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Monday, February 27, 2023

Coastal-Water Quality: Challenges, Solutions, and Economic Impact

Around 10,000 - 12,000 years ago, early humans abandoned their nomadic nature as hunter-gathers, embraced an agrarian lifestyle, and settled into communities, often along shorelines; the coastal waterways provided a protein-food source, transportation, and hydration (if fresh water.) As lifestyles permitted leisure, coastlines provided recreation that eventually segued into the tourism industry.

Communal living brought a new challenge to our ancestors: how to dispose of excrements from livestock and themselves as well as other waste. Contaminated water transmitted pathogen-related illnesses and were a serious public-health concern.

Thus, water-quality challenges are integral to human development from ancient communities through the industrial and digital revolutions to the current information age. With each age, new toxins were developed and released into waterways and aquifers. 

In the industrial age, water contamination expanded to include toxic-manufacturing byproducts; modern agriculture and landscape practices introduced petro-chemical fertilizers and the "cides" - herbicides, pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides; the information age brought environmental challenges with mineral mining and disposal of obsolete and/or broken electronic equipment.

The International Water Association article, A Brief History of Water and Health from Ancient Civilizations to Modern Times, explains the importance of water to human civilizations as well as all life on the planet:

Water is life – and life on earth is linked to water. Our existence is dependent on water, or the lack of it, in many ways, and one could say that our whole civilization is built on the use of water.

North Longboat Key public beach
Photo courtesy of
Coastal-water quality, whether seaside, inland-lake and -pond shorelines, or river banks, is of paramount concern with direct environmental and economic ramifications.

Located on the Central Florida Gulf of Mexico (Gulf) Coast, Sarasota is a gem in The Sunshine State. With amazing barrier-island beaches (Siesta Key was named #1 beach in the U.S. by TripAdvisor,) and lovely intracoastal waterways, Sarasota's economy is water-quality based and driven by tourism.

The Sarasota Bay Estuarine System is designated as an Outstanding Florida Water and an Estuary of National Significance.

Coastal-Water Quality Webinar
On February 17 Lambda Alpha International (LAI, a land-economics honorary) hosted the Global Webinar Coastal-Water Quality: Challenges, Solutions, and Economic Impact presented by Sarasota’s environmental leadership. As a member of the LAI executive committee, Elemental Impact (Ei) Founder & CEO Holly Elmore orchestrated the webinar.

The global webinar was the second program in an eighteen-month series about water and land economics around the globe hosted by the LAI Global Water Group.

LAI At-Large Members from Florida’s Central Gulf Coast shared on global-coastal-water challenges along with the economic impact to the local and regional communities. With a well-orchestrated plan, via the Water Playbook, community organizations execute programs designed to prevent water contamination from land use and to cleanse contaminates in the water.

The Sarasota Bay Report Card documents achievements and remaining challenging scenarios. Teamwork is required for success with support provided by local, state, and federal governments as well as the community (foundations and taxpayers.)

After LAI International Vice President Kathline King gave introductory remarks, Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (SBEP) Executive Director Dave Tomasko opened the webinar with his State of the Bay presentation.

State of the Bay

Image courtesy of SBEP
In his opening slides, Dave introduced the Sarasota Bay (Bay) system's five bays and emphasized that "Managing Sarasota Bay Means Managing Nitrogen Levels." The main indicators of the Bay's health are:

  • Total Nitrogen (TN)
  • Chlorophyll-a (Chl-a)
  • Macroalgae abundance
  • Seagrass acreage
Using graphs and diagrams, Dave showcased how the Bay's health is better than 30 years ago yet with recent set backs caused by human activity and natural events. For five years, 2013 - 2019, over 750 million gallons of treated wastewater with high-nutrient content were released into the Lower Bay. Wastewater-treatment-facility upgrades corrected the devastating scenario. Additional upgrades are underway in Sarasota County.

In April 2021, over 200 million gallons of high-nutrient wastewater were pumped from Piney Point, an abandoned phosphate mine, into Tampa Bay; the wastewater contained 10X more nitrogen than the worst wastewater-treatment effluent released in Sarasota. Though the release was north of Sarasota in Tampa Bay, the Bay was significantly impacted.

Image courtesy of SBEP
Though it made landfill south of Sarasota, Hurricane Ian pummeled the central Gulf Coast with 85-miles-per-hour winds and 5 - 15 inches of rain; there was no storm surge. Yet, a tremendous volume of contaminated stormwater flowed into the Bay and later into the Gulf. Once in the Gulf, the high-nutrient water triggered a significant red tide-algae bloom. Five months later, remnants of the red tide bloom are still felt on the barrier-island beaches.

