March 22 is World Water Day, an annual United Nations observance begun in 1993 that highlights the importance and advocation of the sustainability of freshwater. Following the water quality crisis Fort Myers Beach endured during Summer 2018, clean water plays a more important environmental and economical role here than ever before. To emphasize water quality, the Mound House Lecture Series on Tuesday evening, March 12, featured Dr. Darren Rumbold, Professor of Marine Science and Coastal Watershed Institute Director for Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) since 2006, who addressed “Water Quality in the Caloosahatchee Estuary & Southwest Florida Coastal Waters” before roughly 50 people.
“Red Tide is a naturally occurring toxin caused by a specific type of dinoflagellate that lives in salt waters, called ‘Karenia brevis,’ began Dr. Rumbold. “Red Tide occurred way back before humans ever polluted the Gulf of Mexico, so it is strange that people get upset when you say it is a natural event, as we can trace cyanobacteria in our atmosphere back some 3.5 billion years. Red Tide starts far off the coast, so the nutrient load from Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River do not cause it. Red Tide is a frequent and worldwide problem as far away as China; in Southwest Florida, these blooms since the 1800s occur almost every year, far out in the Gulf, then winds and tides push them closer to shore, where it affects the central nervous systems of fish, causing fish kills, respiratory ailments for beach-goers and neurotoxic poisoning in people who consume shellfish, like oysters, from those waters.”
Southwest Florida in 2018 had issues as well with cyanobacteria “that caused the Blue-Green Algae that formed in the freshwater of Lake Okeechobee that moved down the Caloosahatchee River to the Gulf through rainy season water releases” Dr. Rumbold explained. “Blue-Green Algae blooms originated with the Lake Okeechobee releases, and no one argues that, but it is the triggers to the blooms that many people are working on now. The news media paid a lot of attention to the Blue-Green Algae toxic releases, but in my opinion, the related health risks were overblown, because cyanobacteria did not contaminate our drinking water, making it much less of a concern than for those who live in Northwest Ohio, for example, because their exposure does come through their drinking water. I would, however, absolutely refrain from consuming any shellfish like oysters, or crabs that are scavengers and eat anything they find that is already dead. Health risks increase as well if you live near any area where waves can crash on-shore, as that action can release toxins from the water as an aerosol that you can breathe.”
Red Tide 101
The latest Southwest Florida Red Tide bloom began in October 2017, Dr. Rumbold told the audience, “and there were still lingering patches in January of this year, so it lasted for 16 months; that was the longest bloom since the one that went for 19 months from 2004 to 2006, though that one was not as intense. It is important that we focus on the nutrients that feed these blooms, as they can persist in water, causing environmental issues that can last a long time, with marine life, shorebirds and seagrasses still suffering and dying from the exposure long after the end of the blooms. Counts reached 28 million cells-per-liter and that is so thick it seems like you could walk across that, with its intensity and duration resulting in a dying event, with millions of pounds of sealife washing up on the beach, and unfortunately over 400 sea turtles and an untold number of manatees and dolphins that made us all heartsick!”
Dr. Rumbold explained that the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission and related agencies discovered a dead zone last year off the Fort Myers Beach coast to roughly 35 miles out into the Gulf, with almost no oxygen all the way down to the seafloor. “This stuff tends to sit and stay in this ‘Forbidden Zone’ for a long time, and that is a big part of our Red Tide problem. Hurricane Michael, however, blew through last October and stirred the oxygen and everything else up, with this region showing a significant improvement with a high biodiversity by February 2019, with fish, shrimp, crab, and squid good indicators, so that was fortunate. While water is really clear now, we must find all the causes-and-effects that can lead to these problems.”
A big source of the water quality issues, he contended, “is poor water management, from the Kissimmee River Basin down to Lake Okeechobee through the Everglades right down to the Florida Bay, as we compromised the heck out of the original system into what we have now, complete with the artificial connection to the Caloosahatchee River. A massive amount of the nutrients that pollute our water comes from the Kissimmee River Basin, and there is no question about that, so yell at Disney World! Now we are working to re-engineer the Kissimmee Basin so it meanders back-and-forth again, to naturally remove some of those nutrients before they ever reach Lake Okeechobee.”
Big Solutions; Big Money
“There are no quick fixes,” cautioned Dr. Rumbold. “People like to blame Big Sugar, for instance, but we have a great deal of nutrients pouring into the Caloosahatchee River from our own watershed, and there is no Big Sugar in our backyard! There are many big picture solutions out there, but big solutions cost big money and take a lot of time to fund and complete. The C-43 Reservoir is not the single solution, nor is the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir or restoring the Kissimmee River Basin or reducing the flows released from Lake Okeechobee, but all these things working together and more.”
He said, “It is great that new Florida Governor Ron DeSantis supports funding many of these components, but no one has yet been able to answer how we can solve all of our water woes, especially in finding a way to reduce all the nitrogen nutrients that get into and remain in our system, as we do a good job in removing phosphorous but are lousy with nitrogen! Even Scott’s Fertilizer is awarding grants to solve this issue, so you have to give them credit for that, because they could just as easily be trying to cover up the smoking gun!”
Back in 2009, “the State declared the Caloosahatchee ‘Impaired,’” related Dr. Rumbold, “instituting a Maximum Daily Load reduction plan for nitrogen getting into the river, but it extended its deadline by five years, so we are not doing very well and still have a long way to go. It is the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that sets water quality standards, as the South Florida Water Management District wants nothing to do with this! The United States Army Corps of Engineers also plays no part in water quality, as this is not permissible through Federal government management; they only control the quantity of released water and cannot pay for any water quality improvements.”
The biggest thing an individual can do to improve water quality, he stressed, “is vote for those who share our priorities, as big fixes cost big money! Governor DeSantis certainly sounds like he is on board, and it is encouraging to see that Lee County will start air quality testing by hiring a biotoxic expert and not a newly-minted Ph.D. The Lee County Health Department is now in the developmental planning stage for the next Blue-Green Algae outbreak, and this is encouraging, as last time they did next to nothing!”
FMB Shell Club
Dr. Rumbold concluded by informing the audience that “a long time ago, in the beginning of my educational career at the former Edison Community College, I received necessary support from the Fort Myers Beach Shell Club, so I am thrilled I can make contributions today back to the beach community!”
The season’s final Mound House Lecture will be Tuesday, April 9, with Andrew West, FMB resident and photographer extraordinaire of “The News-Press.” Advance registration required with a $5 entry fee; Social Half-Hour with refreshments at 5:30 p.m., and the lecture at 6 p.m.
The Mound House, Estero Island’s oldest standing structure now owned by the Town of Fort Myers Beach and operated as a museum complex offers educational programs, kayak tours and museum tours each month. Admission is $10 for ages 13 & up, $8 for students with IDs, $5 ages 6 to 12, and 5 & under free, with Town residents receiving a 50% discount. It is open Tuesdays through Saturdays through April 27 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., then shifts to Tuesdays, Wednesdays, & Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Mound House is at 451 Connecticut Street, with additional parking at 216 Connecticut; for information call 239-765-0865 or see www.moundhouse.org.
By Gary Mooney