The Conservancy of Southwest Florida is actively working towards a comprehensive approach to restore clean water. We advocate for science-based solutions that would benefit the environment, public health, and safety of all South Florida communities.
On September 28, 2022, Hurricane Ian, a near Category 5 storm, hit Southwest Florida causing billions in damage to infrastructure, homes, and businesses. As the storm surge floods came and went, they took with them structural debris, sand, gas, oil, and other volatile chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico. The once clear blue and vibrant coastal waters were left brown, turbid, and full of unknown debris. See the before and after aerial images in the map below.
In the following days and weeks, storm runoff continued to flow into Southwest Florida from both coastal and inland watersheds, continuing to bring contaminants, nutrients, and raw sewage. Although water quality was poor prior to Hurricane Ian, we now have a perfect storm of water quality impacts and economic ramifications.
Many of you may be experiencing the ripple effects firsthand.
However, we can use this as a motive to create change and inform how governments, agencies, and other stakeholders move forward. Southwest Florida has a great opportunity as it rebuilds and restores after Hurricane Ian to restore natural areas and implement various low-impact development or green stormwater practices for water quality improvement and storm surge protection.
In addition, protecting wetlands and mangroves is critical. The impacts of Hurricane Ian have put additional stress on an already impacted system. Many local and regional waterbodies are already included on the state list of impaired waters for nutrients, low dissolved oxygen, metals (like copper and mercury), and bacteria.
At the local level, continuing to implement stringent fertilizer and stormwater ordinances, as well as moving forward with the Naples Beach Outfalls project are some ways to effectively and proactively address pollutant sources and related water quality issues.
We at the Conservancy are concerned because it is clear that so much pollution (nutrients, untreated sewage, toxic chemicals, etc.) went into our waterways during and after Hurricane Ian. This is compounded by the fact that many of Southwest Florida’s waters were already failing to meet water quality standards even before the storm (see our Estuaries Report Card).
The fact that we now have the red tide organism Karenia brevis compounding the problem, and additional polluted runoff coming from coastal and inland watersheds, creates an implosion of water quality concerns for both the environment and the public. While red tide is naturally occurring, the science is clear that once it comes inshore, it is fueled and fed by polluted runoff from anthropogenic sources.
There is no one website or database where the public can go to learn about water quality hazards and conditions. If someone is looking for information to see if it is safe to go into the water at their favorite beach they will have to visit Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for current red tide status, Florida Healthy Beaches for presence of bacteria at beaches and, Mote Beach Conditions Reporting System for other factors such as debris, respiratory impacts etc. While this website does report on many locations along the west coast of Florida from Pensacola to Marco Island, the beaches are monitored by volunteers and not all beaches are monitored regularly.
While Hurricane Ian understandably disrupted data collection, not all these data gaps can be blamed on hurricane impacts, Florida’s Healthy Beaches website has a gap in data from September 10 - October 10, a gap starting 18 days before the hurricane hit. Moreover, six weeks post-storm there remained a void of information. People unaware have returned to the beaches. Efforts to educate the public on the hazards seem insufficient and an easily accessible comprehensive data collection website is lacking, leaving the average person unaware of the water quality issues daily.
While the storm amplified the issue, insufficient information on beach safety is not a new issue.
In 2021, State Senator Lori Berman (D-Delray Beach) and State Representative Yvonne Hayes Hinson (D-Gainesville) filed SB 604 and HB 393 (Safe Waterways Act) requiring municipalities and counties to post health advisory signs for affected beach waters. The bill died in committee.
This has major public health and safety implications.
This isn’t to say that agencies, scientists, and other stakeholders are not actively engaged in water quality. In fact, university researchers, and other scientists from SCCF (Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation), CHNEP (Coastal & Heartland National Estuary Partnership), University of Florida, Florida Gulf Coast University, local counties and others are collecting data and meeting weekly to discuss efforts. However, causes for concern include post-storm rise in cases of Vibrio vulnificus (often incorrectly referred to as flesh-eating bacteria) and the lack of rapid testing technology available, along with the ecological and economic impacts from growing red tide blooms.
Now more than ever, consistent water quality testing and posting to a central updated and easily accessible website is essential.
- Expedite funding and construction of the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir, a critical piece of the restoration puzzle to help reduce the harmful discharges and send clean water south to the Everglades and Florida Bay.
- Maintain momentum for completion of the C-43 West Basin Storage Reservoir to improve flows to the Caloosahatchee during dry periods.
- Protect remaining natural wetlands and flow ways to maintain existing natural storage and treatment capacity.
- Control pollution at its source by updating stormwater standards, developing and implementing water quality pollution limits and restoration plans (Total Maximum Daily Loads and Basin Management Action Plans), and implementing the recommendations of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force to address nutrient pollution sources.
What you can do
The best thing you can do is to stay Informed.
The Conservancy has evaluated many of the water quality data collection programs conducted by both agencies and non-profits as they relate to Southwest Florida.
You may find these resources below helpful if you want to learn more about water quality in your area.
Water Quality Resources
Clean water is critical for ecosystem function, wildlife survival, and public health. Tourism is a preeminent economic driver in Southwest Florida. Visitors from all over the world come to visit our beaches, fish our waters, and experience the Everglades.
While here, they eat in our restaurants, shop, and stay in our hotels. Thus, protecting the waters where we live, work, and play should be our community’s highest priority. It is imperative that we look at water quality from a holistic perspective.
Economic growth is important but not at the expense of our future. The quality of water is tied directly to our actions on land. There is not one quick fix that will protect us from anthropogenic environmental impacts or future storms.
The time to act is now, not tomorrow, not next year, but today.