Sarasota County staff leading by example and encouraging and educating the public about ways to mitigate red tide bloom

People encouraged to report violations of county’s fertilizer ordinance and other environmental regulations

(Editor’s note: This article was updated late on the afternoon of Dec. 17 to correct information about septic tank regulations in Sarasota County.)

A chart lists some of the longer red tide blooms over past decades. Image courtesy UF/IFAS in Sarasota County

Sarasota County staff members work to lead by example and to educate the public about measures that will reduce the amount of pollutants entering coastal waters, three county representatives told about 50 members of the Siesta Key Association on Dec. 6.

Yet, while the county’s Fertilizer and Landscape Management Ordinance is more restrictive than the comparable state law, David Pousso, senior environmental specialist, explained that staff cannot take certain steps, such as telling retailers not to sell fertilizers during the rainy season. The Office of the County Attorney has warned, Pousso said, that such action would be considered an infringement on commerce.

Nonetheless, Pousso pointed out, “We respond to thousands of citizen calls every year” regarding people using fertilizer between June 1 and Sept. 30, when the county ordinance does not allow that. “Actually, you guys are an asset to us.”

Likewise, he said, employees of professional landscaping companies will report people working for other companies when they violate the ordinance. Staff sends out a Code Enforcement officer to respond to all such calls, Pousso added.

In response to a question, Pousso said that staff has tried educating managers of stores about the ordinance, “but they weren’t too keen on us being there.”

He also pointed out that because the county’s fertilizer ordinance was adopted before a similar state law went into effect in 2009, the county cannot add more prohibitive measures to the local ordinance. If it tried to do so, he told the audience, it would risk state action to pre-empt the county regulations.

Additionally, he continued, the county cannot regulate pest control, because Florida law makes it clear that such action is a state responsibility only.

The focus of the Dec. 6 discussion at the Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting was on measures that can mitigate red tide.

This is a Karenia brevis cell. Note the tail of the dinoflagellate. Image courtesy of Mote Marine Laboratory

Pousso; Lee Hayes Byron, director of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) in Sarasota County; and Armando Ubeda, the county’s Sea Grant agent, all emphasized that the algae that causes red tide, Karenia brevis, thrives on chemicals — especially nitrogen — that the public uses and which end up in waterways.

In fact, Pousso pointed out, the County Code also prohibits the depositing of grass clippings and other vegetative debris onto roads and into stormwater conveyances, such as ditches. “This is one thing that a lot of people don’t realize,” he said. When such matter has been introduced into the system, the first big rain of the summer — what is called the “first flush,” he noted — sends all that debris into the waterways. Decaying leaves and acorns, for example, he said, raise the level of nutrients for red tide.

If a neighbor is blowing leaves onto the road, Pousso told the audience, “Give us a call.”

Pousso and Byron also talked about the county’s certification program for commercial fertilizer applicators. Everyone who completes the training gets a decal from the county to place on his or her truck. If someone sees a commercial company employee working in a neighborhood, and that decal is not visible on the person’s truck or other equipment, Pousso asked that the public also call the county.

Byron also stressed that homeowners should not be shy about asking the lawn maintenance workers they employee if those workers are using fertilizers during the rainy season, in contravention of the county ordinance. “Challenge them.”

Since 2006, Byron said, 2,445 landscape professionals in the community have become certified through the county program.

A graphic explains some of the county’s water quality initiatives. Image courtesy UF/IFAS in Sarasota County

At the same time, she noted, directors of homeowners associations and condominium associations should verify that lawn maintenance companies they employ are abiding by Florida-friendly practices outlined in county ordinances.

Ubeda pointed out that Karenia brevishas been proven to be “very opportunistic” in its feeding. For example, he continued, when its cells clog the gills of fish, and the fish die, the algae then thrives off the decaying matter.

The tail of the organism allows it to move vertically in the water column, he explained, which also makes it easier for the dinoflagellate to find food. He likened that action to the movements of sunflowers to follow the sun.

Policy and practice

SKA Vice President Catherine Luckner introduced the three county speakers, pointing out that the SKA has been trying to provide its members as much information as possible over the past few months, so they will be knowledgeable about red tide and able to pursue action to mitigate the current bloom.

Ubeda of Sea Grant explained that currents in the Gulf of Mexico and the wind have bearing on the movement of the bloom, which typically originates from 10 to 40 miles offshore.

