Nine-county comparative report exposes troubling trends for water quality in Southwest Florida

March 27, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

SUBMITTED BY THE CALUSA WATERKEEPERS – Since 1993, March 22 has been known as World Water Day, and Calusa Waterkeeper is taking this opportunity to release a Report chronicling troubling trends in the quality of Southwest Florida’s waterways from 2018 to 2020. World Water Day is an annual UN observance day that highlights the importance of freshwater and sustainable management of freshwater resources.

The study covers Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Sarasota, Manatee, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Hendry and Glades Counties, and is based on the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) assessment criteria — gathered from the agency’s annual comprehensive verified list of impaired waters.

According to Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani, principal author of the Report: “Understanding factors contributing to water quality impairment in Florida is important for determining sources and eventual restoration planning. Assessing water quality impairment on a geopolitical basis, for instance, by county, is relevant as most state-mandated restoration programs, such as Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs), are implemented primarily by local government stakeholders.”

 Among other findings, the Report documents that Lee, Collier, Manatee and Charlotte experienced the greatest increase in water quality impairment. The Report also reveals that fecal bacteria was the most frequently occurring impairment parameter in six of the nine counties including Lee, Charlotte, Sarasota, Manatee, Hillsborough and Pinellas. The presence of fecal bacteria is a significant public health risk in addition to compromising ecosystems.

The following are highlighted summary points of concern from the full 16-page Report:

• Counties’ ranking with regard to an increased rate of water quality impairment from highest to lowest were Lee, Collier, Manatee and Charlotte.

• Counties’ percent of total water bodies (WBIDs) impaired from highest to lowest were Glades, Hendry and Lee.

• Fecal bacteria were the most frequently occurring impairment parameter in six of the nine counties. Many of these fecal bacteria impairments occur in Outstanding Florida Waters that are supposed to be protected from water quality decline by statute.

• Nutrients represented the highest proportion of impairments in Collier, Glades and Hendry Counties.

• Overall impairment trend: The order (highest impairment trend to lowest) of counties ranked across all metrics defining or contributing to impairment was Manatee, Lee, Hillsborough, Collier, Charlotte, Sarasota, Hendry, Glades, Pinellas.

“Calusa Waterkeeper’s nine-county impairment assessment provides a succinct snapshot of water quality issues in our region,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Marisa Carrozzo, Everglades & Water Policy Manager for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida stated: “Southwest Florida’s waters are impacted by multiple types of pollution and the Calusa Waterkeeper summary provides a county-by-county understanding of impairment prevalence across nine counties.”

According to Jen Lomberk, Chair of Waterkeepers Florida, “This Report provides a ‘big picture’ view of the overall health of the waterways in the region and, moreover, shows decreasing trends in water quality over time. It uses scientific data to show that our current approach to dealing with water pollution is not working and something needs to be done.”

“The inescapable message is that Florida’s water quality regulatory system simply doesn’t work. Hopefully, as we cite this Report’s conclusions before our county and state governments’ staff and elected officials, we may finally force them to pay attention,” stated Andre Mele, Peace+Myakka Waterkeeper.

John Cassani was assisted in compiling the Report by Chris Shinouskis, Co-Leader of the Calusa Waterkeeper Estero Zone Ranger Team. The purpose of the assessment is to summarize water quality impairment in nine southwest Florida counties between 2018 and 2020, using data sourced from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), the University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR), NOAA’s Coastal Change Analysis Program (C-CAP) and other sources.

More information and the full report are available at calusawaterkeeper.org/swfl-water-quality-report/