MANATEE — As the dumping of wastewater into Sarasota Bay has slowed to a trickle, the bay and its inhabitants have steadily bounced back to health, according to an environmental group’s report.
The Sarasota Bay Estuary Program study, “State of the Bay 2010: Celebrating Paradise, Staying the Course,” says nitrogen pollution into the bay has been reduced 64 percent since 1988.
That has spurred the growth of seagrass, up 24 percent since 1950, and the return of scallops, a key barometer of water quality.
“The most important thing that’s happened in our community is the control of wastewater pollution,” said Mark Alderson, director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program. “We’ve almost eliminated wastewater discharge to the bay, and that’s a phenomenal accomplishment.”
Only the city of Sarasota and Siesta Key utilities still dump wastewater into the bay, Alderson said. Both have begun the process of joining other local government entities that either spread reclaimed wastewater as fertilizer over golf courses or farm land or inject it into a safe zone in a saltwater aquifer.
Nitrogen enters tributaries, then the bay, from wastewater, stormwater, groundwater and the atmosphere, the report said. Excess nitrogen causes algal blooms that cloud the water and reduce the amount of light available for submerged seagrasses.
Seagrasses provide shelter and serve as nursery areas to sealife, the report said. Since 1988, the bay has gained 3,991 acres of seagrass.
The report, presented Friday evening at the Powel Crosley estate, is required every three years from the estuary program, which was created by Manatee and Sarasota governments as well as state and federal departments in 1989 in an effort to reclaim the environmental integrity of the bay. It is one of 28 estuary programs across the country.
Members of the estuary program policy board celebrated the bay’s turnaround Friday and the governmental cooperation that made it happen. About 650 acres of wetland habitat and 28 new ecological parks have been placed around the bay since 1989. About 3,000 artificial reef modules have been installed on nine new reefs in the bay.
“Sarasota and Manatee do wonderful things together. ... We’re the best two counties in the state of Florida, in my opinion,” said former Manatee County Commissioner Pat Glass, who helped the estuary program get off the ground.
But leaders warned there is still plenty of work to be done. Because all segments of Sarasota Bay now meet state water quality standards, Alderson said focus has shifted to improving troublesome tributaries, including Phillippi Creek, Bowlees Creek and Whitaker Bayou. Bowlees Creek is in Manatee County.
“We’ve come a long way, but we can’t let down on our guard here,” Alderson said.
The reauthorization of the national estuary program is being considered by Congress. The 28 programs receive $35 million annually, but funding is precious in a down economy.
Glass is heading up an effort to ensure the reauthorization.
“It’s going to be tougher and tougher to fund the social services and environmental programs,” she warned.