A Dec. 10 map released by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) shows the status of red tide as of that morning. Image courtesy FWC

Karenia brevis is a photosynthetic organism, he added, meaning it needs sunlight to thrive.

While the perception is that the current bloom is one of the most enduring in recent history, Ubeda said, that is not the case. The longest one documented in the past 65 years, he continued, occurred over 30 months, from 1994 to 1997. Another one lasted 21 months, from 2002 to 2004.

(The current bloom, Mote Marine Laboratory scientist Tracy Fanara told SKA members in September, began in October 2017.)

During Pousso’s part of the presentation, he talked about policies in the county’s Comprehensive Plan related to sustainable landscaping for the public and private sectors. For example, Environmental Policy 5.1.3 says the county shall recommend Florida-Friendly Landscaping in new developments and provide educational materials to developers and homeowners.

For another example, Parks Policy 1.2.4 calls for Integrated Pest Management to be used with native vegetation in landscaping in county parks. That, Pousso explained, calls for staff to decide what pests to target and then determine the best product for the job, instead of deploying pesticides widely.

Additionally, county facilities use cisterns to collect rainwater, Pousso noted, and they have micro irrigation systems, which provide just enough water to keep plants healthy. The county also has been purchasing hybrid vehicles, installing electric car charging stations and putting up solar panel arrays on its buildings, he said.

A graphic offers details about the rain barrel program. Image courtesy UF/IFAS in Sarasota County

Another effort the county has undertaken, Pousso noted, is a program that educates the public about rain barrel use and provides such barrels for sale, to reduce stormwater runoff. Since that initiative began in November 2009, he said, the county has sold more than 3,000 of the barrels. If all of them have been in use, he continued, then the public has been preventing 155,000 gallons of stormwater from entering the area waterways each rainy season.

As for septic tanks: In response to a question from Frank Jurenka, president of the Siesta Key Condominium Council, Pousso explained that inspections are not mandatory.

Byron, the UF/IFAS director, said that although the state briefly had a law in place several years ago that called for septic tank inspections, she continued, the law was overturned.

She provided The Sarasota News Leader with more details on Dec. 17 regarding county regulation of septic tanks: “While septic tank inspections are not mandatory in the state regulations,” Byron wrote in an email, “local governments can adopt rules more stringent than the current state requirements. In fact, Sarasota County already has adopted several provisions that enhance the performance of septic systems,” she added. Among them is a required 36-inch separation between the bottom of the drainfield and the high season water table, (the state rule is 24 inches), and a requirement that all septic systems be designed by a licensed professional engineer.”

Byron also told the SKA audience that the county has replaced about 10,000 septic systems in the Phillippi Creek watershed over the past 15 years, representing about 68% of the total number targeted. About 3,000 systems are left to be converted in that watershed, she added.

A graphic shows steps the county has taken in regard to infrastructure and  operations, to improve water quality. Image courtesy UF/IFAS in Sarasota County

Among other county infrastructure that helps with stormwater runoff, Byron continued, is the Celery Fields, located off Fruitville Road in the eastern part of the county. While the property has become an internationally popular bird-watching park, she added, “it does tremendous [work] for water quality in our area.”

The county also has invested a lot of money in infrastructure to improve water quality in Dona Bay in South County, she noted.

Further, “We do a lot of [homeowner association and condominium association] outreach programs,” Byron said.

Another program enables every eighth-grader in the county to take a field trip, courtesy of her office, Byron noted. The initiative focuses on aspects of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. This year, she said, the students are learning about nutrient management.

At the federal and state level

Lee Hayes Byron speaks to SKA members on Dec. 6. Rachel Hackney photo

In response to comments from SKA Vice President Luckner and the audience, Byron explained that the County Commission would be working with other counties through the Florida Association of Counties to focus on action in the 2019 session of the Florida Legislature to mitigate red tide. “I guarantee you that this is a huge issue for them in Tallahassee. … Everybody saw this as an economic impact, as an environmental impact.”

Counties also are sharing information, she continued. “There is a lot of collaboration [between them].”

Further, Sarasota County will be asking for more state funding to work on the Phillippi Creek watershed septic system replacements and additional efforts to improve Dona Bay, she noted.

In similar fashion, Byron said, on Dec. 11, the County Commission would be considering recommendations for its lobbyists working at the federal level. Red tide mitigation is expected to be a focus among those plans, too, she noted.