Five Sarasota County water bodies on FDEP draft list noting improved water quality

County’s investments in wastewater treatment facilities cited as major factor

This is an aerial view of part of Phillippi Estate Park in Sarasota. Image from the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program website

During Oct. 24 remarks to the Sarasota County Commission on a related topic, the director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program announced that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) had determined that the water quality had improved “substantially enough that we are no longer considered impaired for nutrients in any part of the open waters of Sarasota Bay.”

He added, “Sarasota Bay, Roberts Bay, Little Sarasota Bay, Blackburn Bay and Hudson Bayou are on the draft ‘de-list’ list, which is good news.”

In an Oct. 6 report on the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (SBEP) website, Tomasko noted that, on Oct. 5, representatives of the nonprofit “wrapped up a two-day visit from our colleagues with (FDEP).”
During the discussions, Tomasko continued, the SBEP leaders learned that, the following week, FDEP would be releasing what it calls its “Draft De-list List” which includes waterbodies “that FDEP no longer considers impaired.”

He then noted that all of the segments of the five bays would be proposed for de-listing.

“The reasons for this,” he explained, “are that those waterbodies have met their established levels for the amount of algae in the water column (aka phytoplankton, represented by the plant pigment chlorophyll-a) over the past three years.”

Chlorophyll-a, which is “the indicator of the amount of algae in the water … has been declining [in Sarasota, Roberts, Little Sarasota and Blackburn bays],” he wrote, “to the point that they now have met the water quality standards that were set for them. This is good news! Basically, in terms of the amount of algae in the water column, we now have the best water quality that we’ve had at [any time] over the past 8 years.”

For an example from the delisting report, FDEP staff noted that the annual arithmetic means (AAM) of total nitrogen in Roberts Bay was below 0.42 milligrams per liter for the past three consecutive years. By 2022, the FDEP document said, the level was 0.30 milligrams per liter.

On its website, FDEP provides the following reasons for delisting waterbodies:

  • “A demonstration that water quality criteria are currently being met;
  • “Completion and adoption of a TMDL”; (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] points out, “A TMDL is the calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant allowed to enter a waterbody so that the waterbody will meet and continue to meet water quality standards for that particular pollutant. A TMDL determines a pollutant reduction target and allocates load reductions necessary to the source(s) of the pollutant.”)
  • “Correction to data used in original listing (failed laboratory audit, station reassignments, etc.);
  • “Development of an alternative restoration plan, such as a Reasonable Assurance Plan or Pollutant Reduction Plan;
  • “Changes in the applicable water quality criteria and a demonstration that the waterbody meets the revised criteria; or
  • “A demonstration that the ‘impairment’ is due to a natural condition.”

“Why the downward trends?” Tomasko continued in his report. “Well, a lot of this is due to activities that we took FDEP staff to visit. Such as, the $250 million being invested in the upgrades to the Bee Ridge Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP), which will be complete by 2025. The upgrades to the County’s WWTP system have already greatly reduced the amount of high-nutrient WWTP overflows (which peaked in 2018 — one of our worst years for water quality).”

In fact, the County Commission has approved plans to convert its other two water reclamation facilities — Venice Gardens and Central County — to Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT) status, as well. In 2022, county Public Utilities Director Mike Mylett told the commissioners that all three projects are expected to cost more than $750 million.

The Bee Ridge decision came first, in response both to a federal lawsuit, filed in early 2019 by a number of environmental organizations, and FDEP action. The AWT conversion is a requirement of a 2019 Consent Order with FDEP over the spills of hundreds of millions of gallons of both treated and untreated wastewater from the Bee Ridge facility.

This May 8, 2019 graphic provided to the Sarasota County Commission shows details about the nitrogen loads from wastewater treatment plants in the county. Image courtesy Sarasota County

AWT status for that plant would reduce the amount of nitrogen flowing into Sarasota Bay from about 238,000 pounds a year to approximately 38,000 pounds a year, Mylett explained to the board members in the spring of 2019. Nitrogen has been determined to be the primary food for the red tide algae, Karenia brevis.

