A tarnished gem: once the sparkling crown jewel of our city, Sarasota Bay has been damaged by decades of growth, pollution and indifference. Can it be saved?
THE SUNLIGHT GLITTERS off the waves as if every one of them were tipped with diamonds. The seagulls cry as they flap overhead. The clear sky soars high above like a crystal-blue dome. But down below, every ripple of the water carries a load of trouble.
This is Sarasota Bay Sarasota Bay is an estuary located off the west coast of Florida in the United States.
The bay and its surrounding area appeared on the earliest maps of the area, being named Zarazote on one dating from the early 1700s. today, a 52-square-mile gem whose tattered beauty helps draw millions of visitors to the region every year.
A hundred years ago, Sarasota Bay attracted the area's earliest settlers not with its beauty but with its amazing a·maze
v. a·mazed, a·maz·ing, a·maz·es
1. To affect with great wonder; astonish. See Synonyms at surprise.
2. Obsolete To bewilder; perplex.
v.intr. bounty. "The water appeared alive with multitudes offish off·ish
Inclined to be distant and reserved; aloof.
off of every kind and little exertion was required to net as many as we wished," an Army officer wrote back then. "Seafowl lined the beach, shown brilliantly in the sun from the red plumage plumage, of birds: see feathers. of the flamingos and pink curlew curlew (kûr`l), common name for large shore birds of both hemispheres, generally brown and buff in color and with decurved bills. ... Sharks were very numerous here, actually swimming about in schools. Any quantity of shellfish was to be had."
Sarasota Bay still stretches about 56 miles from Anna Maria Sound to the Venice Inlet, just as it has for generations. But those settlers might have a hard time recognizing it these days, now that half a million people live here.
The scattered salt marshes that once covered the miles between the bay and the Myakka River are a distant memory, drained by the early farmers. About 40 percent of the mangroves that once ringed the bay--crucial habitat for the fish and other marine creatures that called it home--were wiped out between 1880 and 1990 to accommodate waterfront development. And more than 100 miles of seawalls and other hardened shore structures now dominate the shoreline, making what was once a fluid and naturally evolving landscape into a hard and lifeless barrier.
In just the past 30 years, throughout the bay's watershed--the 150-square-mile area where water flows downhill into the bay through such waterways as Whitaker Bayou and Phillippi Creek--more than a third of the forested freshwater wetlands have been wiped out. Wetlands filter out water pollution, so now that they're gone, every hard rain carries down to the bay a fresh load of fertilizer and pesticides from lawns and golf courses.
The consequences of all this degradation have long been obvious to people like Tom Mayer, a Longboat Key native who has worked around the bay for 35 years. "A lot of people moved in, and the nature moved out," says Mayer, a professional mangrove mangrove, large tropical evergreen tree, genus Rhizophora, that grows on muddy tidal flats and along protected ocean shorelines. Mangroves are most abundant in tropical Asia, Africa, and the islands of the SW Pacific. trimmer trimmer
see resco nail trimmer, toenail scissors. . Newcomers see a flock of ibis pecking at their lawns and think there's plenty of wildlife still around and the bay is all right, he says. They don't realize that the birds are in their yard "because somebody developed where they used to be."
THE FIRST VISITORS to what is now Sarasota were fishermen looking for Looking for
In the context of general equities, this describing a buy interest in which a dealer is asked to offer stock, often involving a capital commitment. Antithesis of in touch with. a big catch. Even 50 years ago, when fewer than 20,000 people lived in Sarasota, the bay's sand flats held a multitude of clams and the sea grass beds were thick with scallops and oysters.
Cortez fish-house owner Karen Bell says her father used to tell her stories about netting a boatload boat·load
The number of passengers or the amount of cargo that a boat can hold.
Noun 1. boatload - the amount of cargo that can be held by a boat or ship or a freight car; "he imported wine by the boatload" of fish one day "and they would come back a few days later and catch even more," she recalls.
These days the fish aren't nearly as plentiful as they were back then. One big reason: A wealthy aluminum magnate named Arthur Vining Davis Arthur Vining Davis (May 30, 1867 – November 17, 1962), American industrialist and philanthropist, was born in Sharon, Massachusetts, the son of Perley B. Davis, a Congregational minister, and Mary Frances. .
