An edition of: WaterAtlas.orgPresented By: USF Water Institute

Water-Related News

SCOTUS wetlands decision could spell more construction, major impact on Florida

TAMPA — Nearly a third of Florida — millions of acres — is designated as wetlands, and the recent Supreme Court decision over the type of land could have a major impact in the state, potentially inviting more construction and development. The ruling weakened environmental protections on wetlands by changing what land is and is not protected by the Environmental Protection Agency and the decades-old Clean Water Act.

“This is what drives people to Florida,” said Rocky Milburn, gesturing out to Lake Conservation Park, where he spoke with 8 On Your Side. “This beautiful, beautiful place. But it’s going to disappear.”

Unless wetlands are connected to a larger body of water, they are under less protection, which has environmentalists, like Rocky Milburn of the Tampa Bay Sierra Club, frustrated.

“That’s our drinking water, from these wetlands,” Milburn said. “They hold the water and they filter down to the limestone through the aquifer. It’s very, very important.”

The Sierra Club said more than half the country’s wetlands will be affected, including many in Florida.

“How many people a day are moving to Florida?” Milburn questioned. “How many houses are they building? Just drive anywhere — North County, South County, Lakeland — and there’s wetlands all around us.”

Tampa Bay gets EPA grant money to help environment

Disadvantaged areas in the Tampa Bay area are set to receive money for environmental improvements because of a series of measures passed during the Biden administration.

These grants provide a wide range of benefits promoting clean energy and clean buildings. Direct grants going straight to Tampa and Hillsborough County are focused on repairing water and wastewater systems. Environmental Protection Administrator Michael Regen helped create the grants.

“There’s opportunity to apply for wastewater dollars, there’s opportunity to apply for EJ grants that tackle air quality issues, there are multiple opportunities for an EJ [environmental justice] community to deal with the disproportionate impact they’ve seen for generations.”

At the Capitol committee meeting this month, Tampa Bay Congress member Kathy Castor spoke with EPA Administrator Michael Regan about how this will affect Tampa residents.

“In Tampa in the Progress Village Palm River area, we’re talking at the local level now, these are neighbors who are not on wastewater, they’re on septic. They still have drinking water wells. They’re in the shadow of a huge phosphogypsum stack, and it looks like the EJ grant opportunities are going to unlock the ability to improve people’s lives”

Castor points Floridians to to learn how they can benefit from these grants.

How the Supreme Court’s wetlands ruling could impact pollution, flooding

The Supreme Court’s decision to curb federal regulations for wetlands could have far-reaching implications for America’s water.

The ruling is expected to open the nation up to more water pollution, experts say. And not only that: They say it could also make the country more vulnerable to floods.

The court Thursday narrowed the federal government’s authority to regulate wetlands, saying it only has jurisdiction over those that have a “continuous surface connection” with other regulated waters such as lakes or rivers.

In practice, this will mean that wetlands that don’t meet this definition will be open to development, unless they are in a state that has its own requirements.

“People will no longer need a permit to fill the wetlands,” Mark Ryan, a former Clean Water Act litigation specialist at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), told The Hill on Thursday.

“If you’re a developer and you buy a piece of farmland that had a bunch of wetlands on it that weren’t right next to the river … you could just go out and start filling those wetlands now. You don’t need a permit unless the state requires it,” Ryan said.

A significant number of wetlands are expected to be impacted by the ruling.

A perfect ‘pathogen’ storm: Vibrio bacteria, Sargassum and plastic marine debris

A new study uncovers how the interplay between Sargassum spp., plastic marine debris and Vibrio bacteria creates the perfect "pathogen" storm that has implications for both marine life and public health. Vibrio bacteria are found in waters around the world and are the dominant cause of death in humans from the marine environment.

For example, Vibrio vulnificus, sometimes referred to as flesh-eating bacteria, can cause life-threatening foodborne illnesses from seafood consumption as well as disease and death from open wound infections.

