What’s in the Water?

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Water Testing Program Part 2

The historic Mound House continues its partnership 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 Project 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 contribute to the Red Tide Harmful Algae Blooms (HAB) that led to the Summer 2018 water quality crisis. Non-point source pollution refers to pollution from many diffuse sources, often linked to rainfall runoff.

Volunteers took water samples from 46 island locations on Saturday afternoon, October 5, to build upon the initial baseline tests from the first session of water testing on May 18.

These volunteers took samples between 2 and 3 p.m., to coincide with low tide, so that whatever researchers detect will most likely originate from Fort Myers Beach and not off-island pollution sources. After gathering samples, volunteers returned them to the Mound House, where FGCU graduate students conducted initial tests. Dr. Mike Parsons of FGCU, Director of the Vester Marine & Environmental Science Research Field Station, and a member of Governor Ron DeSantis’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force, was to provide a brief program, but a scheduling conflict prevented his attendance.

Two Testing Locations

This reporter was once again a water sample collecting volunteer, as I was on May 18. My first location was the Lani Kai Island Resort, where I arrived around 2:10 p.m. With temperatures in the low 90s and only a smattering of clouds, the beach was so jam-packed with fun-loving patrons, you could easily mistake this for a Spring Break crowd rather than the heart of slow season! Project instructions dictated I wade in waist deep. Prior to taking my two samples, I first dipped the bottles into the Gulf to shake and wash out three times. On the fourth, at a level past my elbow, I took my two samples, capped the bottles, went on shore to dry off both myself and the sample bottles, then noted on them my name, location, and test time of 2:15 p.m. Since temperatures were already so hot, I brought a cooler of ice into which I placed the two bottles so the extreme heat would not contaminate them.

My second location was roughly one-third-mile to the north, just past the FMB Pier, on the beach in front of Lynn Hall Memorial Park. I repeated the same procedure, with one exception – while there was nothing we could do about the crowd at my first location, including those who visited by boat that would shake up and agitate the water in that area, here program coordinators asked me to choose a spot with few people in the Gulf. Beachgoers noticeably thinned approximately 200 yards north of the Pier, allowing me to collect two relatively calm water samples at 2:40 p.m. Following this, I proceeded to the Mound House.

While Dr. Parsons could not attend, three of his Graduate Students – Nicole Weigold, Sierra Homic and Matthew Ruppert – immediately tested one sample from each site for color-dissolved organic matter, turbidity, chlorophyll and salinity and recorded the data, to indicate what pollutants are coming into our waters from nearby tributaries and the island watershed, key non-source point pollution generators for Fort Myers Beach.

The graduate students froze the second sample to send to their FGCU laboratory for orthophosphate, nitrate/nitrite and ammonium analysis at a later time. As FGCU studies results from these first two testing days and others to follow in the future, they hope to identify the highest nutrient level “hot spots” and make recommendations to lower non-point source nutrient pollution, such as reducing or eliminating fertilizer or planting native groundcover and plants. These “hot spots” will require additional testing, perhaps monthly, to determine if Fort Myers Beach is achieving the desired nutrient level reductions, so these are just the first steps in a long-term process.

Volunteer Ceel Spuhler discusses the water testing procedure with FGCU grad students. Photos courtesy of Blue Turtle Galleries.

“Depending on where we find these ‘hot spots,’ we will consult business owners, condominium associations, private property owners and the Town of Fort Myers Beach Council & Staff to develop an appropriate plan of action,” explained Penny Jarrett, the Mound House Education Coordinator who organized “What’s In The Water.” “If the recommendations include planting groundcover in pre-approved locations, for example, we will again ask our volunteers to assist with this process. Once the testing has accumulated enough data, the Mound House will share it with the public through nutrient impact and water quality education programs.”

In The Beginning

“What’s In The Water” actually began with a Facebook post, Penny stated. “A friend is the Education Program Director at the Wild Center in The Adirondacks and quite involved in Climate Change, and I learned through his page that NOAA was looking for projects for its ‘Planet Stewardship Education Program.’ This immediately interested me, because of the devastating impact Red Tide had last summer on our marine wildlife, local economy and health of our citizens, plus it appealed to my belief that you ‘Think Globally But Act Locally,’ so I felt it would be beneficial to those of us who live and work on Fort Myers Beach to better understanding our local water quality, along with possible solutions you can personally take to manage our non-point source pollution, like landscaping yards with native plants that require less fertilizer, are more drought-tolerant, and require little to no irrigation, to not only reduce runoff, but bring about a better balance to our wildlife by providing more pollinators, nectar plants, birds and animals that contribute to the overall health of our ecosystem.”

Penny wrote the grant that NOAA approved, including providing $2,500 for items such as student education kits and native plants. FGCU is donating the water sampling bottles, coolers, laboratory analysis and research expertise.

At the first water testing event on May 18, Dr. Parsons spoke about the reason for the program. “The data you collect gives us a true snapshot of our water at this exact point in time, that we use as a baseline to build upon, as we continue to take future readings. While we hope to eventually obtain answers, often at the early stage like we are now, we look at the numbers, scratch our heads, and ask ‘what does this mean?’ Right now, when conditions worsen, all we can do is advise people that if you see algae, don’t go in the water, and it is currently just that simple and very frustrating, so we need better long-range answers and solutions, and this project will help us do that.”

For questions or additional information, or to volunteer for a future water sample collection date, contact Penny at penny@fmbgov.com. “NOAA and FGCU are very supportive of this project,” she concluded, “so I hope the Fort Myers Beach community will take advantage of this opportunity, to understand the condition of our local water quality and what we can do to improve it. Remember that we can all do our part and we can all make a difference to help heal our local waters, as it literally all does begin right in our own backyards, as water quality is crucial to us all!”