What Can We Do About Our Water?

See how Sanibel is progressing in the fight against nutrient pollution.

BY July 1, 2019
Water from the Sanibel River flows into the Jordan Marsh Water Quality Treatment Park, a manmade wetland that mimics nature’s ability to extract nutrients from the water. After meandering through the 6.5-acre marsh, the water returns to the river, cleaner than before.

Hot chocolate-colored. Opaque. And occasionally smelly.

That’s how Sanibel residents Barbara Horvath and Liz Mostello-Harris would have described the retention pond abutting their backyards not long ago. But today, on a bright April morning, they’re taking stock of the changes they’ve noticed since they got swept up in the island’s all-hands-on-deck effort to clean up tainted water.

The two are maintaining a floating treatment wetland installed by an outside landscaping firm and have crafted, through trial and error, six more such hydroponic plant collections since. The plant roots absorb excess phosphorous and nitrogen, nutrients that feed algae and spark a chain reaction that impacts the water’s ability to sustain aquatic life.

Neighbors Barbara Horvath, left, and Liz Mostello-Harris create floating wetland treatments to capture excess nutrients from a shared lake behind their homes (see below).

“It still is a little murky, but nothing like what you would have seen before,” Mostello-Harris says. The women list species they’ve noticed of late: birds and turtles—and, the harbinger of change, fish. 

Southwest Florida is a hot spot for “nutrient pollution,” a situation in which excess substances, namely nitrogen and phosphorous, infiltrate bodies of water such as rivers, canals, the Gulf—and this neighborhood stormwater pond. Nitrogen and phosphorous may be essential to life, but when too much runs into the water, they cause algae to grow faster and denser than the ecosystem can handle. Algae blooms, in turn, can lead to fish kills, decreased oxygen, excessive chlorophyll, and, in the case of some varieties, toxins that make people and wildlife sick.

The nutrients, often from excess fertilizer, are overwhelming water bodies around the globe, including our Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and the northern Gulf of Mexico, where there’s an oxygen-depleted dead zone roughly the size of Connecticut attributed to farm runoff. This is what Sanibel’s civic leaders, business owners and residents have decided to fight. 

In Southwest Florida, the problem exploded last summer when coastal waters became the epicenter of a historic red tide bloom, and toxic blue-green algae choked the Caloosahatchee River and Cape Coral’s canals. Area scientists found a dead zone off the coast measuring roughly 600 square kilometers. Some 2 tons of marine life, including representatives of nine threatened or endangered species, washed up on Lee County shores alone. The county spent $2.5 million on beach cleanup.

Southwest Floridians blamed the disaster on nutrient-tainted water flushed from Lake Okeechobee down the Caloosahatchee. But the problem of nutrient pollution has festered for decades, spurred not only by lake releases but also by the region’s ongoing development boom and a regulatory climate that favors developers over nature. Six water bodies in Southwest Florida, including the Sanibel River (also known as the Sanibel Slough), are under state order to lower their rates of contaminants, mostly for problems related to excess nitrogen and phosphorous. But many others are unhealthy, too. In fact, a Department of Environmental Protection database lists some 40 water bodies in Lee and Collier counties as not meeting water quality standards because of nutrient concentrations, bacteria and heavy metals—including copper, used to kill algae.

It’s a reality Sanibel knows well. City environmental experts and Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) scientists have sampled nearly 150 locations around the island—everything from the Sanibel River to retention ponds to groundwater wells to sites in the estuaries and along the coast. Most exceeded the state’s threshold for nitrogen or phosphorous or both.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a Southwest Florida community that isn’t taking steps to clean up its water. But on Sanibel, we discovered what can be achieved when a community stops waiting for state action and for The Big Fix—Everglades restoration—and moves forward on its own. The city’s Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan, years in the making, aims to clean up the nitrogen and phosphorous already present in the rivers, ponds and coastline and prevent more of the stuff from getting in. The approach includes a public engagement plan that turns residents into clean-water crusaders; agreements with golf courses to curtail fertilizer and manage runoff; a wastewater system overhaul; and ordinances prohibiting the behaviors that tainted the island’s water in the first place.