The health of seagrass beds is a barometer of the overall health of the Bay. Seagrass suffers when light penetration is limited due to algae growth in the Bay waters. A keystone species, seagrass serves as a nursery for marine life and a food source for manatees, green turtles, and dugongs.

Dave emphasized the ecological as well as economic impacts from compromised Bay-water quality. 

View or download Dave's The State of the Bay PPT presentation via the hyperlink.

Community Playbook for Clean Waterways
As Chair of the Community Playbook for Clean Waterways, referred to as the Water-Quality Playbook (WQP,) Gulf Coast Community Foundation (GCCF) Senior Vice President of Community Investment Jon Thaxton gave an excellent presentation on the WQP purpose, audience, and format.

Kayaking at sunset in the Bay
Image courtesy of GCCF
Using local chamber's, visitor bureau's, and other organization's water-themed marketing-collateral material as substantiation, Jon emphasized that Sarasota's sensational water-based geography is THE basis for the local economy. From the Bay to the Gulf to the barrier-island beaches, Sarasota is a paradise for coastal-water enjoyment and entices global tourists, whether for a week or the winter season. Protecting water quality protects "Our Way of Life."

With decades of investment, Sarasota is a pioneer in successful water-quality initiatives including fertilizer ordinances, stormwater management, seagrass restoration, and land conservation.  The pioneering efforts substantiate Dave's affirmation that the water quality is better now than thirty years ago.

As Jon states:
Estuaries are sensitive to nutrient pollution. Excess nutrients can change the balance of native flora and fauna in ways that degrade water bodies for fish, wildlife and human uses. As nutrient levels increase, macroalgae and phytoplankton outcompete seagrasses, which require the perfect balance of light levels and nutrients to flourish. Algal blooms, including macroalgae, blue-green algae, and red tide are of particular concern.

Prolific use of nitrogen-based fertilizers disrupts the natural-nitrogen cycle; nitrogen segues from a nutrient to a pollutant that instigates algae blooms. Increased algae blooms decrease light penetrating the water. With decreased light, the seagrass beds decrease and in some cases disappear.

Arial view of the John Ringling Causeway &
the City of Sarasota
Image courtesy of GCCF
The 2017 severe red tide bloom catapulted the Sarasota area into a local economic recession and was the catalyst for the GCCF to champion the WQP.

An impressive team of diverse professionals served on the WQP Steering Committee, including representation from the four panelists' respective organizations.

The WQP Goals are:
  1. REDUCE anthropogenic-based nutrient loading in natural systems; sources: fertilizer, biosolids, wastewater, septic systems, and engine emissions.
  2. REMOVE anthropogenic-based nutrient from natural systems.
  3. BUILD CAPACITY and resilience of ecosystems and human systems to maintain Goals 1 and 2 through education, incentives, partnerships, better data, and public policy.
To keep it functional and current, the WQP audience is policy makers and government agencies and is only available online to enable timely updates. Though Sarasota-focused, the WQP intention is to serve as a template for other coastal communities to emulate.

The final Steering Committee slide was perfect segue to the next presentation.

View or download Jon's Water-Quality Playbook PPT presentation via the hyperlink.

Conservation Easements
Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast (CFGC) President Christine Johnson began her session with a poignant quote by Luna Leopold; the quote set the theme of her presentation:
The health of our waters depends upon how well we live on the land
Oak tree on inland waterway.
Photo courtesy of the CFGC
With a territory that extends from south of Tampa Bay to the Everglades and covers five counties, the CFGC focuses on waterfront, imperiled wildlife, connectivity, and unique public access. The CFGC mission is to protect the land and water in Southwest Florida for the benefit of people and nature; CFGC envisions a future where the human and natural worlds of Southwest Florida flourish together. 

Throughout her presentation, Christine emphasized that conservation easements are FOREVER! 

Per one of her slides: A land trust or a land conservancy is a nonprofit organization that works with landowners and the community to conserve land, as well as steward or take care of the conserved land forever. By taking care of the land, the nearby and faraway water benefits.

As they extinguish development rights on the designated land, conservation easements eliminate or minimize impervious surfaces and limit stormwater runoff with nutrient loads. By allowing the land to hold water, conservation easements prevent downstream flooding and erosion into waterways.

Many conservation easements require best-land-management practices and incentivize land restoration; restoration grants often require a conservation easement. Signage required along the land boundaries educates and brings awareness to the public of the property's protected status.

To date, the CFGC holds conservation easements on 56 properties, consisting of over 19,200 acres.