Researchers from Florida Atlantic University and collaborators fully sequenced the genomes of 16 Vibrio cultivars isolated from eel larvae, plastic marine debris, Sargassum, and seawater samples collected from the Caribbean and Sargasso seas of the North Atlantic Ocean. What they discovered is Vibrio pathogens have the unique ability to "stick" to microplastics and that these microbes might just be adapting to plastic.

SCOTUS sinks Clean Water Act protection for 51% of U.S. waters

'Wetlands that are separate from traditional navigable waters cannot be considered part of those waters.'

A Supreme Court ruling that on its face just allows an Idaho couple to build a home near a lake goes in fact much further than that, eliminating Clean Water Act (CWA) coverage to 51% of previously protected U.S. wetlands.

“Wetlands that are separate from traditional navigable waters cannot be considered part of those waters, even if they are located nearby,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion.

“In addition, it would be odd indeed if Congress had tucked an important expansion to the reach of the CWA into convoluted language in a relatively obscure provision concerning state permitting programs.”

In this case, a road bisects the wetlands in question, and the house was going in on the part of the wetlands cut off from the rest. The Court ruled that the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction ended at the road. The water has to be visible and contiguous to be covered by the law.

Water management districts want visitors to enjoy Florida’s springs and rivers responsibly

Here are some reminders to take special care if you're planning to enjoy Florida's nature this weekend.

Before Memorial Day Weekend and the unofficial start of summer, Florida’s water management districts want to remind visitors to springs and rivers to leave no litter and protect nature.

Troy Roberts with the Suwannee River Water Management District said trash takes away from an area’s natural beauty. It is also harmful to plants, animals, and water quality.

“Make sure you’re taking your trash back with you,” Roberts said. “Take care of these natural wonders that we have like you would your own house.”

Roberts added it is also important to protect submerged aquatic vegetation or seagrass, which provides food and habitat, and can serve as an indicator of the health of a system.

“When people are out swimming or floating, they need to stay close to the surface of the water and they’re not trampling the vegetation,” he said. “Walking on it can uproot it, can damage it. Even walking in the sandy areas can prevent new growth in those areas.”

Vivianna Bendixson with the Southwest Florida Water Management District echoed that advice.

“We want boaters and kayakers to enjoy their time on the river, but we want them to do it while reducing their impact to the river,” she said.

Bendixson added that boaters should not moor along the river’s shore, because that contributes to shoreline erosion and the degradation of the system’s overall health.

Water management districts will promote being good stewards of the environment on social media and at their sites throughout the summer when springs see more visitors.

How big an area was impacted by Piney Point?

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From Sarasota Bay Estuary Program Director Dave Tomasko:

Successful resource management efforts have to be grounded in solid science. Both in Tampa Bay and Sarasota Bay, we have the privilege of working with talented individuals doing great science. The paper linked here is an example of this type of management-relevant science.

Our colleagues at the University of Florida (UF) and the Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP), led by UF’s Dr. Elise Morrison, used a variety of tracers and water quality parameters to track the duration and spatial extent of impacts from the discharges of industrial wastewater from Piney Point. Of particular interest is the nitrogen isotope work. The ratio between two isotopes of nitrogen (N-15 and N-14) has been used for decades to distinguish between nitrogen loads from wastewater vs. nitrogen loads from "fertilizer".

Well, the industrial wastewater that was released from Piney Point not only had excessively high values of nitrogen (over 200 mg/L, more than 10 times as concentrated as what came into our waterways from the Bee Ridge Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) overflows) but it also had an isotopic signature that was extremely unique. This wasn't "fertilizer". It was a pool of 200 million gallons of fertilizer that had been processed by the algal blooms that had been feeding off that fertilizer for more than 20 years. As a result, the isotopic signature of the discharges gave rise to a value that had not previously been recorded in our local waters. This unique signature thus acted as a "tracer" of the spatial distribution of the plume.

So how far away was this isotopic signature found? More than 40 miles away, up close to Tarpon Springs. It was found in the “reference site” that I proposed to UF researchers – a location far enough away from Tampa Bay that it was thought it would be isolated from the impacts that were anticipated in Tampa and Sarasota Bays.

