Illegal spills from pond on site of county wastewater treatment plant linked to degradation of water quality in Roberts Bay

Sarasota Bay Estuary Program director talks of importance of maintaining healthy conditions throughout Sarasota Bay

A graphic shows the location of the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Data have indicated that the recent degradation of Roberts Bay, offshore of Siesta Key, likely was a result of the illegal spills of nearly 1 billion gallons of reclaimed water from a storage pond on the site of Sarasota County’s Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility (WRF).

That was part of a presentation that David Tomasko, executive director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (SBEP), provided to about 260 participants during the nonprofit’s Oct. 5 Water Quality Restoration Workshop.

During heavy rainfall events, treated water from the Bee Ridge WRF’s storage pond flowed into a tributary of Phillippi Creek, and that creek comprises about one-third of the county’s watershed, Tomasko pointed out.

For five of the seven years from 2013 to 2019, he said, the average annual concentration of nitrogen in Roberts Bay was higher than the level recorded during the worst year of the previous 15 years.

More nitrogen leads to more macroalgae in a water body, Tomasko explained, and the more macroalgae — which clouds the water — the greater the loss of seagrass.

This is a section about macroalgae in a 2021 Sarasota Bay Estuary Program report. Image courtesy SBEP

The clearer the water, he said, the more readily sunlight can reach the bottom, fostering growth of seagrass.

A 2021 SBEP publication explains that blooms of macroalgae, also known as seaweed, lead to decreased oxygen levels as they decay, which results in fish kills, as well.

After 2019, Tomasko continued, the nitrogen level started falling in Roberts Bay.

In 2019, the Suncoast Waterkeeper, based in Sarasota, joined two other nonprofit organizations — Our Children’s Earth Foundation and Ecological Rights Foundation — in filing a federal lawsuit against Sarasota County over the illegal discharges from the 145.2-million-gallon storage pond at the Bee Ridge WRF on Lorraine Road, as well as illegal spills from other county facilities, between 2015 and 2019.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis told The Sarasota News Leader in June 2019 that he was unaware of the problems at the Bee Ridge WRF until the environmental groups had to provide formal notice to the county of their plans to file the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, in Tampa.

This exhibit included with the federal lawsuit provides details about the spills from the Bee Ridge WRF storage pond. Image courtesy Suncoast Waterkeeper

Subsequently, Utilities Director Scott Schroyer left county employment and Lewis named Mike Mylett the new director of the Public Utilities Department.

Mylett and his staff began working on proposals to present to the County Commission about improvements needed at the Bee Ridge facility. In June 2019, the commissioners were unanimous in approving the recommendation that the plant be upgraded to Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT) status and that its capacity be expanded by 50%, so it could treat 18 million gallons of wastewater per day, instead of 12 million gallons.

The AWT conversion, which Mylett recently reported is on track to be completed by the end of 2025, will reduce the amount of nitrogen in the reclaimed water from a level of 16 to 18 milligrams per liter to 3 milligrams per liter or less.

This graphic provides details about the costs of upgrading the three major county wastewater treatment plants to Advanced Wastewater Treatment Status (AWT), plus the construction of aquifer recharge wells to mitigate the past problems with overflows of reclaimed water from the Bee Ridge WRF storage pond. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In the late summer of 2019, the commissioners also agreed to a settlement of the nonprofit environmental groups’ lawsuit, as well as a Consent Order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), which covered illegal discharges over a shorter period of time than the federal complaint did.

The necessity of maintaining a healthy bay

Sarasota Bay is critically important to both the quality of life in the county and to the county’s economy, Tomasko said during the Oct. 5 workshop. The most critical factor for improving the overall quality of the water is the reduction of nutrients flowing into it, he added.

“A lot of our residents expect to be able to get out in Sarasota Bay,” stand in waist-deep water and see their feet, he continued.

As for the economic considerations: “We have 20,000 jobs that are associated with Bay-related activities.”

A number of those are related to commercial and recreational fishing, he noted, while many more are in the hospitality industry.

The degraded Indian River Lagoon is on the left in this graphic, with Sarasota Bay on the right. Image courtesy Sarasota Bay Estuary Program

Further, Tomasko pointed out, proximity of property to the bay provides what he called “a property value uplift” of approximately $3 million. The closer people live to the water, he said, the higher the value of their land. The tax money they pay helps finances a wide array of county services, he added.

All those positive factors can disappear, Tomasko continued, “if the bay’s health starts to deteriorate.”

Referring to the restoration of Sarasota Bay, he pointed out, “We’ve already done this once. … We just have to do it again.”
Tomasko showed the workshop participants a photo of a manatee preparing to munch on seagrass. He contrasted that image with a photo taken of a pair of manatees on the eastern side of the state; they were starving because of severe loss of seagrass in their habitat.

He added that, at first, it was difficult for him to believe that those creatures in the second photo were manatees, because of their emaciation.

These are the photos of a healthy manatee (left) and starving manatees. Image courtesy Sarasota Bay Estuary Program

On average, Tomasko explained, a manatee will eat 100 to 200 pounds of seagrass a day. “In the first six months of this year,” he noted, “we lost more manatees than [during] the worst year on record.”

The decline represented about 10% of the most recent population estimate, he emphasized.

The Indian River Lagoon, which extends south from Ponce de Leon Inlet in Volusia County to Palm Beach County, has seen a 60% decline in seagrass over the past decade, Tomasko pointed out. “The remaining 40% is so sparse,” he added, that manatees in that area cannot find enough to eat.

The Indian River Lagoon situation had not been expected, he told the workshop participants. Yet, the same situation could occur in Sarasota Bay without efforts to reduce the nutrient loading that impairs the water quality.

The reason he mentioned “restoration” earlier, he explained, is that Sarasota Bay achieved a 46% reduction in nutrient levels about 30 years ago. Data make it clear, he said, that the water quality improved.

Lower levels of macroalgae were shown in the bay from 2006 to 2012, he added.

Since 2016, Tomasko continued, setbacks have been documented.

From 2016 to 2017 and again from the latter part of 2017 to early 2019, two red tide events occurred. Between those periods, he pointed out, Hurricane Irma disrupted water conditions, in September 2017.

About 2,000 acres of seagrass was lost as a result of those events, he said. “It’s a substantial loss of seagrass.”

Although the upper part of the bay has been recovering, he pointed out, problems have proven more persistent in Little Sarasota Bay and Blackburn Bay.

A graphic included in the most recent ‘report card’ on Sarasota Bay’s health shows the various parts of the bay. Image courtesy Sarasota Bay Estuary Program

Wastewater spills, septic tank use and reclaimed water that ends up in the bay all contribute to the problems, Tomasko said.

During a July 13 presentation to the County Commission, Gregory Rouse, manager of the county’s Utility Engineering Division, reported that the heaviest concentration of septic tanks remaining in the county is in the area of Dona Bay and Alligator Creek, in South County.

This graphic provides details about the density of septic tanks per acre in Sarasota County. Image courtesy Sarasota County
This graphic from the county’s Water Atlas shows the location of Dona Bay. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Tomasko stressed that steps such as the conversion of wastewater treatment plants to AWT status and the elimination of septic tanks, for examples, can significantly cut the nutrient loading associated with water degradation.

He voiced optimism that local government action and use of new technologies in a many types of situations once again can result in the restoration of Sarasota Bay.

Later, one of the event’s moderators — Jon Thaxton, senior vice president of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation — encouraged the workshop participants to visit the Foundation webpages featuring the Community Playbook for Healthy Waterways. That document includes numerous initiatives that can be pursued to reduce nutrient loading in water bodies.