Not everything the island has done can be applied to bigger, mainland communities in Southwest Florida and beyond. But looking at solutions, gleaned locally or from elsewhere, is critical: Last summer’s algae outbreaks cost Southwest Florida millions in tourism-related revenue (nearly $50 million on Sanibel alone); emerging research suggests a correlation between freshwater algae exposure and neurological diseases; and the fish stock may take as long as three years to rebound. It’s been even worse elsewhere: In 2014, Toledo residents temporarily lost their drinking water supply during an algae outbreak on Lake Erie, of the same species that had afflicted the Caloosahatchee.

The First Lesson of Sanibel: Build less, conserve more

The point person for Sanibel’s multi-fronted battle is Natural Resources Director James Evans, who’s been part of these efforts for 20 years. When he’s not out working on environmental matters, he occupies a space in a rather crammed department at City Hall that boasts five biologists, including himself.

Nutrient pollution may be top-of-mind for wary Southwest Floridians, but it’s hardly a new cause on Sanibel, Evans says. In fact, he says, the city’s modern political history started with water worries.

The 33-square-mile island harkens back to Old Florida, a tranquil, subtropical wilderness ringed with white sand beaches—a developer’s dream. In 1974, islanders voted to incorporate, figuring that self-rule was the only way to resist a pro-real estate county commission governing from the mainland. They knew, even then, that the water was in trouble, Evans says.

“They knew we had to change the direction (Sanibel) was heading in,” Evans says. Posted near his desk is an old cartoon sketch showing a Disney-fied Sanibel that might-have-been. 

Much of the island’s nutrient problem is beyond its control. Sanibel lies near the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River, which serves as a discharge pipe for Lake Okeechobee in Florida’s agricultural heartland. The river picks up additional contaminants as it flows across farm-heavy Hendry County through the Franklin Lock in Alva and into Lee County’s urban core.

Even so, Sanibel’s leaders have come to grips with a tough-to-
swallow reality: They—like any developed community—feed the problem, too. When it rains, stormwater picks up pollutants like excess nitrogen and phosphorous and sweeps them into water bodies. The island’s septic tanks used to leach more of the same into the ground. Its wastewater treatment plant lacks the technology to remove sufficient nutrients, so the reclaimed water—stored in ponds and used for irrigation—cycles more of it back into the system.

City founders tackled growth management first. They drafted “The Sanibel Plan,” a land-use guidebook that blocked most development and highly regulated the rest. (Lee County’s zoning and permitting standards would have allowed about 30,000 residential units; the Sanibel Plan caps them at 9,000.) City leaders teamed up with SCCF to acquire vacant land and buy back parcels that had been platted and sold to far-flung residents-to-be. Conservation lands, including the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, comprise two-thirds of the island. Of all the water-related protections the city enacted, this land preservation piece may have been the most critical, a researcher tells us later.

The sun rises over the 265-acre Sanibel Gardens Preserve. Once platted for development, this restored area now helps protect the Sanibel River from contamination. Two-thirds of Sanibel is conservation land.

Evans navigates his SUV through seasonal traffic and brings us to a haven, Sanibel Gardens, a 265-acre preserve hugging the Sanibel River shoreline. The area was part of the land that had once been prepped for development. “What we’re looking at is a restoration project,” Evans says, pausing by a spot where the shoreline had been reconfigured and replanted with native vegetation. “If you didn’t know that, you’d think it was all natural.”