Red tide appears to be gone from area beaches

Red tide has been a scourge of the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Ian struck Collier and Lee counties last year. It has finally dissipated from much of the area.

Red tide appears to be gone from the region for the first time in months.

An update from state environmental officials Wednesday showed red tide was either not present or only found in background levels throughout the Tampa Bay and Sarasota/Manatee coastlines.

Red tide was found in low concentrations just south of Sarasota County, in Charlotte County.

Still, some reports of fish kills and respiratory irritation suspected to be related to red tide were reported over the past week in Sarasota County.

For additional information about red tide, including information on how to report a fish kill or other wildlife effects, consult health authorities about human exposure, or locate other resources, visit the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Red Tide-Related Hotlines and Information Sources article.

Water Atlas Recreational Water Quality Map »

St. Pete is ‘banking’ on seagrass efforts

Tampa Bay is losing its seagrass, and St. Petersburg officials plan to construct a mitigation bank on city-owned submerged land adjacent to the Vinoy Park beach.

However, the engineering department needs tons of natural material to fill a 32-acre dredge hole and support the critical habitat’s growth. Meanwhile, just across the Skyway Bridge, the Manatee County Port Authority is extending a docking facility 600 feet and deepening the adjacent channels.

The two parties realized the dredging project would generate enough material to satisfy St. Pete’s need “in one event,” reducing its impacts. At the May 18 meeting, city council members unanimously approved an Interlocal Agreement that provides an extensive mutual benefit.

“They (Port Manatee) need to dispose of that material somewhere,” said Brejesh Prayman, director of engineering. “Ironically, because our numbers are almost exactly the same, we have the opportunity to receive that material.

“It’s serendipity that the numbers were that close.”

Red tide? Seaweed blob? Nope, scientists are watching a different algae

Researchers call it ‘sea sawdust,’ and it has a friendly relationship with the organism that causes red tide. It’s likely offshore of every county from Pinellas to Collier.

Florida researchers are watching an algae bloom drifting offshore of the Tampa Bay area — and no, it’s not red tide or a looming blob of seaweed.

Scientists are monitoring a patchy cloud of “sea sawdust” that has ebbed and flowed in the Gulf of Mexico for nearly a week, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. The blue-green algae species, known as Trichodesmium, is often found in tropical waters and blooms off Southwest Florida.

The good news: It’s not known to be toxic. The bad news: It leaves behind nitrogen that can feed red tide.

Sea sawdust earns its nickname from the opaque, brownish hue it reflects as it gathers on the sea surface, according to Kate Hubbard, the director of the state’s Center for Red Tide Research. From above, thick blooms can resemble oil slicks.

“It really stands out,” Hubbard said in an interview. “When you’re on the water, it pops out as something that looks different than really any other type of algae.”

Sign up now for the 2023 Florida Waters Stewardship Program

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The deadline to sign up is July 26th.

To make a difference concerning the issues surrounding water quality and quantity in our communities, we must understand the various ways in which we interact with water. As Floridians, we are connected to our oceans and bays by our faucets and laundries, to our neighborhood ponds and lakes by our yards and streets, and to our regional and statewide neighbors by our surface and groundwater supplies.

This program will use expert presentations, online explorations, experiential learning, field experience in watershed science, and communication skills training to foster a greater understanding of these interactions and provide the tools necessary to become stewards of our water resources.

During this seven-session course, participants will travel to locations across Pinellas County to explore the natural beauty, learn about emerging water issues, and meet with local experts.

Participants will also plan and implement an individual (or group) stewardship project that makes a difference in the community, attend a relevant stakeholder meeting and explore online resources to learn more about water between class sessions.

Each class session will be three hours long and include Working with Water instructor-led presentations looking at water at the state-level as well as Working with People instructor-led presentations highlighting communication best-practices. Classes will also include time for discussions, guest speaker presentations highlighting local water resources, and a field tour.

