The economic impacts and environmental damage of this year-long red tide episode have been painfully evident. Since no causal link has been established between nutrient inputs from human activities and red tide severity and duration, the options for management are limited. However, scientists agree: the management of nutrient inputs to protect or improve coastal water quality could limit the total pool of nutrients available for red tide duration. Governments, local communities, and individuals each have roles to play in this effort to support the long-term health of Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
We have evidence of the positive impacts of nutrient reduction based on over thirty years of water quality management in the Sarasota-Manatee area. This region has invested millions of dollars in numerous clean-water projects including upgrading wastewater treatment facilities to eliminate discharge, consolidating small ineffective treatment facilities, connecting thousands of homes to central sewer service, and restoring valuable wetlands for nutrient uptake. These smart investments have reduced nitrogen pollution to Sarasota Bay by over 65 percent since the 1980s despite significant population growth.
We have witnessed major improvements in bay water quality in concert with these pollution reductions and Sarasota Bay seagrass meadows have recovered by 54 percent over the same period. However, seagrasses and the wildlife that depends on them are vulnerable to water quality degradation as the region’s population continues to grow. Adding more vehicles, paved surfaces, and buildings to the watershed will deliver more nutrients to Sarasota Bay if we do not adequately plan. The Sarasota Bay Estuary Program’s Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan for Sarasota Bay outlines such a plan for Bay restoration and protection:
- Take individual and community action. Individual and community lifestyle choices add up. Individuals can reduce their impacts by picking up pet waste promptly, refraining from fertilizing until red tide subsides, and keeping grass clippings out of streets and storm drains. Local grant opportunities are available to support community-scale projects that benefit the environment, from planting native vegetation in shared spaces to fostering school and neighborhood education programs focused on reducing personal nutrient pollution. The Sarasota Bay Estuary Program Bay Partners Grant Program alone has awarded over $300,000 to local organizations for such projects since 2003.
- Go green in new development and retrofits. Current development patterns prevent restoring many wetlands that were once numerous in this region, but we can implement stormwater management practices that mimic those wetlands. Swales, pervious pavement, vegetated shorelines around ponds, creeks, and bays, and rain gardens slow down the pace of stormwater as it moves through the watershed and allow it to filter through soils rather than rushing across pavement.
- Continue septic-to-sewer programs. The Phillippi Creek Septic System Replacement Program in Sarasota County has connected over 10,000 customers to central sewer service. However, thousands of tanks remain around Sarasota Bay. According to the Florida Department of Health, even well-functioning septic tanks can contribute nutrient pollution to groundwater and waterways because traditional septic systems remove 40% or less of the nitrogen present in wastewater. A study of septic tanks around Sarasota Bay showed that a distance of at least 900 feet is required between a septic system and a waterbody to reduce nutrient concentrations in effluent to mandated levels for wastewater treatment plants that discharge to waterways in Southwest Florida. Properties in priority areas less than 900 feet from creek and bay waterfronts should be prioritized for central sewers to reduce nutrient flow into nearby waterbodies.
- Prioritize land conservation and restoration. Landscapes and shorelines with native vegetation absorb and filter rainwater. Land conservation and restoration reduce stormwater quantity, improve stormwater quality, and support fisheries and wildlife while providing essential public access to nature in our rapidly urbanizing region.
While the potential impact of these actions on red tide remains unknown, each is a smart investment that will protect and enhance the economic and cultural value of Sarasota Bay for future generations. With an economic value to Sarasota and Manatee counties of $11.8 billion, Sarasota Bay supports 1 in 17 local jobs, making it an economic driver that is critical to the future of our region, and well worth the investment.
Mark Alderson is the executive director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program in Sarasota.