His tour continues. A couple of miles away, we visit the newly opened Jordan Marsh Water Quality Treatment Park, a 6.5-acre manmade wetland. Evans leads the way to a pump at the marsh’s tip and explains how it pulls dirty water from the Sanibel River and channels it through the wetlands where plants such as cattails go to work, sucking water and trapping nutrients. Eventually, the water makes its way back into the river, cleaner than before. It’s too early to know whether the $645,000 project is working; one model suggests it’ll move the city about 40 percent closer to its state-mandated nitrogen reduction targets and 20 percent toward its phosphorous ones in the eastern portion of the river. A similar, albeit larger, project in Naples’ Gordon River offers reason for optimism. It has been shown to reduce 48 percent of stormwater’s total nitrogen and 80 percent of its total phosphorous before it flows into Naples Bay.

Lesson Two: Fear not the rulebook

Real estate-loving Florida balks at reining in development; Sanibel leaders wince at development unfettered. On the island, aside from the construction caps, there’s an ordinance limiting water- and fertilizer-hungry turf grass to 20 percent of a property. There’s another mandating that homebuilders move—not simply destroy—native vegetation on their lots. Other regulations, like one limiting impervious surfaces, guard against nutrient-laden stormwater contaminating rivers, canals, ponds and the Gulf.

In 2007, the island drafted one of the state’s first fertilizer ordinances. It limits the amount and type of nitrogen and phosphorous that can be used, regulates where fertilizer can be spread, and prohibits its use entirely during the rainy season. (Florida lawmakers have since banned local governments from setting rules more stringent than the state’s.)

And then, city council mandated the biggie: Everyone had to convert from septic to sewer, a $70 million undertaking that started in 1991 when the city acquired the island’s wastewater treatment plant and will wrap up in the next couple of years.

Septic isn’t a problem by default—the systems’ efficacy depends on their engineering, proximity to the water table and the type of soil in which they’re placed. But in some places like Sanibel, the tanks are known to leach phosphorous, nitrogen and other waste products into the groundwater. Former Gov. Charlie Crist had signed a law requiring septic systems be inspected every five years; his successor, Rick Scott, repealed it.

Moving to sewer is one of the costliest and most disruptive infrastructure projects a local government—and its property owners—can take on. But on Sanibel, the data implicating septic were undeniable.

“We had identified the areas where we had problems,” says Evans, holding up a color-coded map where red splotches denote areas highest in nitrogen and phosphorous. “One of the issues was septic tanks.”

All the while, Evans’ department and SCCF scientists have sampled the water to see if the septic conversion, fertilizer ordinance, and rules limiting and regulating development were paying off.

To learn the answer, Evans sends us to Mark Thompson, a research associate at SCCF.

We find him at the organization’s Marine Lab in a second-floor workspace overlooking Tarpon Bay. Thompson’s a high-energy guy more easily imagined doing fieldwork than sitting at a desk, though he’s agreed to stay office-bound this day for the sake of reviewing the data.

When we pose the “Is it working?” question, Thompson looks up and gives an unequivocal “Yes!”

He pulls up a report comparing a 1976 U.S. Geological Survey study of the Sanibel River with samples from 2010-2012. In the river’s east basin, the total phosphorous levels were 83 percent lower in 2012 than they were in the ’70s. The total nitrogen level was 48 percent lower. That’s not to say the water is great—the Sanibel River still exceeds the state threshold for both nutrients—but it buoyed Thompson, Evans and their respective organizations. 

Among the reasons for the improvement: There is 55 percent less nitrogen and 33 percent less phosphorous running off of Sanibel compared to what scientific data suggests is typical. That means less dirty water from land getting into the Gulf and other water bodies. In the science of nutrient control, that’s a big deal.

And that success is due largely to what Thompson says was the island’s most critical action. “Sixty percent of Sanibel is preserve land. It’s preserved into perpetuity. It can’t be developed over 40 percent, and there have been some major studies over the years that say when you get to 30 percent or above developed land, your water quality goes to hell.”

Meanwhile, Lee County overall saw an increase of impervious surface area of 25 percent and Collier of 30 percent between 1996 and 2010, according to the first and last year of data publicly available on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s land-use database. The Sanibel experiences beg the question: If you’re gonna develop, can you at least do so in a way that uses less turf and less pavement and sets aside more land for preservation?