The commissioners also agreed to expand the capacity of the Bee Ridge plant by 50%.

“[W]hen they get to Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT),” Tomasko explained in his report, “then future overflows or the expected (at some level) over-application of reclaimed water by some would not be problematic for the bay.

“Also,” he wrote, “the combination of the Celery Fields project and the ongoing stormwater retrofit project at Bobby Jones Golf Course will result in one-third of the largest watershed (Philippi Creek) being retrofitted for stormwater runoff.”

The Celery Fields is a major county stormwater project in the eastern part of the county. The City of Sarasota has been working for the past several years on the Bobby Jones Golf Club initiative, with funding assistance from the Southwest Florida Water Management District. In an Oct. 9 report on the SBEP website, Tomasko noted that the Bobby Jones undertaking is expected to cost about $3 million, with approximately 9 square miles of the Phillippi Creek watershed to be treated.

“Also, recently completed stormwater retrofit projects in Hudson Bayou help,” Tomasko noted in his Oct. 6 report. In the Oct. 9 document, he explained that the Hudson Bayou initiative — which cost slightly more than $1 million — resulted in the treatment of 800 acres in the Hudson Bayou watershed. That effort involved both Sarasota County and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, Tomasko wrote.

“Add in an expansion of our efforts to better communicate to the public how they can lead a more bay-friendly lifestyle — don’t fertilize your lawn in the rainy season (regardless of what some might say), don’t overfertilize during the dry season, don’t blow grass clippings into the bay or drainage features, pick up after your dogs, put in vertical oyster gardens if you live along the water, etc. and you have the potential for a system-wide bay recovery,” he continued.

“There are still some issues out there — bacterial impairments, and some ongoing issues with water quality in some of our tributaries,” he pointed out. “But this is good news,” he added of the FDEP de-listing decision, “and worth celebrating.”

Caution going forward

This is a view of a man snorkeling in Sarasota Bay. Image from the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program website

Nonetheless, Tomasko continued, the good news does not mean efforts to improve the water quality in the bays should end. After the health of the bays improved in the mid-1990s, he wrote, “[W]e blew it — we sat back and got overwhelmed with population growth and we couldn’t handle the combination of aging infrastructure, more people and wet weather. To prevent that from happening again,” he added, “we need to make sure that we can predict what will likely happen over the next few years and decades, in terms of population growth, warming water and rising sea levels. That is why the SBEP will continue to approach bay management with the mindset of being ‘biased for action.’ There are science questions that are worth asking and answering, and we have room for that as well. But we’ve known for decades now how to improve water quality and increase estuarine health — we don’t need to wait for perfect knowledge or the perfect ecosystem health model to be developed before acting.”

In his Oct. 6 report, Tomasko pointed out that the SBEP, “along with our local governments, FDEP and EPA” — would be pursuing a Reasonable Assurance Plan (RAP) for Sarasota Bay. “We are proposing to tighten our water quality standards — not because we just want to do that for no reason, and set ourselves up for failure, but because we have shown it is possible to meet and maintain conditions that lead to a healthier bay. And we need to make sure that the hundreds of millions of dollars that have already been spent on bay-wide restoration is not offset in the future. Why spend all this money — literally hundreds of millions of dollars — if we let it all slip away from us again?”

However, in a subsequent report, issued on Oct. 18, Tomasko explained that because no threat of the imposition of a Total Maximum Daily Load existed for the waterbodies, no RAP was needed. Instead, he wrote, the SBEP would shift its efforts to developing a Water Quality Protection Plan.

“[O]ur proposed plan is to work with FDEP, our local stakeholders and our consultants to develop a plan that will allow us to maintain these hard-fought and expensive improvements in water quality, by anticipating what we need to do over the next few decades, so that the cleaner bay that is out there for anyone to see for themselves does not become a future memory. So that we don’t have to do this all over again,” he noted.