar proactive approaches to protect some of the waters abutting Marco Island. Isles of Capri and Goodland, along other areas north of Marco, have yet to transition single family homes in those areas to a centralized wastewater system and eliminate their aging septic systems.
Marco Island is looking to go back to a monthly program of testing to acquire a better database. However, if we are to protect our waters, the abutting areas to the island must also be tested, to identify potential problems on the other side of the river. Most experts agree that it must be a “regional effort,” if we are to be successful in maintaining a pristine environment that provides Marco Island with its wonderful eco-system.
More To Do
The Growth Management Staff and the Marco Island Planning Board have been reviewing possible adjustments to the Land Development Code and how changes may be made that are not draconian in nature and would not crash real estate market values.
Although some had suggested that they would like to see the usable buildable area of a lot be reduced from 67 percent to 50 to 55 percent, there are serious concerns regarding this. Their rationale would lie in having a larger permeable area available to have ground water contained within a property boundary and while allowing it to naturally filter through the ground.
Another complaint comes in the size of homes being constructed. In the early Deltona days, very small homes were being built primarily for retirees. Now, new homes are being constructed for larger and more active families that are moving to the island. The Mackle Brothers may have never envisioned the growth seen in Southwest Florida when the first shovel of dirt broke ground on the island over 50 years ago.
Real estate and building professionals on the island said that idea would crash property values, especially with the redevelopment of older homes and the desires to maximize investments on ever increasing lot values. “This just isn’t a reasonable solution. We need to be smart in what we do. This can be accomplished by thinking through the issues and using smart building techniques, landscaping and design work,” said Jason Baily, a local building contractor.
Local realtor Stanley Niemczyk of Keller Williams had similar concerns regarding some of the more radical suggestions that might influence property values across the island. “For many people their homes are the greatest asset they have. They’ve worked their entire lives to acquire what they have, and this may have a major negative affect on that value and their overall worth. I’m hoping that we’ll have a reasoned approach to this entire issue,” said Niemczyk.
Daniel Stoller of S&S Landscaping pointed out that proper stormwater control on lots is easily obtained when made part of the initial plans for a new home. “We work with clients all the time to ensure that their runoffs do not discharge directly into canals, while bringing along an unwanted flow of nutrients into the waterways,” said Stoller, a lifelong Marco Island resident.
The City of Marco Island is now requiring site-plan reviews for things such as walkways and patios. This will help insure the amount of permeable areas allow control of on-site stormwater, and maintain the proper ratio of hardscape surfaces.
Another issue that the city is carefully reviewing is how to handle stormwater discharge from commercial properties. Another important area of concern is the need to better handle these discharges within commercial parking areas, and capturing more of the oils and pollutants from those large asphalt collectors.
Conveyance and end-of-pipe infrastructure are also being reimagined to create a complete treatment train; stormwater is managed and treated at all points along its path to outfalls into waterways, rather than only at the end of the line. Sewer pipes can be designed to be leaky to support groundwater recharge. Infiltration chambers use buried pipes or cells to hold back stormwater and slowly release it into the ground to support infiltration. Constructed wetlands clean stormwater and remove nutrients like nitrogen.
The curbing and guttering of Collier Boulevard during its reconstruction has also provided challenges to insure we are minimizing the outflows into the canals. Vegetation, clippings, garbage and other pollutants must be appropriately filtered before they enter our fragile waterways. The city has installed traps in those gutters to catch larger debris and is working on additional steps to trap other pollutants.
What was once an expensive process is being brought more into line due to improved technologies and creative designs.
Commercial development, such as the JW Marriott, must maintain and treat large collections of stormwater from their property, which they do. The filtering of many of those pollutants is an important aspect of their total environmental master plan for their property.
Recent site-plan approvals for other commercial properties such as the new Sherwin-Williams Paint Building and the proposal for the ABC Liquor Store have all gone through extensive reviews of their water retention plans and how to deal with run-off.
The Island Plaza at the corner of Bald Eagle and Collier Boulevard, which has recently gone through an extensive upgrade to its property, was required to update its parking lots and drainage and landscape buffering to provide for more absorption of water found within its parking area, prior to discharge into the city’s stormwater system.
Discharges From Marine Craft
Most boaters transiting throughout Southwest Florida play by the rules and have their grey and black water tanks pumped off on a regular basis. However, some boaters that choose to anchor within the waters and bays of the island may not be the best stewards of the waters they travel in.
Marinas such as the popular Esplanade Marina provides free pump out services on their docks for boaters anchoring in Smokehouse Bay. However, several of those boats stay weeks on end without availing themselves of those services. More emphasis on enforcement must be taken to insure those that break the law are punished to the full extent available to local jurisdictions.
Balancing The Sensible Solutions
All the stakeholders within the community agree that it will be much more productive to embrace common sense solutions to the challenges facing coastal communities throughout Florida. Radical solutions which could affect property values and chill the investment market throughout Southwest Florida are not the answer, according to a wide cross section of those professionals.
“The waters that surround our island paradise are one of our greatest assets,” said Ben Farnsworth, who serves as the Chairman of the Waterways Advisory Committee. “I think we all take it seriously and want to ensure the community maintains a plan for continuing the wonderful reputation for the pristine eco-system we have here on Marco. That will take a concerted effort by level headed and focused individuals who can provide sensible solutions which will provide our residents with a usable plan that protects property values, doesn’t create an expensive burden on residences and protects our eco-system,” concluded Farnsworth.