As the longtime head of the Alcoa aluminum company, 80-year-old Davis was already one of the nations wealthiest men when he retired to Florida in 1948. But he just couldn't resist the lure of making even more money in real estate. So he founded Arvida, combining the first two letters of his three names to give it his personal stamp, and bought up land all over South Florida that he believed to be ripe for development. Among his acquisitions: the southern half of Longboat Key, most of Lido and all of Bird, Otter and Coon coon: see raccoon. keys in Sarasota Bay, purchased for $13.5 million from circus titan John Ringling's estate.
Bird Key was Arvida's first target in Sarasota, a 14-acre island that had already been boosted with 30,000 cubic yards of sand dredged up from the bay by its first owner back in 1912. Ringling himself had built a causeway across Bird Key to get customers over to the waterfront home-sites he was selling on St. Armands Key St. Armands Key is an island in Sarasota Bay off the west coast of Florida in the United States.
A Frenchman named Charles St. Amand bought property on the island in 1893. His name was misspelled in land deeds, and this misspelled name is still used today. .
Although there were other attempts to develop the key, not until Davis came along to push it through did any succeed, in part because city officials were concerned about the effects on the bay. But Davis convinced them to give him a green light. He dredged up enough of the bay bottom to create 511 homesites, 291 of them classified as waterfront since they sat on a series of finger canals. The first homes went on sale in 1960 for up to $32,000. (Now those homesites are worth millions.)
Davis was far from alone. Dredge-and-fill operations in the 1950s and 1960s wiped out more than 1,800 acres of the bay's coastal wetlands and nearly 4,500 acres of bay bottom to create waterfront homes, helping to destroy 30 percent of the seagrass beds that provide food and shelter for most of the bay's marine life.
Not long after Davis' death at age 95, though, public attitudes changed. In 1967, when Arvida announced plans to fill more than 170 acres of submerged land around Otter and South Lido keys, a group called Save Our Bays formed.
When word got out in January 1968 that the head of Arvida was having lunch with Gov. Claude Kirk at the Bird Key Yacht Club, Save Our Bays mobilized a flotilla of more than 200 boats and yachts of all sizes to ring the bay area to be developed, blowing horns, whistles, and bells to show their displeasure. A month later, the Sarasota City Commission voted unanimously to reject the dredging dredging, process of excavating materials underwater. It is used to deepen waterways, harbors, and docks and for mining alluvial mineral deposits, including tin, gold, and diamonds. project in order preserve the bay's marine life.
Still, the dredging done for Bird Key, the Intracoastal Waterway Intracoastal Waterway, c.3,000 mi (4,827 km) long, partly natural, partly artificial, providing sheltered passage for commercial and leisure boats along the U.S. Atlantic coast from Boston, Mass. to Key West, S Fla. and other alterations to the bay did plenty of damage, both direct and indirect. The water clouded up and seagrasses died. "The fishing was really bad then," recalls Jonnie Walker, a longtime fishing guide on the bay.
Nevertheless, people kept flocking to buy houses around Sarasota Bay. They weren't as interested in the bay's health as they were in how it looked from their back yard.
Not long ago, a study found that the main way most residents use the bay is not for boating or fishing but as a scenic backdrop, notes Jono Miller, a New College professor and longtime environmental activist. But Walker says he isn't sure the folks who have spent millions of dollars on a waterfront view even notice the bay anymore.
"I see a lot of houses where I never see any people outside," the fishing guide says. "People pay an exorbitant price for that view and never enjoy it. They never look outside. They don't care
"Don't Care" is a 1994 (see 1994 in music) single by American death metal band Obituary. if it has any fish in it. Maybe if it stunk stunk
A past tense and the past participle of stink.
a past of stink
stunk stink real bad, then they'd care about it."
EVERY AFTERNOON, Karen Bell steps out of her fish house and looks at the bay. "I go out and look at the sunset," she says. "It's lovely, with the silhouettes of all the boats."
