by SC Reporter Reese Holiday
The delicate islands of Sanibel and Captiva serve as homes to unique wildlife, pristine ecosystems and beautiful waters. But as pollution around the state worsens, so does the quality of those waters and the life of the creatures that inhabit them.
The islands are positioned downstream from the ever-growing cities of Fort Myers and Cape Coral, whose water pollution flows through the Caloosahatchee River right to the coasts of Sanibel and Captiva.
This creates increasingly harmful problems for the islands, their citizens and their wildlife, which is why Christine Angelini, an environmental engineering science professor at the University of Florida, said the fight against this pollution is on today’s generations so future ones can inherent a cleaner environment.
“We all have a personal stake in addressing these issues,” Angelini said. “For me, I want to have an environment that I want to live in, and I want my kids to have an environment that they can live in.”
Angelini is also the director for UF’s Center for Coastal Solutions, a newly established program that focuses on decreasing the degradation of Florida’s coastlines. At the beginning of this year, the CCS and the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation teamed up to focus their research efforts on the water quality issues that surround Sanibel and Captiva.
Angelini said the reason UF is making the nearly five-hour trip from Gainesville to the islands is because the waters that surround them are usually filled with different types of algae blooms.
These blooms can harm the ecosystem and are nearly all caused by the islands’ position downstream and pollution from things like septic tanks, which can contaminant groundwater, eventually polluting water on the surface.
“We’re largely focusing in this region right now because it’s a big old problem and there’s a lot to do,” Angelini said. “If we can develop the capabilities here of how do we basically adjust all of this data and make more actual information from this data, then that’s something that we can replicate elsewhere across the state.”
The data that the CCS and SCCF are collecting in the islands’ waters observes when, where and how much of these harmful algae blooms, and other water quality issues, are present.
With that data, they can then create 3D maps that detect where it is most harmful, and in the future, can even predict where blooms can occur so preventative measures can be taken to slow down the harmful effects.
To do this, both the SCCF and the CCS provide their own level of technology to the table.
SCCF uses its River Estuary Coastal Observing Network, or RECON, to collect things like salinity, temperature and dissolved oxygen samples from the Caloosahatchee River. This is done in order to better understand how the waterway is affecting Sanibel and Captiva’s ecosystems.
The CCS uses its Comprehensive Coastal Observing Network, or CompCON, which is meant to generate products over the next couple of years, like 3D maps, that’s going to help decision making into fixing water quality issues along the coast.
But while each organization has its own level of technology, Eric Milbrandt, SCCF’s marine lab director, said UF provides extensive expertise, resources and technology, something that a non-profit organization like the SCCF cannot do.
However, he also said the SCCF provides the local knowledge of the islands’ surrounding area, making the fit between the two entities nearly perfect.
“We just started sort of really fleshing out what our relationship might be in terms of us being in a geographically good place to do research now, and also with the academic depth of the faculty at UF,” Milbrandt said. “It made a lot of sense for us to partner up.”
Angelini said the CCS has also teamed up with other organizations to combat water quality issues, like the Coastal Heartland National Estuary Partnership and the islands’ own Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, or CROW.
Students are getting involved as well as Angelini said some UF graduate students and interns from SCCF are helping out with the early stages of the research, which includes building a forecasting system and starting implementation of data collection equipment in the water.
But while these early stages have already begun, Milbrandt said there is no firm start or end date for the research as long as there is interest from both organizations in collecting data on the coastal environment.
With that research, the SCCF and the CCS are hoping to collect enough data on water pollution and water quality so that it can then be turned over to local decision makers.
Those decision makers can then decide what solutions make the most sense in order to improve coastal water quality, not just for Sanibel and Captiva.
While the research is in the hands of the CCS and the SCCF, and the solutions to that research will be in the hands of decision makers, Angelini said it takes more than just those variables to create an equation to solve Florida’s water quality issues.
“This is not a one institution or one entity that solves this water quality issue,” Angelini said. “It requires a lot of coordination, dedication and a lot of working together.”