Two of the CFGC recent easements are on former wetlands and have direct impact on water quality.

Rewilding the Quads
Partnering with the Sarasota Audubon Society, CFGC obtained conservation easements from Sarasota County on three of the four 11-acre Quad parcels located just east of I-75. Contiguous to the world-renowned birding site, The Celery Fields, the Quads project intends to augment bird habitat by planting a forest on one of the parcels.

Though there is ample opportunity for unique human access, a primary focus is rewilding the land for the benefit of wildlife.

Before human intervention, the wetland area was called Big Camp Sawgrass; the land is integral to the local watershed with water flowing into Phillippi Creek on its way to the Gulf.

Bobby Jones Golf Complex
Originally opened in 1926 as the 18-hole Sarasota Municipal Golf Course, the City of Sarasota-owned golf course was renamed the Bobby Jones Golf Course and eventually expanded to 45 holes over 300 acres. 

Bobby Jones Golf Course
Image courtesy of the CFGC
With the onset of the pandemic, the golf course closed. Fortunately, in January 2022, the City of  Sarasota donated a conservation easement to the CFGC with the provisions that a 27-hole course will use 45 acres; the remaining land was dedicated to wetland restoration.

Prior to the golf course development, the land was called Little Camp Sawgrass and directly connects with The Quads as water drains west into the Gulf.

Thanks to Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota donating conservation easement on The Quads (33 acres) and the Bobby Jones Golf Complex (300 acres,) the CFGC will ensure wetlands are restored, provide urban-wildlife food and habit, create unique public access, and improve the area's water quality.

As they are partners in the wetlands restoration, the Bobby Jones Golf Complex was a perfect segue to the Solutions to Avoid Red Tide (START) presentation.

View or download Christina's Conservation Easement PPT presentation via the hyperlink.

Healthy Stormwater Ponds
START is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization founded in 1995 to reduce the excess nutrients in our waterways that feed red tide and other Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs.) START Chair Sandy Gilbert shared that their mission is accomplished via public-education programs, water-quality government outreach, and nutrient-control programs.

A healthy stormwater pond
Photo courtesy of START
Examples of the nutrient-control initiatives include Sarasota bi-valve restoration programs, stormwater-filtering at Bay Park, microforest plantings, and stormwater pond-enhancement programs. Thus, START initiatives prevent water contamination from land use and cleanse contaminates in the water.

In September 2021 START secured a $250,000 three-year grant from the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation to develop a regional “Healthy Pond Collaborative (HPC)” initiative. In addition to START, partners include Sarasota County’s Neighborhood Environmental Stewardship Team, the UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County, and the Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida. The work was in part inspired by the WQP shared earlier by Jon.

A second grant was later received to expand the HPC beyond Sarasota County to Manatee County.

Stormwater ponds are manmade with three main purposes: 1> flood control, 2> filter out excess nutrients (nitrogen & phosphorus) and pollutants (oil & gas,) and 3> provide wildlife habitat. The manmade ponds are part of an overall stormwater-control system of linked ponds, man-made control boxes (weirs.) and natural wetlands that eventually flow stormwater into the Gulf.

Unfortunately, many of the more than 6,000 stormwater ponds in Sarasota County are decades old and only operate at 40 - 60% filtering efficiency. 

HPC objectives are threefold: 1> control erosion, 2> improve pond-filtering efficiency, and 3> help implement cost-efficient pond-maintenance programs.

The main premise of healthy ponds are two-fold: no-mow zones of 8 -12 inches high and 3-feet wide and aquatic vegetation on the littoral shelf (shallow water) with at least 30% to 50% density. Taller grass in no-mow zones have deeper roots that prevent erosion, keep grass clippings and fertilizers out of the pond, and absorb more stormwater and excess nutrients. Additionally, heavy equipment no longer weakens the bank of the pond; there is reduced labor and carbon footprint due to the decreased mowed area. 

Neighbors & wildlife enjoy the healthy pond
Photo courtesy of START
Aquatic vegetation crowds out algae, shades sunlight, absorbs nutrients, and reduces the need for herbicides (copper sulfate.) The limited sunlight and reduced algae-food source stymies algae growth. Beyond controlling algae growth, aquatic plants blunt wind and wave action against the bank, minimizing shoreline erosion.

It is common practice for homeowners and homeowner associations (HOA) to over fertilize and water their lawns; thus, the excess water carries the surplus fertilizer underground to the pond. Essentially, the ponds, instead of the lawns, are fertilized. The practice results in unnecessary expenditures as well as pond pollution.

