Shell Museum Tackles SWFL Water Quality Challenges in First H2O Lecture

by SC Reporter Teresa Vazquez

James Evans. SC file photo by Chuck Larsen

The Bailey- Matthews National Shell Museum tackled Southwest Florida’s water quality challenges at their first H2O lecture series event on Feb. 26.

James Evans, Environmental Policy Director at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation spoke on water quality impact, factors affecting water quality, solutions to the problem and the urgent need to complete the Everglades restoration.

“Water quality issues are impacting every aspect of our lives from the ecology of our waters, to the quality of our life, to our property values, and the viability of our local businesses and our tourism-based economy,” Evans said.

Red tide and blue-green algae blooms play a big part in the water quality complications facing Southwest Florida said Evans. In 2018, the community was devastated by harmful algae blooms like the blue-green blanket that covered 70 miles of the Caloosahatchee River. The bloom was then followed by a red tide occurrence which impacted Sanibel’s local beaches.

The blooms affect the water quality which then affects the economy, the ecology and the overall health of the community. Southwest Florida’s tourism fueled economy is suffocated by these blooms.

In the age of social media news spreads fast, said Evans. Photographs of the blue-green algae hugging the coasts or the hundreds of washed-up fish covering the shore deter tourists who wish to enjoy the Florida beaches.

“If we don’t do something to counter the ongoing problem, Florida is going to kill its golden goose which is tourism,” Evans said.

Tourism employs 1 in 5 people and produces more than $3 billion annually in Lee County alone, said Evans. Poor water quality also impacts properties values, and cost Sanibel $1.6 million in dead marine life removal in 2018 due to the red tide.

“The Sanibel Captiva Chamber of Commerce reported a $47 million economic loss associated with the 2018 red tide event and blue green algae blooms,” Evans said.

Along with the economy, poor water quality causes ecological impacts to Florida’s coastal waters said Evans. For example, a red drift algae bloom covered the shores, diminishing foraging opportunities for wading birds and shorebirds between 2005 and 2007. It takes these systems time to recover from these events, said Evans.

Like the wildlife, humans can also be affected by the algae blooms. Blue-green algae can produce toxins that can be harmful to humans, said Evans.

The goal is to slow down these algae blooms and the other factors affecting the water quality. The blooms have grown in recent years for multiple reasons, including an increase in the nutrients necessary for their growth, changes in salinity and oxygen levels.

Many of the water quality challenges in Florida “stem from large scale land use changes,” said Evans. Over the past century, the land has been altered to allow for agricultural and urban development.

Florida’s wetlands, rivers and other bodies of water have been changed to facilitate drainage of these landscapes. These changes have resulted in loss of water storage and mediocre treatments which has increased the number of algae enabling nutrients in the water.

These factors combined with population growth, development, climate change, and an increase in runoff contaminated with fertilizers, have aided in the water quality crisis, said Evans.

“Most of the nutrient sources impacting our water bodies, come from urban and agricultural runoff stormwater runoff wastewater discharge septic leaching and municipal reuse water,” Evans said.

If not treated correctly, municipal reuse water can result in an increase of nutrients increasing algae growth. Evans said that Sanibel is investing more than $20 million in upgrading the Donax Water Reclamation Facility to take the nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients out, delivering cleaner water to the end users and hinder algae growth.

Southwest Florida also had to deal with the Central and Southern Florida project which had unintended consequences on South Florida’s water quality.

The first line of defense against these challenges is the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), said Evans. The project is not a cure for all but will significantly improve the water quality.

“The plan includes 68 project components, designed to restore the quality, quantity timing and distribution of freshwater flows to the south Florida ecosystem, while providing for water related needs of the region, including water supply and flood protection,” Evans said.

Each project in CERP depends on another to create synergy allowing for system wide benefits necessary to achieve the goals of the plan. Evans said the restoration is about “getting the water right” which includes increasing water storage and conveying the water South into the Everglades, reducing the damaging discharges to the estuaries.

The plan was authorized in Congress in 2000 with an anticipated 30 years to complete and total cost of $8.2 billion. Now, the cost is an estimated $20 billion and scheduled out to 2029, said Evans. A significant increase in funding will be necessary over the next four years.

Other non CERP projects are essential to the restoration of South Florida’s water quality and ecosystems. A few of these projects are the Herbert Hoover Dike rehabilitation project and the Tamiami Trail Bridging project.

Funding is an essential component to the completion of these projects. Evans encourages those in the community who want to aid in the movement to contact their legislators and to be engaged—”it requires everybody being engaged; your votes do matter.”

“If you care about Everglades restoration and you care about our water quality, I would encourage you to reach out to your legislators and make sure you let them know that this is a top priority for you, because we can’t get there without Everglades restoration,” said Evans.

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