2023 water quality report shows healthy conditions in Sarasota Bay segments, director of Sarasota Bay Estuary Program tells City Commission

Local government initiatives to reduce nutrient levels a big factor in progress in recent years, Tomasko says

This table provides data about the health of the segments of Sarasota Bay over the past years. Blue represents the best water quality, with red, the worst. Image courtesy Sarasota Bay Estuary Program

Continuing the trends seen in 2022, the 2023 water quality data for the various bodies that comprise Sarasota Bay show healthy conditions, even in Little Sarasota Bay, which suffered substantially from the effects of Hurricane Ian’s rainfall, David Tomasko, director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (SBEP), told the Sarasota city commissioners on April 1.

“It was bad water quality for about a month,” he noted of Little Sarasota Bay, with Hurricane Ian having dropped 5 to 15 inches of rain on the area in September 2022.

However, it is too soon to predict whether Sarasota County will experience another red tide event this year, he said in response to a question posed by Commissioner Erik Arroyo.

Another hurricane could cause a decline in water quality, Tomasko explained, and the release of water from Lake Okeechobee into the Gulf of Mexico can facilitate red tide events.

Referring to officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Tomasko said, “They have dumped billions of gallons of Lake Okeechobee water out of the Caloosahatchee River. If we do get a red tide,” he continued, “the waters are already primed with a big load of nitrogen.”

Research has shown that nitrogen is the primary food for the red tide algae, Karena brevis.

“We don’t cause red tides,” Tomasko stressed. “We cause them to be worse.”

This map shows the location of the Caloosahatchee River. Image by Karl Musser, based on U.S. Geographical Society data, for Wikipedia.

In mid-February, as the Fort Myers News-Press reported, the USACE began releases from the lake, trying to do “as much as possible before the wet season and to avoid high-volume releases, if possible, during oyster-spawning season or peak algal-bloom months.” The News-Press was referring to an Army Corps press release said.

The Caloosahatchee River flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

“El Nino rains have delivered above-average water to and around the lake, and conditions are expected to continue into spring, according to meteorologists,” the News-Press added. “Since 2008,’ the News-Press continued, “the Army Corps has worked to keep lake levels between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet above sea level to provide flood protection and water for urbanized areas and farming.”

“Managing Sarasota Bay is about managing nitrogen loads,” Tomasko explained to the city commissioners on April 1.

Showing the board members a series of slides, he added that the reference period for Sarasota Bay is 2006 to 2012. “It was a healthy bay back then.” The increase in seagrass coverage, Tomasko noted, was 28%. “Our goal is to get back to that kind of condition.”

As an August 2022 article written by Blue Kaufman for the Florida Conservation Voters website explains, “Since seagrass is so reliant on clean and clear water, they are considered indicator species. Essentially, if seagrass is able to grow, then water quality is generally good. And while some of the hardiest seagrass varieties, like turtle grass, can withstand several years of poor water quality, other varieties like shoal grass may be impacted after only a year or two of polluted water.”

Nitrogen loads in the bay were about 20% lower from 2006 to 2012, compared to the period of 2013 to 2019, Tomasko noted in his March 13, 2024 update about the bay’s water quality, which is featured on the nonprofit’s website.

This graphic shows trends in nutrient loads in Sarasota Bay. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Each year, he told the city commissioners on April 1, the SBEP scores every bay segment in comparison to what that water body was like during the reference period; the color coded results range from blue, which is the best, to red, which means “Something is going wrong.”

David Tomasko. Image courtesy Sarasota Bay Estuary Program

In recent years, Tomasko pointed out, the worst water quality in the bay segments was documented from 2018 into 2019. Multiple wastewater spills that resulted in more than 1 billion gallons of water flowing into Sarasota Bay fostered the degradation, he explained. Moreover, Tomasko said, “There was a huge pulse of nitrogen that came out of Lake Okeechobee,” with release of water necessitated by Hurricane Irma’s rainfall in September 2017.

The red tide event actually began in 2017 and did not end until 2019, he pointed out.

Most of the wastewater spills were linked to Sarasota County’s Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility, which stands at 5550 Lorraine Road in Sarasota. In the late summer of 2019, the County Commission ended up settling a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit with a number of nonprofit organizations that had been filed as a result of those spills. The commissioners also agreed to a Consent Order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), which covered spills over a shorter period of time.

As a result of those agreements, the county is in the process of converting its Bee Ridge facility to Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT) status, and it has plans in place for the conversions of its other two major wastewater treatment plants to AWT.

The city’s wastewater treatment facility has been an AWT operation for 30 years, Tomasko pointed out.

Along with the latter factor, he referenced the city initiative to improve the treatment of stormwater in the basin that includes the Bobby Jones Golf Club, on which the city and the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) are spending about $3 million.

Details of the latest data

The 2023 data for Sarasota Bay show all of the water bodies color-coded blue or green, Tomasko told the city commissioners last week.

“[Sarasota] Bay already has met the pollutant reduction goal we set back in 2021,” Tomasko noted. “No part of Sarasota Bay is impaired for nutrients anymore,” unlike conditions in the past, he pointed out.

“In all of Southwest Florida,” he said, “there’s only 10 water bodies that have similar improvements.”

In his written report about the 2023 data, Tomasko noted that the “annual average concentration of [total nitrogen] was the lowest value over the past 15 years, and lower than all but one year (2007) during the seven-year reference period.”

Further, he wrote, in Upper Sarasota Bay — “the widest and largest bay segment” — “the [total nitrogen] concentrations in the water over the past two years (2022 and 2023) represent the lowest values in over 15 years as well.”

This is a graphic that David Tomasko presented to the City Commission on April 1. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

He added, “We are setting the stage for a substantial increase in seagrass coverage, which we hope will show up in the 2024 maps.”

The more resilient Sarasota Bay is, he explained, the better able it is to handle the effects of a hurricane or another red tide event.

Further, Tomasko told the city commissioners, the SBEP is working with consultants — at the direction of its board — to “figure out what would be the increased nutrient loads associated with 30 years of population growth and, frankly, 30 years of climate change, and what do we need to do to offset those increases” to maintain the health of Sarasota Bay. Stormwater retrofits, such as the one for the Bobby Jones Golf Club area, and the AWT conversions will be the keys, Tomasko said. “The reality is, it’s doable. New York City’s waters are cleaner than they have been at any time since the Civil War,” he pointed out. “More people does not necessarily mean more pollution. It depends upon what you do with that population growth.”

The SBEP’s wastewater program, Tomasko explained, is one of 28 such initiatives in the United States. About 75% of the SBEP’s funding comes from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), he added.