Overall, stormwater-maintenance best practices are cost effective in the long run and reduce homeowners' and HOAs' landscape- and grounds-maintenance costs. 

Added bonus: a real estate study showed that homes on healthy ponds have a 20% increased property value.

In 2022, the HPC funded the installation of over 4.3 miles of newly planted pond shorelines in Sarasota County and another 2.9 miles in Manatee County; the planted shorelines, along with no-mow zones, filter the excess nutrients in stormwater runoff before it flows downstream to the Bay.

View or download Sandy's Healthy Stormwater PPT presentation via the hyperlink.

The global-webinar presentations ended with Dave returning to quantify how the community will achieve water-quality goals.

How do we meet our water-quality goals?
In his closing remarks, Dave compared the referenced period 2006 - 2012, when the Bay returned to a healthy state, to the current health status; research confirms that the Bay's dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) load increased 20%, or 12 tons.

DIN-load sources include:

  • Reclaimed water from non-Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT) Wastewater Treatment Plants (WWTP) - up to 20 tons / year.
  • WWTP overflows - up to 6 tons / year (peak in 2018.)
  • Septic tanks - estimated up to 20 tons /year; 70% now offline.
  • Stormwater - still the biggest source; CFGC and START programs significantly reduce contaminated stormwater flowing into the Bay.
Based on the known sources, there are more than 20 tons of DIN reduction available.

Boaters enjoy the Bay 
Photo courtesy of SBEP
A key to success is community involvement. Beyond the non-profit- and foundation-community sector represented by the webinar's panelists, local government is committed to upgrade the area's wastewater systems. 

IMPRESSIVE: local governments - City of Sarasota, City of Bradenton, Sarasota County, Manatee County, and Town of Longboat Key - expended over $400 million for WWTP upgrades in the past two decades. At the November 2021 Water Quality Restoration Workshop, the referenced local governments committed to spend nearly $1 billion on future WWTP upgrades in the next 5 - 10 years!!!

Dave confirmed it is realistic to be optimistic with a cautionary tone; the Bay is warmer, the air is warmer, and the Bay is six-inches deeper. Yet, with community-wide commitment to restoring the Bay water quality, it is achievable to return to acceptable DIN loads experienced during the referenced period.

View or download Dave's How do we meet our goals? PPT presentation via the hyperlink.

A vibrant questions and answer (Q&A) session followed Dave's wrap-up presentation.

Q&A Session
LAI Global Water Group Co-Chair, LAI San Francisco Chapter Past President and current Board Member, Jim Musbach moderated the webinar Q&A session.

Economics of Red Tide Blooms
Dave and Jon answered the questions related to red tide blooms. Dave educated that red tide occurs when the microscopic algae Karenia brevis exceeds certain thresholds. Additionally, Dave shared that humans do not cause red tide; humans make red tide worse by the nutrient loads added to the Bay.

During a red tide outbreak, waterfront properties along with those up to a mile inland decrease in value by 20 - 30%. Decreased property values result in lower property taxes that pay for local community services: police, fire, schools, and more.

Waterfront properties are collectively valued at an estimated $5 billion with around 20,000 residents employed at waterfront businesses. Jon emphasized how low-wage workers, many of these 20,000 jobs, disproportionately suffer economically during red tide outbreaks; there is an increase in homelessness and demand for community social services.

In Dave's perspective, the local governments' nearly $1 billion commitment to WWTP upgrades that will significantly reduce the nutrient loads flowing into the Bay and is a solid, wise investment

Volunteers from local government, non-profits,
college, and caring residents.
Photo courtesy of Carmen Merriam
Community Collaboration
Jon shared that the WQP was designed to educate and support local government officials and policy makers when faced with difficult tax-appropriation decisions. Using a disinterested third-party approach, the WQP affords local officials with the foundation to make the financial commitments necessary to restore and maintain the Bay's water quality, the driver for the local economy.

No where else in the State has a community come together in a strong collaborative plan for water quality. The $1 billion-WWTP funding comes from the local sources, with no state or federal assistance.

Local officials made another bold commitment: necessary legal steps were taken that allow allocation of funds within the tax bill's stormwater- and utility-line item for water-quality measures. 

Fertilizer-restriction ordinances
Jon provided in-depth answers to the question regarding fertilizer ordinances. During his tenure as a Sarasota County Commissioner, Jon authored the first fertilizer ordinance in The State of Florida; the ordinance included a black-out period for nitrogen- and phosphorous-based fertilizers during the summer-rainy season. Ordinance provisions also restrict applying fertilizers on impervious surfaces and too close to waterways. Jon also served on the State Fertilizer Task Force.