Lesson Three: Clean those storm ponds!

Back at Seagull Estates, Horvath and Mostello-Harris move from the waterfront to Horvath’s shaded patio, where she grows plants and stores materials for their pond project.

The two have become quite the environmental engineers. Hoping to cover more surface area—and stretch their HOA allocation—the women figured out how to replicate the commercial floating wetland by sinking potted plants into foam mats, the kind you see on gym floors. They’ve determined the most effective tools for their new trade, the plants most likely to take to the water, the best ways to launch and anchor the mats. Their latest experiment involves rigging a netted shield around the submerged roots to keep turtles from devouring them and rendering the plants useless.

This neighborhood project falls under one of Sanibel’s newest initiatives, the Communities for Clean Water program. In 2016, SCCF scientists and city natural resources experts sampled 74 ponds throughout the island’s residential neighborhoods to gauge their health. Eighty-nine percent of them exceeded the state standard for nitrogen or phosphorous.

These stormwater ponds—ubiquitous in Florida—are supposed to work in much the same way Jordan Marsh does, allowing plants to pull nutrients from the water and supporting chemical processes that break down nitrogen and phosphorous.

But many ponds can’t do their jobs, sometimes because of poor engineering but mostly because of bad management.

Homeowners let turf grass grow to the water’s edge—and fertilize it, no less. They’ve removed shoreline plantings and culled partially submerged plants for “aesthetic” reasons. Neglected ponds may have plants so nutrient-saturated that they can’t absorb any more and die off, returning more nitrogen and phosphorous to the water, and creating bottom muck that’s thick with it. Lake management companies spray the subsequent algae with herbicides, exacerbating the problems. Beyond the aesthetic value, a healthy pond keeps nutrients out of groundwater, the estuaries and the Gulf. In Florida, water is always moving, both above ground and below, in the direction of the sea.

That’s why Sanibel is enlisting homeowners to help.

The natural resources department ranked communities based on the quality of their water—and posted the results for all to see. Then, they offered each neighborhood a suite of tools, known as “best management practices,” to improve them. The floating wetlands are one strategy. Others include applying shoreline plantings; using aeration devices; manually removing (rather than spraying) algae and unwanted plants; minimizing turf grass; adhering to the fertilizer rules (or foregoing it entirely); and slowing runoff through swales, berms or other mechanisms.

“We hope these communities see over time how their water quality is trending,” says Dana Dettmar, a city environmental specialist who oversees the Communities for Clean Water project. She’s hoping that eventual progress will inspire residents to do even more.

The first follow-up samples, taken last year, weren’t encouraging. Nitrogen and phosphorous rates increased, although Dettmar believes that has more to do with abnormal baseline figures than it does worsening water. The region in 2016 received unusually high rainfall, likely diluting nutrient concentrations. More tests will be done next year.

Data aside, Horvath and Mostello-Harris are encouraged—and happily work toward the solution.

“It’s well worth the time and effort,” Horvath says. “We’ve gotten great buy-in. The neighbors are very supportive. They appreciate all the blood, sweat and tears that go into it.”

Lesson Four: Reusing water is a good thing—except when it isn’t

Florida leads the nation in putting reclaimed water to use irrigating lawns, golf courses, public parks and the like. That sounds like a good environmental practice. Except when the recycled water exacerbates the nutrient problem.

“Right now,” says Thompson, “the biggest source of phosphorous on Sanibel is reuse water.”

The Donax Wastewater Treatment Plant removes much of the nitrogen, phosphorous and other waste byproducts. The plant meets state requirements, but it’s not advanced enough to extract nutrients to a point where they aren’t impacting the water. That means every time islanders irrigate with reclaimed water from the Donax plant, they’re returning to the ecosystem more nitrogen and phosphorous—the very stuff they’re trying to get rid of. If they fertilize on top of using reclaimed water, their nutrient contribution is even higher unless they know to cut back their fertilizer applications to accommodate for the nutrients present in the water. (Professional landscapers and grounds crews working on Sanibel are required to do this.)