  • This course has limited seating/availability. Register early to reserve your spot. Youth (under 18) are eligible to register as long as an accompanying adult is also registered for the program.
  • The cost of the program is $125. If the cost of the program will prevent you from participating, please complete a scholarship application (at link below). Application deadline is Wednesday, July 23rd.

Classes begin on August 9 and end on October 18th. Detailed schedule and other information is at the link below.

Tampa Bay fertilizer bans go into effect June 1st

TAMPA – Fertilizer bans go into effect for parts of the Tampa Bay area on June 1.

This prevents the use of any fertilizer containing phosphorous or nitrogen in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee and Sarasota Counties from June 1 through September 30.

There are differences and exemptions of the ban and the free UF IFAS application is useful when looking at specific neighborhoods.

The ban is in effect during the rainy season because a summer thunderstorm can dump several inches of water, leading to a significant amount of water running off into drains into lakes, reservoirs and our bay waters.

Any excess fertilizer gets washed away and into these water bodies, which leads to reduced water quality.

Excess phosphorous and nitrogen lead to algae growth. An abundance of algae blocks sunlight from reaching the bottom of those water bodies and therefore fewer plants and sea grass. Fewer plants leads to lower oxygen levels which eventually lead to fish kills.

The 2022 Tampa Bay seagrass survey showed just 30,000 acres of seagrass. That’s 10,000 acres below the goal. It also marked the third consecutive survey period showing a decline after hitting a high of 40,000 acres.

Fertilizers containing phosphorous and nitrogen can still be used until June 1st. However, extra caution should be taken not to apply it to impervious surfaces, when it is raining or more than two inches are expected within the next 36 hours, and not within 10 feet of any body of water.

Caution should be used when dealing with lawn clippings as well to make sure they are not put down any drains.

If the fertilizer does have nitrogen, it must be a least 50% controlled release or slow release. Phosphorous should not be used at all, ever, unless a soil analysis done by a qualified lab shows there is a phosphorous deficiency in the soil.

If you use a fertilizer spreader, it must have a deflector shield on it to better control where fertilizer is spread.

Bathroom to Bay: How old toilets are being transformed into a sea life habitat in Tampa Bay

TIERRA VERDE – As one of the most popular tourist destinations, Tampa Bay has an abundance of hotels and other properties. As those properties are updated over time, replaceable items like old toilets are sent to landfills. Tampa Bay Watch and Tampa Bay Water are exploring ways to find more sustainable solutions for the toilets.

"They build oyster reef balls out of concrete which helps to support the growth of oysters throughout the Tampa Bay area," said Amelia Brown with Tampa Bay Water as she explained the work done at Tampa Bay Watch. Both agencies have teamed up to help reduce waste. They're taking old replaceable toilets and - rather than sending them to landfills – they're recycling them into habitats for sea life.

"We crush old, water-guzzling toilets into little pieces and mixed it into the concrete mixture that was used to make the oyster reef balls."

Organizers say 85% of oyster habitat has been lost in the Tampa Bay area due to human activities. Amelia Brown, who helped spearhead the pilot program says it's a great way to replace your toilet and save water."Toilets that are from 1993 or earlier use 3.5 gallons or more per flush. But new, high efficiency water sense certified toilets use only 1.82 gallons per flush." That's a 60% reduction in water use per flush.

But she didn't want to create one environmental problem while solving another.

Florida environment groups, businesses urge DeSantis to veto ‘attack’ on fertilizer bans

A DeSantis veto would save important measures to curb urban pollution, the groups urged.

Dozens of Florida businesses and environmental organizations are calling on Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto a budget item that could curtail local fertilizer ordinances and stymie future water quality efforts.

A coalition of 55 groups from across the Sunshine State, including Alachua County commissioners, wrote a letter to DeSantis late last week urging he use a line-item veto to slash a proposed $250,000 appropriation for University of Florida researchers to study the impact of preempting local fertilizer regulations for the next year.

