What’s In The Water?

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New Testing Date May 23

The new What’s In The Water testing date for the Fort Myers Beach island-wide water quality program is Saturday, May 23, from 7 to 8 a.m. Organizers have rescheduled the dry season testing from the original March 28 date due to coronavirus precautions that closed Fort Myers Beach. They chose this new date and timeframe to get a dry season reading before the onset of the rainy summer months and to coincide with low tide.

Fort Myers Beach’s historic Mound House has partnered with Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Planet Stewardship Education Program for the What’s In The Water program to study non-point source pollution coming from Fort Myers Beach into the Gulf of Mexico and Estero Bay, paying particular attention to nutrients that contributed to the Red Tide Harmful Algae Blooms (HAB) that led to the Summer 2018 water quality crisis.

“We conduct tests at low tide on Fort Myers Beach,” explained What’s In The Water and Mound House Educational Coordinator Penny Jarrett, “because low tide is the best time to detect nutrients that almost assuredly come exclusively from the island’s non-source point pollutants, per the NOAA grant guidelines. This allows us to get the best possible comparisons to add to our previous two tests for things like Total Nitrogen and Total Phosphorus.” Penny wrote the NOAA-approved grant that included $2,500 for items such as student education kits and native plants, with FGCU donating the water sampling bottles, coolers, laboratory analysis and research expertise.

Social Distancing Constraints

Contrary to the first two rounds of testing in 2019, Penny is not seeking any additional citizens-scientist volunteers for now. “Because of social distancing constraints, this is not the right time to train new folks. Fortunately, I received a tremendous response from our original volunteers; so good, in fact, that most will test just one individual site, where at the conclusion of the last year’s rainy season, I had to assign many to two locations. By using people with prior training, we gain a greater continuity in the test results, as they already know how to meticulously collect samples through proper protocol. Another reason is that we previously included an educational component for when volunteers returned the samples to the Mound House, but coronavirus precautions prevent us from doing so now, though we hope to again in the future.”

Volunteers will pick up their water sampling packets at Newton Beach Park at 4650 Estero Boulevard on Tuesday, May 19, from 3 to 5 p.m. “Social distancing will be in place,” Penny related. “We will alphabetize sample packets by your last name, so just come to the picnic tables under the tiki hut, pick up yours and go. I will check off your name and only answer essential questions.” Volunteers took water samples from 46 island locations on October 5, 2019  to build upon initial baseline tests from the first testing a year ago on May 18, 2019.

The volunteers on May 23 will collect two water quality samples, then take those to the Mound House, where they will return them to Penny and FGCU students at the kayak launch area, but social distancing affects this as well. There will be a cooler into which FGCU’s Nicole Weigold, who runs this aspect of the project with Graduate Assistant Hannah Sims and fellow student Cierra Homic, places the samples. Once they collect them all, they proceed to the Vester Marine Science Field Station to conduct essential tests that they previously would do before the volunteers right at the Mound House.

Penny stressed, “You do not have to wear a facecover when you gather your samples and return them to the Mound House, but if you do so while you conduct your daily activities, we encourage you to do so. Most volunteers who collect the samples do so individually, and at the Mound House, we will employ all appropriate social distancing measures. I will ensure that everyone practices safe social distancing and will constantly wipe everything down, for the safest possible conditions.”

Interesting Results

FGCU students inspect water samples at the Mound House during a What’s in the Water? event. Photos by Don Hutchinson.

Once at Vester, Nicole and her colleagues will immediately test one sample from each testing site for turbidity, chlorophyll, Color Dissolved Organic Matter (CDOM) and salinity and record the data, and freeze the other to send to their FGCU laboratory for orthophosphate, nitrate/nitrite, and ammonium analysis at a later time. Penny noted, “Dr. Michael Parsons, a professor from FGCU’s Water School as well as a member of Governor Ron DeSantis’ Blue-Green Algae Task Force, will interpret the data and add it to our ongoing report that we will share with the island community, with our next collection date later this year, near the end of rainy season.”

According to Dr. Parsons, the early results from the first two 2019 water quality tests seem to indicate that organic matter from Fort Myers Beach is low, with the negative values indicating a lack of inputs from Lake Okeechobee, including less CDOM than in the FGCU tap water used as the ‘zero’ value in their calibration. Chlorophyll was slightly elevated and Phosphate was much higher. “In a nutshell,” he noted. “I’d say these indicate a lack of Lake Okeechobee influence, as low salinity and low CDOM as discharges were generally low, and noticeable localized phosphate inputs, though I won’t say significant yet – we need to continue the data collection. Phosphate sources would include fertilizer and waste water, septic and discharges from waste water treatment plants. The lack of similar nitrogen increases suggest it might not be waste water, or algae took up the nitrogen and we see residual phosphate. They could not use bioassay tests to help figure this out. Interesting results!”

Penny added that “testing so far indicates Phosphorous levels twice those of Nitrogen. This could be important because it may indicate the influence of fertilizers primarily from Fort Myers Beach may feed alga blooms. If further test results prove that, we can make relatively straight-forward changes in how people should and should not apply fertilizer on the island, to better understand necessary landscaping restrictions to improve our clean water quality. The results may ask Fort Myers Beach residents to use more native plants that require less or no fertilizer, and are drought-tolerant and do not require much water, as any water you use on a barrier island will basically run off into the Bay or Gulf and directly impact our waterways. That connection between land and water is really important for everyone to understand!”

Penny is delighted with What’s In The Water to this point. “The involvement of island volunteers gives them a sense of involvement, while keeping water quality front-and-center on people’s minds at the local level. Our test results will not only help Fort Myers Beach leaders to implement better water quality regulations, but will eventually guide further state and federal policies. What’s In The Water started out as one simple meeting with FGCU and grew into what it is now. I know our citizens have a strong sense of community, with a dedication to water quality, so this is so rewarding to me!”

For more details or to volunteer in the future, contact Penny directly at 239-634-7602 or penny@fmbgov.com.