Efforts to safeguard water working here

Nitrogen-rich water leaving septic tanks is a major contributor to nutrient pollution. Septic tanks are being replaced with sanitary sewer systems to protect springs such as Marion County’s Rainbow Springs.

To preserve Florida’s water, communities must be willing to keep it clean. And, in the coming months, officials are planning to double down. As a state, Florida is pocketed with myriad lakes and springs, and is dependent on an underground aquifer for drinking water. Locally, residents are surrounded by bodies of water such as lakes Harris and Panasoffkee, as well as Silver Springs and Rainbow Springs. A coaltion of state and local officials, as well as volunteers, is fighting against excess nutrients and algae that threaten the vitality of Florida’s natural water bodies. Efforts to improve water quality in the tri-county are beginning to show results as the governor looks to prioritize statewide water quality enhancements and monitoring in the coming year.

Official Efforts

This month, Gov. Ron DeSantis unveiled a new water quality-monitoring website, ProtectingFloridaTogether.gov. Its monitoring tools will evaluate the presence of nutrient pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus, as well as toxic algae like cyanobacteria (better known as blue-green algae) and red tide.

Right now, the new website tracks the water quality of only three water bodies in South Florida, but state leaders aim to expand the listing over the next year.

Prior to that, DeSantis rolled out a series of water quality initiatives for the upcoming legislative session, seeking improvements to wastewater infrastructure, septic tanks and stormwater infrastructure.

Similar local initiatives over the course of the last two decades, from water districts’ purchase of former agricultural lands to the construction of a nutrient reduction facility along the Harris Chain of Lakes, continue to deliver results.

In Lake Panasoffkee, a recent treatment of the invasive aquatic weed known as hydrilla helped improve water quality, flows and levels, said Mark Fulkerson, senior professional engineer with the Southwest Florida water district.

It was necessary because the hydrilla impeded the district’s ability to reduce high water levels in the lake, which could cause flooding, he said.

“It’s a flush, more naturally, because the hydrilla wasn’t allowing the lake to flush,” Fulkerson said. “The flows going out are back to normal. When you go out there now, you wouldn’t even know all that happened.”

And it looks like all that work is paying off. Based on samples from the 356 lakes and 39 rivers in the Ocklawaha River watershed — which includes the Harris Chain of Lakes — levsls of total nitrogen and phosphorus are lower on average than five years ago, data from the Florida Atlas of Lakes showed.

Nitrogen and phosphorus occur naturally in water bodies. But when excessive amounts of these nutrients enter the water — typically from stormwater, wastewater and agricultural runoff — they can harm water quality and fish habitats, or cause harmful algal blooms, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration.

In its most recent survey from July to September, the St. Johns River Water Management District found an average of 9 micrograms per liter of phosphorus and more than 1,500 micrograms per liter of nitrogen.

From January to March 2014, it found lakes in the watershed had an average of more than 20 micrograms per liter of phosphorus and just under 2,000 micrograms per liter of nitrogen.

While the data provides a picture of how healthy the watershed is, the Florida Atlas of Lakes cautions the data samples are taken from different parts of the lakes, and those parts may have varying conditions.

Volunteer Efforts

But supporting water doesn’t start and end with state leaders and water managers.

A University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences program called Florida Lakewatch depends on volunteers who take water samples at lakes within their communities to monitor quality issues that may arise.

The program’s goal is to build a long-term database that observes trends in nutrient pollution, algae and water clarity differences during wet and dry periods, said Daniel Willis, a regional coordinator for Lakewatch.

Volunteers’ data provided guidance for state leaders to develop management plans for impaired lakes, he said.

“Managers can’t take actions without data, and it can be expensive to hire biologists to do monitoring,” Willis said.

The volunteer-generated monitoring gives decision makers and the public a better understanding of the health of Florida’s water, said Norma Samuel, an extension agent with the UF/IFAS Sumter County Extension office.

Volunteers also help educate the public. That includes giving residents and farmers greater awareness of the effects fertilizers and pesticides may have on water when they use them in their landscapes, Samuel said.

Reinvigorating springs

Like lakes, Florida’s springs may be vulnerable to the elements of pollution and algae.

Springs are the visible portion of the Floridan aquifer, the underground supply of most of Florida’s drinking water, according to the Florida Springs Institute.

They also support critical habitats for some of Florida’s imperiled species, such as manatees.

State leaders allocated $100 million in the current fiscal year — $50 million in new springs funding from the 2019-20 state budget, as well as $50 million from the prior year that never was spent — to support the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s proposed springs improvement projects.

Most state-funded tri-county projects center on Silver Springs and Rainbow Springs in Marion County. Water management districts identified nitrogen-rich water leaving septic tanks as a major contributor to nutrient pollution in the springs.

As a result, septic tanks are being replaced with sanitary sewer systems.

“While conventional septic systems are good at removing many pollutants from wastewater, they are not designed to remove nitrogen,” said Teresa Monson, spokeswoman with the St. Johns River Water Management District. “To restore spring water quality, contributing septic systems need either to be removed or upgraded to include enhanced nitrogen-reducing technology.”

DeSantis, following recommendations from the state’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force, called for state oversight of septic tanks.

Beyond replacing septic tanks, one project supported by prior funding is the Ocala Wetland Recharge Park, which is scheduled to open next year.

The park is expected to increase Silver Springs’ flows and prevent more than 59,000 pounds of nutrient pollution from entering the waters annually, the DEP stated.

City officials in Ocala stated that the park’s infrastructure will include rapid infiltration basins that will replenish groundwater in the aquifer faster than current natural rates.

And wastewater that filters through the basins will have “undetectable levels of nitrogen,” filtered out by wetland plants and the microorganisms that live on them, said Rachel Slocumb, conservation coordinator for Ocala’s Water Resources Department.

Robert Knight, director of the Florida Springs Institute, thinks treatment wetlands like the one being built near Silver Springs are one of the most effective methods to reduce nutrient pollution and enhance water quality.

He pointed to the Sweetwater Wetlands Park in Gainesville as a successful example. The park provides an additional layer of filtration to remove pollutants from wastewater.

The park also is a wildlife haven, Knight said.

“It’s now one of the most popular birding sites in Florida,” he said. “The wildlife it attracts are attracting people to Gainesville. That’s the kind of thing that can happen to a community with the right planning.”

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.