A local fertilizer ordinance — like the one Pinellas County initiates from June through September — aims to prevent polluted, nutrient-heavy water from flowing off lawns and parks during Florida’s rainy season. That runoff can fuel toxic blue-green algae and red tide blooms that plague Florida’s cherished coastlines and cost the state millions in missed tourism dollars.

More than 100 municipalities across Florida, including more than 20 local governments in Pinellas, have used rainy season fertilizer bans as a tool to prevent souring the state’s waters.

Native wildlife, plants thrive as result of seasonal low water levels at Myakka

Shorebirds, including imperiled species such as black skimmers, benefit from ongoing efforts to restore natural hydrology in the park.

Myakka River State Park is known for its dynamic natural communities. Much of their variation is driven by the park's namesake, the Wild and Scenic Myakka River, which winds through the park from north to south, for nearly 12 miles.

Levels of this rain-fed river and its two floodplain lakes (the Upper Myakka Lake and Lower Myakka Lake) are usually highest in the summer — our rainy season — when water overflows into floodplain marshes and wetlands. And in the fall and winter — our dry season — water levels gradually drop.

At the shallow lake and river edges, slowly decreasing water levels leave in their wake concentrations of fish and other aquatic animals, to the great delight of native and migratory birds. And native plants progressively spring back to life, as water recedes, further sustaining wildlife large and small.

Myakka's ecosystems evolved to thrive and depend on this regular ebb and flow, which includes extended periods of low water, or drawdown.

TBRPC now accepting applications for FY24 Stormwater Education Funding

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The application deadline is July 13th; applicants must present their proposals on July 18th

The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council is now accepting applications for the FY2024 Stormwater Outreach and Education Funding opportunity. With financial support from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), this program aims to further public involvement, education, and outreach efforts to improve the quality of stormwater runoff in the Tampa Bay Region. Projects develop and implement creative stormwater outreach initiatives and a variety of educational materials to garner public support and stewardship.

This year’s program funding totals $90,000 with individual award ceilings set at $15,000. Review the Fy2024 Notice of Funding here. Complete project applications must be submitted electronically to by 5pm on July 13, 2023. Applicants will also be required to present their proposals to the Stormwater Public Education and Outreach Committee on July 18, 2023 at 9:30 AM. The awards will be announced in August, 2023.

Visit the Stormwater funding webpage for more details and to download the application.

Tampa Bay leaders talk resiliency strategies as hurricane season approaches

With the start of the Atlantic hurricane season looming June 1st, leaders from across the Tampa Bay region gathered for a two-day conference on resiliency strategies to respond to climate change and sea-level rise.

As the 2023 season nears, the destruction Hurricane Ian wreaked across Southwest Florida last year was a point of concern running through the third annual Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Leadership Summit, which the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council put on May 4th and 5th at the Hilton Clearwater Beach. Originally forecast to hit Tampa Bay, Ian made landfall as a category 4 in Southwest Florida, causing nearly $113 billion in property damage and taking the lives of 66 people.

Federal and state funding flowing to Tampa Bay

The Tampa Bay region is part of a $4.9 million oyster reef habitat restoration project that will stretch along the west coast of Florida to Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. Through it, oyster shells will be collected from restaurants, recycled and put back into the water at oyster reef restoration sites, protecting shorelines and improving water quality.

Another $2.25 million will go toward a Pinellas County government project in partnership with Keep Pinellas Beautiful and the Tampa Bay Estuary Program to remove more than 200,000 tires from Tampa Bay and the Gulf that were placed in the water from the 1960s to 1980s as artificial reefs.

New park opens along Florida’s Manatee River with trails, art and focus on water quality Read more

Palmetto has a scenic new park along the Manatee River that also plays a role in boosting local water quality.

Connor Park, which has been in the works for several years, features a walking trail, a public art installation and a stormwater pond that uses a natural treatment process to promote clean water. The park opened to the public in April.

“That is one of my favorite projects that we’ve done because it ties an opportunity for the community to really enjoy it, but it’s also such an environmental process that has been created there,” said Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant. “The end result is beautiful, but everything has a purpose.”