Seven years ago, Bell and other Cortez residents pooled their resources in a bid to guarantee that the sunset view would remain for future generations. They bought 95 acres of land on the bay, 72 acres of it still covered in mangroves, to make sure it would stay undeveloped. The mangroves have been so reliable a source of young fish that locals have long called this area "the kitchen."
The rest of the bay has not been so well preserved. Starting back in 1910, Sarasota city officials mandated that every waterfront home should have a seawall seawall: see coast protection. , and now little of the bay still has a natural shoreline. An EPA EPA eicosapentaenoic acid.
n.pr See acid, eicosapentaenoic.
n. study five years ago found the bay is now constrained by more than 100 miles of seawalls.
Around the time the city first declared its preference for seawalls, its citizens voted to build a combination water and sewer system Noun 1. sewer system - facility consisting of a system of sewers for carrying off liquid and solid sewage
sewage system, sewage works
facility, installation - a building or place that provides a particular service or is used for a particular industry; "the . The only problem was where the sewage eventually wound up: the bay. And Sarasota wasn't the only one using the bay as a dumping ground. In times of heavy rains, Manatee manatee: see sirenian.
Any of three species (family Trichechidae) of slow-moving, shallow-water herbivorous mammals. Manatees have a tapered body ending in a rounded flipper, no hind flippers, and foreflippers near the head. County allowed partially treated sewage to flow into the bay as well.
By the 1980s, the bay had hit its lowest point. Because of all the pollution, parts of the bay suffered from major algae algae (ăl`jē) [plural of Lat. alga=seaweed], a large and diverse group of primarily aquatic plantlike organisms. These organisms were previously classified as a primitive subkingdom of the plant kingdom, the thallophytes (plants that blooms. The blooms not only sucked oxygen out of the water, killing fish--they also blocked sunlight from getting to the remaining seagrass beds, killing them as well. Stimulating the bloom's growth was a pollutant pol·lut·ant
Something that pollutes, especially a waste material that contaminates air, soil, or water. called nitrogen. So much nitrogen was pouring into the bay that tests showed it had hit 400 times the bay's own natural level.
Federal and state regulators ordered a halt to the sewage dumping. Meanwhile, then-Congressman Porter Goss n. 1. Gorse. helped get legislation passed declaring Sarasota Bay a priority for cleanup under a new federal program. Thus was born the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, created with the seemingly impossible mission of cleaning up a mess 200 years in the making.
The first step, improving the sewage treatment Sewage treatment
Unit processes used to separate, modify, remove, and destroy objectionable, hazardous, and pathogenic substances carried by wastewater in solution or suspension in order to render the water fit and safe for intended uses. systems, has cost $200 million so far in state and federal money, says Mark Alderson, executive director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program. The county is spending another $150 million a year on the septic tank septic tank, underground sedimentation tank in which sewage is retained for a short period while it is decomposed and purified by bacterial action. The organic matter in the sewage settles to the bottom of the tank, a film forms excluding atmospheric oxygen, and and package plant replacement through 2012. And the job is far from over. As the region developed, builders constructed 117 small--and often poorly built--sewer plants to deal with the waste from their subdivisions, while others relied on leaky leak·y
adj. leak·i·er, leak·i·est
Permitting leaks or leakage: a leaky roof; a leaky defense system.
Adj. 1. septic tanks. County officials have managed to eliminate about 100 of those package plants and get rid of most of the septic tanks by extending sewer lines to those areas, Alderson says.
Eliminating the sewage dumping cut in half the nitrogen levels in the bay, Alderson adds. With less nitrogen to spur algae blooms, the water is clearer; and as a result aerial photos show that more than 500 acres of seagrasses have come back, helping to revive the fish population. "The clarity of the bay has improved a lot," says Walker, the fishing guide.
Dealing with the seawalls and the polluted runoff, though, has not been as easy. Tearing out the seawalls would threaten to erode expensive private property. So instead the estuary program, working with Mote Marine Laboratory Mote Marine Laboratory (and Aquarium) is a not-for-profit research and educational institution with an aquarium open to the public 365 days a year. Founded by Dr. Eugenie Clark in 1955 in Cape Haze, Florida, the early years of the laboratory specialized in shark research. , has developed artificial reefs that can be planted near the walls and help them to function more as the mangroves did, providing a nursery for juvenile fish. A Mote study found more than 400 juvenile fish, including pinfish, silver perch, gray snapper Noun 1. gray snapper - found in shallow waters off the coast of Florida
grey snapper, Lutjanus griseus, mangrove snapper
snapper - any of several large sharp-toothed marine food and sport fishes of the family Lutjanidae of mainly tropical coastal waters , and sheepshead sheepshead
Species (Archosargus probatocephalus) of popular edible sport fish in the porgy family, common along southern North American Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts. at one such reef installation, while at another seawall without the reef there were none, Alderson says.