Upon request, Jon is happy to share a copy of the fertilizer ordinance. 

Surf at a Sarasota Beach
Photo courtesy of the GCCF
In his commentary, Jon emphasized that the fertilizer ordinance is difficult to enforce. Yet, the ordinance is an educational tool for local residents regarding using too much fertilizer at the wrong time of year and in the wrong places.

Until the Sarasota County ATP WWTP is complete, the reclaimed water available for lawn and landscape irrigation includes more nitrogen than is recommended by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for a healthy lawn. Thus, irrigation with reclaimed water provides ample fertilizers to lawns and landscapes.

Sandy chimed in about over fertilizing lawns. At one of his HPC ponds, pond-water tests showed a 70% reduction in nitrogen simply by following the required fertilizer restrictions. Additionally, Sandy proved to the HOA that elimination of their fertilizing practices would reduce costs while maintaining beautiful lawns. Thus, the HOA achieved cost-savings and improved their pond health, all with lovely lawns!

Seagrass Beds
As Dave established in his opening presentation, nitrogen levels and the state-of-seagrass beds are two barometers for the Bay's health. Though there were many prior success stories 5 -10 years ago, the current seagrass-bed status is devastating. It is estimated that 1/3 of the manatee population on Florida's East Coast starved to death due to the depletion of seagrass beds from water pollution; a manatee's primary food source is seagrass.

Though the Bay's seagrass beds are healthier than in most other coastal waters, the overall scenario is dire and a crisis. Statewide there is a loss of approximately 150-square miles of seagrass beds.

Since ancient times, diminished water quality caused devastating scenarios, often with human death. In the modern era, water-quality challenges segued to include environmental and economic impact in the impaired areas. As demonstrated in the Coastal-Water Quality: Challenges, Solutions, and Economic Impact Global Webinar, Sarasota environmental leaders demonstrated that with collaborative community effort water quality may be restored. 

Economic and environmental impact provide strong incentives for a community to adopt a collaborative plan for water-quality restoration. The Gulf Coast Community Foundation's Water-Quality Playbook is a valuable template with proven success for communities to follow.

The recorded 90-minute Coastal-Water Quality: Challenges, Solutions, and Economic Impact  Global Webinar is available for viewing via the hyperlink.

Tax-deductible donations in any amount are greatly appreciated to support Ei's important work. 


About Elemental Impact:
Elemental Impact (Ei) is a 501(c)3 non-profit founded in 2010 as the home to the Zero Waste Zones, the forerunner in the nation for the commercial collection of food waste for compost. In June 2017, Ei announced the Era of Recycling Refinement was Mission Accomplished and entered the Era of Regeneration. Current focus areas include Nature PrevailsSoil Health | Regenerative Agriculture, and Water Use | Toxicity.

The Regeneration in ACTION Magazine articles, From Organic Certification to Regenerative Agriculture to Rewilding Landscapes: an evolution towards soil integrity and SOIL & WATER: the foundation of life, published to explain and substantiate the importance of Ei’s rewilding urban landscapes work within the Nature Prevails focus area.

The Holly Elmore Images Rewilding Urban Landscapes-album folder documents two active pilots: the Native-Plant Landscape Pilot and the Backyard Permaculture-Oriented Pilot.

To work with industry leaders to create best regenerative operating practices where the entire value-chain benefits, including corporate bottom lines, communities, and the environment. Through education and collaboration, establish best practices as standard practices.

Ei’s tagline – Regeneration in ACTION – is the foundation for Ei endeavors.

The following mantra is at the core of Ei work:

Ei is a creator, an incubator.
Ei determines what could be done that is not being done and gets it done.
Ei brings the possible out of impossible.
Ei identifies pioneers and creates heroes.

For additional information, contact Holly Elmore at 404-510-9336 |

About Lambda Alpha International:
Lambda Alpha International (LAI) is an honorary society for the advancement of land economics. LAI provides a forum for the study and advancement of land economics where the "winnowing and sifting" of ideas takes place in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

LAI operates through a network of chapters. A LAI Chapter provides a variety of programs and forums for its members to share information critical to understanding important land-use issues. The IMPACT Blog article, Lambda Alpha International Atlanta Chapter: growing membership, influence and impact, introduces LAI along with its history and designated purposes.

In December 2013 Ei Founder Holly Elmore was inducted into membership and served on the LAI Atlanta Chapter Board until returning to Florida in 2021.  As the International Assistant Communications Director, Holly serves on the LAI Global Executive Committee.

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