The retention pond at Connor Park is capable of retaining 500,000 gallons of stormwater runoff. As the pond system fills up, water overflows through a channel of wetlands filled with native Florida plants that absorb contaminants that can be harmful to water quality, such as nitrogen, before they enter the river. Reducing the amount of harmful nutrients in the water has been hailed by local environmental groups as one of the best ways to combat harmful algae blooms like red tide. The park at 505 Fifth St. W., Palmetto, sits on 1.7 acres along the railroad track that connects Bradenton to the south. A walking trail circles the main pond. There are boardwalks, educational signage and a community pavilion on the site.

A Tampa-area resiliency summit explores ways for cities to deal with climate change

Expected higher seas and more intense storms could arrive in the coming years and have severe impacts on coastal communities.

"Resiliency" has become a keyword for many city officials, as climate change threatens communities with rising seas, more intense storms and hotter weather.

A two-day symposium being held through Friday by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council is looking at ways to help plan for the future.

Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski of Dunedin spoke on a panel on how coastal communities especially, will be affected.

"It is the preservation and protection, but also efficient use of our natural resources, our human resources and our financial resources," Bujalski said. "It's not just about the land or the water or sea level rise. It's really how we approach government operations — and acting as a human."

Lawmakers give green light to seagrass technology innovation bill

In eight years, 2011-2019, Florida lost around 58% of existing seagrasses.

The House substituted a Senate bill for their efforts and will now send to the Governor a plan to discover and fund new technologies to combat seagrass depletion.

SB 724 would establish a Seagrass Restoration Technology Development Initiative within the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

The initiative would involve a partnership between DEP, Mote Marine Laboratory and the University of Florida (UF), and establish the Initiative Technology Advisory Council as part of the plan.

“Unfortunately, seagrasses along both coasts, most notably the Indian River Lagoon and Florida Bay, are rapidly being lost,” Bradenton Republican Rep. Will Robinson said during the bill’s second reading.

“This bill allows a focused and applied science-based statewide strategic restoration initiative to address the diminishing seagrass habitat and diversity.”

There were no questions and no debate as the House passed the bill on third reading.

Mote’s Marine Science Education & Outreach Center now open at the Anna Maria City Pier

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Mote Marine Laboratory celebrated the opening of its Marine Science Education & Outreach Center on May 5 at the Anna Maria City Pier, making this Mote's 8th operational campus.

Mote President & CEO Dr. Michael P. Crosby was joined by Evan Barniskis, Associate Vice President for Mote Aquarium, Dan Murphy, Mayor of the City of Anna Maria, and Kevin Van Ostenbridge, Chairman of the Manatee County Board of County Commissioners, at the ribbon-cutting event.

"This new location is a great educational and entertaining experience for the Anna Maria Island community," said Barniskis. "Visitors to the pier are going to learn about the marine environment and the research that Mote scientists conduct every day."

The concept for the Center grew from Mote’s deep roots in the Anna Maria community, which was a location beloved by Mote’s namesake, Mr. Bill Mote. The Center is one of many expansions to fulfill a key part of Mote’s mission: Translate and transfer marine science as a public service to increase ocean literacy.

“We know that one of the best ways to increase ocean literacy in ways that positively impact human society and the marine environment is to bring people as close as possible to that environment,” said Dr. Crosby. “At our Marine Science Education & Outreach Center, visitors will overlook Tampa Bay, have an underwater view of everything happening below the pier and engage with Mote educators and volunteers to learn about this critical coastal habitat.”

The focal point of the Center will be an interactive touch pool exhibit where guests will literally reach into the water and get in touch with local marine life. A “Draw Alive” station will bring guests’ drawings to life, and a multi-station microscope will bring out their inner scientists. Guests will leave with a new appreciation of mangroves, seagrass beds and the living world directly beneath the City Pier.

Mote's Marine Science Educations & Outreach Center at the Anna Maria City Pier is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day.