But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has balked balk
v. balked, balk·ing, balks
1. To stop short and refuse to go on: The horse balked at the jump.
2. at issuing federal permits to employ the artificial reef attachments throughout the bay for fear they will be a hazard to boaters, according to according to
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.
2. In keeping with: according to instructions.
3. Alderson. So for now, many of the seawalls remain as sterile as they have been for generations.
Although halting the flow of sewage into the bay eliminated half of the nitrogen pollution, what was left was still 200 times the bays natural level--and now most of that is coming from stormwater runoff. A major contributor to nitrogen pollution in runoff is the fertilizer put out on lawns, golf courses and landscaping.
"A lot of people are putting too much fertilizer out there, and we really don't need it," Alderson says. "If you're over-applying it, there's a good chance it's not being taken up by the turf or ornamentals, and it's winding up in the bay."
State regulations that halt other kinds of pollution in stormwater runoff don't address nitrogen. Meanwhile, a massive red tide red tide: see Dinoflagellata.
Discoloration of seawater caused by dinoflagellates during periodic blooms (population increases). Toxic substances released by these organisms into the water may be lethal to fish and other marine life, and bloom in 2005 wiped out many of the gains in the bay's fish population. So many fish were killed that the bay's hungry dolphins, deprived of their usual prey, began trying to steal anglers' bait. Two became tangled in fishing gear and died.
There is no proven scientific link between polluted runoff and red tide, but the suspicion that the runoff at least fuels the blooms once they begin led to a sense of urgency in addressing the pollution problem. So Sarasota County officials put together a task force to draw up local regulations on fertilizer.
The task force spent more than a year working on possible regulations--and drawing a storm of criticism from fertilizer industry representatives who contended that educating the public was better than imposing new rules. Finally, though, in August, the county approved the new regulations--the strictest in the state--which will go into effect in June 2008. Commissioners spelled out their reasoning in the rules, saying that "recent algae blooms and accumulation of red drift algae on local beaches have heightened community concerns about water quality."
The county's new rules say no one can use chemical fertilizers at all during the summer rainy season. And they recommend that when residents do use fertilizer, they use the kind containing at least 50 percent slow-release nitrogen. Violators can face increasing penalties with each infraction Violation or infringement; breach of a statute, contract, or obligation.
The term infraction is frequently used in reference to the violation of a particular statute for which the penalty is minor, such as a parking infraction.
INFRACTION. , going up to a $500 fine for a third offense.
Sarasota County's fertilizer rules may wind up having statewide implications, as Manatee and Charlotte counties and the city of Jacksonville consider following its lead with similar rules of their own.
While Alderson is hoping the new regulations will help eliminate some of the remaining nitrogen, he knows there's still a long way to go.
"We've taken the bay back to a certain level," he says, "but can we take it beyond that?"
He's wondering, for instance, if there's some way to reverse the effect of all those long-ago farmers draining the marshes--not just to protect the bay from pollution but to stop wasting all the water that is now rolling out to the bay through their ancient ditches.
It took two centuries to push the bay to the brink of collapse. Bringing it back won't be easy, and it probably won't be cheap, either.
The key, says Jonnie Walker, will be the people who live around the bay, the people who might not think about it as part of their daily lives, even though it is. Their every action affects its future, and thus the future of the entire community that has gathered around its shore.
"Everything we do on the land eventually winds up in the bay," Walker says. "If you dump oil in your driveway four miles inland, it's going to wind up in the bay. Everything drains into the bay."
Craig Pittman Craig Pittman was a professional wrestler and a United States Marine. Career
Craig Pittman was born in 1959 on Long Island, New York. He joined the United States Marine Corps upon graduating and achieved the rank of sergeant. , an environmental reporter for the St. Petersburg Times
The St. Petersburg Times is a daily newspaper based in St. Petersburg, Florida, that serves the larger Tampa Bay area. , is a three-time winner of the Waldo Proffitt Award for Distinguished Environmental Reporting in Florida, and a series he co-wrote with Matthew Waite on Florida's vanishing wetlands has won a pair of national awards for investigative reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists. A book version of that series is being published by the University Press of Florida in 2008.
PHOTOS BY WILLIAM S. SPEER
RELATED ARTICLE: BAY WATCH
FIVE MEASURES OF THE BAY'S CURRENT HEALTH.
1. SEAGRASS. Seagrass decreased 30 percent between 1950 and the launch of the Sarasota Bay National Estuary Program in 1989. Since then the bay has gained more than 500 acres of new seagrass, providing new habitat for fish as well and indicating that the water is clearer.
2. WATER QUALITY. In 1988, Sarasota Bay had more than 400 times as much nitrogen as when the first settlers arrived. By halting the flow of sewage into the bay, we've cut the nitrogen level in half--but that's still 200 times more than is healthy.
3. ALGAE BLOOMS. In the 1980s, the high concentrations of nitrogen in the bay fueled blooms of harmful algae. The reduction of nitrogen pollution has lessened the likelihood and frequency of those blooms. A massive red tide outbreak hit the bay in 2005, but the jury is still out on whether it was fueled by pollution.
4. MARINE LIFE. By 2000, an estimated 110 million more fish were swimming in the bay than in 1988, although some of those gains were later wiped out by red tide. Pesticide residue Pesticide residue refers to the pesticides that may remain on or in food after they are applied to food crops. Regulation of pesticide residue in the US has shown up in dolphin blubber and milk, and could be the reason some calves die. Some male dolphins in Sarasota Bay have registered PCB PCB: see polychlorinated biphenyl.
in full polychlorinated biphenyl
Any of a class of highly stable organic compounds prepared by the reaction of chlorine with biphenyl, a two-ring compound. levels of over 800 parts per million parts per million
mg/kg or ml/l; see ppm. , far above the 1 part per million considered safe for humans; this may be why they rarely live past 40.
5. SHORELINE. About 40 percent of coastal mangroves have been wiped out by dredge-and-fill, and the shoreline is now ringed by 100 miles of seawalls. Efforts to install artificial reefs by the seawalls, to re-create the juvenile fish nursery that once existed, have failed to garner approval from federal regulators, but the estuary program has completed 22 wetlands restoration programs so far.
RELATED ARTICLE: WHAT YOU CAN DO
HALF A MILLION PEOPLE CONTROL THE FATE OF SARASOTA BAY. IF YOU'RE ONE OF THEM, HERE'S HOW YOU CAN HELP.
STOP USING SO MUCH FERTILIZER ON YOUR LAWN. Don't apply any fertilizer right before a rainfall. Stormwater runoff carries the excess into the bay, polluting it. The same goes for pesticides. And if you water your lawn efficiently on the days it is legal to irrigate ir·ri·gate
To wash out a cavity or wound with a fluid. , there will be less runoff.
DISPOSE OF HAZARDOUS AND CHEMICAL WASTE PROPERLY. A single gallon of fuel can contaminate con·tam·i·nate
1. To make impure or unclean by contact or mixture.
2. To expose to or permeate with radioactivity.
con·tam·i·nant n. more than a million gallons of water. If you change your car's oil in your driveway, use a drop cloth, absorb spills with kitty litter and dispose of the oil at an approved county location.
PICK UP YOUR PET'S POOP. Pet feces left on the beach, in yards or in parks ultimately end up being washed into the bay.
IF YOU'RE A BOATER, don't let toxic substances such as oil, paint or trash get into the water. And don't discharge your sewage into the bay--it's more concentrated than domestic sewage, and often carries chemical additives or disinfectants.
DRIVE LESS AND KEEP YOUR ENGINE TUNED. The pollutants pollutants
see environmental pollution. that pour out of vehicle tailpipes are a major source of atmospheric deposition of pollution into the bay waters.