Reclaimed water use is the reason Sanibel’s three golf courses lit up as the hottest of hot spots when scientists sampled the island’s water, and the reason, scientists suspect, the island’s groundwater samples came up high in nutrients.

Florida allows treated wastewater to have up to 12 milligrams per liter of total nitrogen. It doesn’t limit total phosphorous concentrations. By way of comparison, the target for San Carlos Bay is 0.56 milligrams per liter of total nitrogen, Evans explains. That’s a pretty big disparity.

The island’s leaders voted to go to the extreme. Last January, City Council signed off on a $20 million project to upgrade the Donax plant so that it can remove more nutrients. The expense may be high, but the payoff promises to be tremendous: As much as 70 percent of the phosphorous now in the wastewater will be gone.

“That’s why it’s an incredible thing,” Thompson says. “The phosphorous (in reuse water) is what was really the problem.”

Reclaimed water use may not be as problematic in communities that operate advanced wastewater treatment plants. Scientists, nevertheless, encourage property owners who irrigate with reclaimed water to scale back on fertilizer because no amount of treatment will entirely purge nutrients.

Lesson Five: Partner with KEY PLAYERS

Among the state practices that most vex environmentalists is the leniency they say is granted to Florida’s biggest nutrient-
contributing industries—farms and golf courses. Those businesses are supposed to adopt runoff containment strategies, but the state doesn’t verify their proper implementation or their effectiveness. Nor does it allow local governments like Sanibel to enforce environmental protections that exceed state rules. 

Sanibel doesn’t have an agricultural sector, but it has those three golf courses, already identified as nutrient hot spots.

In 2008, the city and the clubs began negotiating solutions. With input from golf superintendents, the city drafted “best management practices” that would help prevent excess nitrogen and phosphorous from contaminating the water. Similar to the residential action plans, they call for things like fertilizer-free buffer zones around the lakes; shoreline and submerged plants; sprinkler system setbacks; and routine water sampling—something state law does not require. Adoption is voluntary, but the city nudges the course operators with an annual golf course report card posted online. Two of the three courses are in full compliance.

Evans suggests we visit The Sanctuary, a serene 200-acre golf course and residential community near the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge to see how the initiatives are playing out.

Sanctuary golf course Superintendent Kyle Sweet has a reputation as the island’s go-to guy on environmental practices for his industry. But when we meet, Sweet emphasizes that the whole profession has been shifting toward better stewardship and the kinds of practices used on Sanibel. “I don’t stand alone in this,” he says, climbing into his golf cart and steering it toward the first of the club’s seven lakes.

The strategies to prevent water contamination may not require a re-engineering of the greens, but they aren’t negligible, either. Sweet rolls to a stop by the lakefront. Years ago, he would have let the turf grow right down to the water’s edge. “It’s a game of inches, you know,” he says. But his self-study of environmental-friendly management (he led efforts toward Audubon certification in 2003), a course renovation in 2005 and conversations with city environmental experts prompted him to turn the lakes into mini wetlands. Today, vegetation along the shores provides a buffer against runoff, a purification zone, and increased habitat for critters like a great blue heron that’s ambling through the reeds. Around other lakes, Sweet is letting a thicket of buttonwoods grow in, experimenting with other kinds of native groundcover and filling in a shoreline with excess plants taken from another.

Kyle Sweet, golf course superintendent at The Sanctuary Golf Club, plants bulrush and spikerush. The plants will serve as buffers between the course and lake and will help absorb nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizer and the reclaimed water used to irrigate the greens.

“We’ve naturalized all these areas,” he says, slowing the cart to point out a patch of native plants. “You used to come in here and it’d be (turf) grass everywhere. This cart path used to be concrete. We’ve taken a mile and a half of concrete out.” It’s now a shell composite that allows rainwater to percolate into the earth.

