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Thu. Jul 18th, 2024

Estero Bay near Fort Myers polluted by human waste

By Vaseline May30,2024

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A mother dolphin and her calf cruise along the eastern shoreline of Estero Bay shortly after sunrise, occasionally climbing the surface for a breather.

As they approach a paddleboarder, the calf spins around and its pink belly flashes skyward. In a flash he sees the paddler and is startled just inches away from the bow.

The two shot off into the distance, leaving the paddleboarder bobbing in their wake near the mouth of Spring Creek.

Scenes like these take place across Estero Bay and in its vaunted tributaries.

But the bay and the rivers and creeks that feed it are sick with pollution, despite receiving the highest levels of protection the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the governor can provide.

These waterways are filled with things like fecal indicator bacteria, blue-green algae, copper, nitrogen and phosphorus.

Data from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) shows that the Upper Imperial River is polluted with nitrogen and has oxygen problems, while Mullock and Hendry creeks are full of bacteria and fecal coliform.

The Estero River is a hot spot for fecal indicator bacteria, and Spring Creek also faces water problems.

It’s enough to make someone sick

What happened to the state’s first water preserve and the tributaries that feed it? After all, the bay has been protected since the 1960s and in 1991 the creeks and rivers were designated Outstanding Florida Waters.

“It’s not the best of all possible worlds,” said retired state biologist and planning expert Jim Beever. “This is as good as we have it because the rules and regulations have not been enforced. This is the world of weakened regulations and the pretense that everything is fine.”

This is not how things should have gone for these protected waterways, Beever and others say.

Protected on behalf of the public, for green space, wildlife habitat and water supplies, Outstanding Florida Waters and water preserves are the best designations, the best that Florida has to offer.

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The gold standard for DEP, the agency charged with controlling Florida’s waters, has failed, critics say.

Terry Cain is the president of the citizen support group Estero Bay Buddies, which was founded in 1999. She moved here in the 1970s and says water quality has slowly declined throughout the bay and its tributaries since then.

“People in the 1950s who were using the bay and fishing and water skiing saw that the water quality was deteriorating, and they formed a group and started lobbying in Tallahassee for a preserve in the water so that there would be some kind of engine to protect the water quality said Cain, describing the formation of what would become the state’s first aquatic reserve “I’ve been here 48 years and the water quality was so good when I came you could see the bottom. If you walk up to your neck into the Gulf of Mexico, you can see your toes. Same in the bay.”

She said having clean water is important to the local economy and that a failing string of rivers and creeks could have outflows that could hit Southwest Florida’s most profitable industries.

“Economically, it’s paramount because if the tributaries fail, the economy fails because people come here for clean air and clean water, Cain said. “And they come here for boating, fishing and kayaking.”

Most tributaries are not controlled by the Ministry of Health

Bloom conditions and the presence of fecal coliform are only reported by the Florida Department of Health in Lee County when it occurs in places like Bonita Beach or Fort Myers Beach. Conditions in tributaries – many of which are heavily used by paddlers, boaters and fishermen – are not monitored by the government agency.

Calusa Waterkeeper Codty Pierce and his group of volunteers monitor water conditions in popular recreational water bodies that are not monitored by DOH.

He reports that Estero Bay’s tributaries are filled with potentially harmful bacteria, and water conditions appear to be getting worse over time.

“The testing we do is to raise awareness and try to protect our water-based community,” Pearce said when asked why his group tests waterways that DOH does not. “There are a huge number of people who kayak, fish, boat, snorkel and swim, so the main role we do is monitor the waters for fecal indicator bacteria to protect the public because we know they recreate in that area .We’re closing the gap and bringing that awareness to the community.”

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And again, they are polluted; and critics say the presence of harmful bacteria and nutrients that fuel toxic algal blooms stem from the overdevelopment of the 360-square-acre watershed, which is largely in southern Lee County.

“You have algae blooms that are enhanced by the nutrients,” Beever said. “Fecal indicator bacteria are an indicator of other pathogens that are not healthy for humans. Even people who step into a body of water and are just wading can contract something if the pathogens are bad enough.”

The problems in the creeks and river are similar, but pollution levels vary due to local causes – such as the septic tanks in San Carlos Park that invariably leak and overload Mullock Creek with fecal bacteria.

“In the 2019 water status report, fecal coliform and nitrogen were the worst problems,” Beever said. “Human waste was located in Mullock Creek, Estero River, Spring Creek and Imperial River.”

What has happened since the tributaries were designated Outstanding Florida Waters in 1991?

“They were in better shape at that point,” Beever said. ‘The rules for water quality were stricter then. Then there was an amazing development boom in Bonita Springs and Estero, bringing many more nutrients into the Imperial River, Spring Creek and the Estero River. And FGCU was not built in the early 1990s, nor was the booming development surrounding it or east of Interstate 75.”

Beever and others say that despite state and federal governments spending billions of dollars annually on projects, water quality in much of the state has only gotten worse over the past three decades.

“Not only do you have to keep things from getting worse, but you have to fix the parts that are currently not up to standard,” Beever said of the polluted tributaries. “There is a denial that more development causes more pollution, when in fact the basis of the research admits that it only addresses a percentage of pollution.”

‘That poop comes into the bay’

So is it safe to touch water that flows into Estero Bay, the state’s longest-standing aquatic preserve?

That depends on the time of year, who you ask and local conditions.

The water here can sometimes be very clean, but sometimes it is also full of fecal bacteria from overused septic tanks and leaking wastewater pipes and installations.

“The population has grown tremendously in the Estero Bay watershed, but there have been no comparable improvements in our wastewater systems,” said James Douglass, a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University and water quality researcher. “It’s the poop of all these people who have moved into the watershed, and it hasn’t been properly kept out of the tributaries. And that shit ends up in the bay.”

Douglass knows firsthand how elevated bacteria levels can affect even healthy adults like him.

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in 2022, Douglass frequently came into contact with local waters and contracted MRSA, pseudomonas aeruginosa and streptococci. He eventually ended up in the hospital.

“Now I’m a lot more careful when it comes to (going into the water with) wounds,” Douglass said. “Or if it’s after recent storm events, I don’t go into the river.”

Douglass said the tributaries are simply not protected to the extent they deserve, or within the letter of the law, because development is not intended to increase pollution.

“They certainly haven’t been treated with the respect of having an Outstanding Florida Waterway because a lot of the data shows this progressive degradation there,” Douglass said. “They all have about the same mixture of contaminants, just in different relative amounts. Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus are very big (problems).”

There is still hope for Estero Bay’s tributaries

But there are answers to the problems facing Estero Bay’s tributaries. The basic goal is to rid the water of contamination and bring dissolved oxygen to healthy levels.

“There are signs of hope,” Douglass said. “Large communities like Spanish Wells and others on East Bonita Beach Road have asked me to come talk to them and they are advocating to move away from spraying and start using plants as filters. I don’t think that is the only solution , but that to me is one of the solutions that we need to move to and the other piece of the puzzle is actually improving the wastewater problem, rather than trying to play dumb and not knowing what’s going on.”

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And not all is lost. Not forever, say Beever and others.

Florida’s waterways could be on a new track again, on a path back to the days when the waters were clear and some were clean enough to scoop and drink by hand.

Tighter regulations and enforcement of pollution standards (along with updates to wastewater treatment plants) can purify the water until it is once again worthy of Florida’s vaunted protection.

“We can make things better,” Beever said. “You can look at examples in the United States, Europe and Asia; and in those cases they set stricter standards. We did a great job in Tampa Bay, and the state standards were weakened and there were problems again.”

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