To Test or Not to Test
In presenting the Marine Resources Task Force (MRTF) advisory committee report on water quality testing for Fort Myers Beach to the Town Council on Tuesday, February 21, its chairperson, Bill Veach, said, “Water quality is complicated!” Perhaps it is ironic, then, that MRTF’s recommendations favor simplicity!
“One of our goals was to make our suggestions doable,” said Veach, several days after the report to Council. “I spent my entire career as an engineer, and my motto always was ‘go for the simplest solution, and make it as simple as possible.’ When we looked at other beach websites and water quality links, they were often too hard to understand, listing things like nitrogen at 3.7-milliliters parts-per-million and things like that – who knows if that is high or low or dangerous? People need understandable information about our readings and, perhaps more important, simple details, like what does our water look or smell like?”
MRTF recommendations contain four components, the first being that the Town should establish a “beach conditions” webpage that includes the current weather and water temperature; migrating and nesting bird, sting ray and sea turtle information; and general observations as well as a paragraph similar to: “WARNING: The Department of Health warns that all natural bodies of water can contain bacteria, viruses and other harmful microorganisms, and advises against swimming to any individual who has an ear infection, perforated eardrum, open cuts, scratches, or skin lesions or a compromised immune system. Do not swim in water where there is a fish kill or dead animals.”
They advise as well that the Town budget a small amount for water quality testing where and when necessary as determined by its Stormwater and Environmental Technician, for situations like dredging; the Town upgrade its Fertilizer Ordinance including an educational component for the general public; and encourages the Town to enhance and enforce its comprehensive stormwater plan. “We hope stormwater can implement natural features like swales where possible,” he said, “as they are better for water pollution filtration, but we understand there has to be some pipes in the ground because we are a small island with not a lot of area; we get the practicality of the problem and system.”
As for the public, there are a lot of issues that go into just letting people in the water. “There are concerns people don’t know about,” Veach explained, “like the added risk to those with diabetes. We have signs that tell people about stingrays and to stay away from turtle nests, so warning those who have cuts on their bodies or carry a high risk of infection must go to the top of our safety list.”
MRTF judges it essential the Town Stormwater and Environmental Technician has a reasonable budget for emergency testing. “During the latest Matanzas Pass dredging, it stunk like crazy down to the Red Coconut,” recalled Veach. “The brown water from the dredging produced ankle-deep muck. As we will soon dredge Big Carlos Pass, this will allow the Town to provide an extra layer of monitoring and protection.”
Bill said there is already a great deal of water quality testing occurring in the waters all around Fort Myers Beach: “Most of the agencies are on the Back Bay, looking for chemicals and things like nitrogen, whereas on the beach the focus is bacteria, as chemicals that seep into the Gulf soon dissipate. They do not cause algae blooms or red tide, as red tide has been on our beaches since the Spaniards, but they can aggravate those conditions.”
What most surprised MRTF was that there is no valid testing for beachside bacteria because “most high readings do not occur because of Lake Okeechobee releases or other extreme circumstances, but from high usage weekends caused by people,” explained Veach. “By the time you would receive the water quality test result on Tuesday from Sunday, that high usage situation and readings are gone.”
Everything is Interconnected
While recommendations and government regulations are well and good, Bill hopes island residents take greater personal responsibility for stormwater, not only for themselves but their neighbors. “Andre Mar Drive floods every summer so badly its residents cannot walk down their own street, and even when it begins to dry, it is slimy and slippery and dangerous, yet nearby neighbors lay plastic on their property to prevent drainage and create more runoff. Their yards are nice and dry, but they don’t know or think about the negative affect that has on others. We all live on a small island, and everything is interconnected, so we must take care of one another.”
MRTF took into consideration, however, “that a lot of our owners are absentee landlords who rent their properties, and they need to keep their expenses down and profits up for a better bottom line.” To demonstrate what can be done on an individual parcel, Bill points out on his own yard how he uses small swales and drainage ditches in conjunction with gardens to drain runoff effectively and beautifully.
Veach emphasized that all committee recommendations “were unanimous, and it was a very positive experience. We managed to distill out emotions, while remembering that our findings will benefit people who live on the beach as well as those who visit. Our objective was to provide a fair and honest report about our area’s water quality, without worrying about repercussions should the readings occasionally report bad results. With the health of residents and tourists in mind, integrity must be the main responsibility.”