Compromises, however, must be made. In some spots, Sweet has removed stalky, water-cleansing plants because they obscured visibility. A sprinkler head was impossible to relocate further from the shoreline; he redirected the waterspouts instead. On its most recent city-issued report card, The Sanctuary was dinged for using an herbicide; Sweet says he’s addressed that concern.

Whether the efforts are paying off in a global sense, the city can’t yet say. The natural resources department hasn’t had the manpower to crunch the data, says Dettmar, who oversees the golf course initiatives along with the residential project.

But there’s reason to believe they will. The Dunes Golf & Tennis Club hired Thompson at SCCF to sample its lakes, and the researcher documented declines in chlorophyll and nitrogen levels between 2012 and 2016. (Phosphorous concentrations haven’t budged because of reclaimed water use.) Lately, the former two are trending up again, though not to their previous highs. Thompson isn’t sure if the club has altered its nutrient management strategies or if other factors, such as groundwater movement, are to blame.

Regardless, he says the 2012-16 trends are evidence the strategies can work. That’s important for rural communities to note, too—the best management practices for agricultural operators are strikingly similar to the golf course ones. 

It’s easy to write off Sanibel’s efforts as a
Luxury afforded to the rich.
The median home price there is $775,000, and the island in recent years has drawn an average of 1.5 million cash-wielding visitors annually.

“That’s the fallacy most people have,” says the mayor, Kevin Ruane, settling into his office one April afternoon. “Sanibel is certainly an affluent community, but when I got into office in 2007, Sanibel was just about bankrupt.”

At that time, Ruane says, Sanibel had $100 million worth of debt, $400,000 in reserves and the highest millage rate in its history.

“We’re no different than everyone else,” Ruane continues. “We’re trying to live within our means, and we did all of those actions with 76 percent of the revenue, having cut taxes by 24 percent. I look at other cities as having far more in their coffers than we do, but we’re trying to lead by example.”

Sanibel’s story is spreading. Ruane, already known in the state as a water-quality champion, is now president-elect of the Florida League or Mayors under the auspices of the 412-member League of Cities.

“The League of Cities is going to be the catalyst for us. I recognize that (Sanibel) only has 6,600 voters; I recognize there’s only so much ‘oomph’ you’re going to have at the polls. But as president-elect of the League of Mayors, I can walk into any legislator’s office with 10 mayors and represent 2 million votes.”

The island is cheering the selection of another native son, Chauncey Goss, as the new chairman of the South Florida Water Management District, which regulates water in the peninsula’s southern half and is among the agencies overseeing the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project.

“Some of these (solutions) are not rocket science,” Goss says over breakfast one morning. “If you don’t load up the nutrients, you don’t have to take them out. In order to tackle that, you need to know where the nutrients are coming from, and that’s one thing we wrestle with as a state. … It’s really easy to point a finger and say, ‘Oh, if we just did this…’ but we need to have the data so we can get the results we want.”

He adds: “It takes will and it costs money.”

But Goss is optimistic. Everyone we spoke to for this story is optimistic. On his second day in office, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a sweeping executive order addressing Everglades restoration, nutrient reduction, data collection, blue-green algae, science-driven policies and related matters.

“To me,” says Goss, “the big issue is understanding that our economic lifestyle and our economy are totally dependent on the water. I think this governor understands that.”

To be sure, Sanibel’s leadership hears complaints about government overregulation from time to time. But officials say they’ve managed to provoke a cultural shift that normalizes personal sacrifices for nature’s sake.

Back at The Sanctuary, Sweet pauses his golf cart near a vast estate overlooking the greens. “The guy that owns that house, he could live just about anywhere,” he says. “But he gets it. I think, for me, it’s not difficult to get buy-in. There’s a reason (residents) are here in the first place.”

Related Images: