A Tarnished Gem

By staff February 1, 2008

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 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 bounty. “The water appeared alive with multitudes of fish 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 of the flamingos and pink curlew.... 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 trimmer. 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 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 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.

As the longtime head of the Alcoa aluminum company, 80-year-old Davis was already one of the nation’s 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 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 homesites he was selling on St. Armands Key.

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 project in order preserve the bay’s marine life.

Still, the dredging done for Bird Key, the Intracoastal Waterway 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 long-time 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 if it has any fish in it. Maybe if it stunk 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, and now little of the bay still has a natural shoreline. An EPA 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. 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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, 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, and sheepshead 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 at issuing federal permits to employ the artificial reef attachments throughout the bay for fear they will be a hazard to boaters, according to 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 bay’s natural level—and now most of that was 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 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, 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.

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 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, an environmental reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, 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.

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 cutback of the 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, although some of those gains were later wiped out by red tide. Pesticide residue 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 levels of over 800 parts per million, 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.

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, there will be less runoff.

--Dispose of hazardous and chemical waste properly. A single gallon of fuel can contaminate 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 that pour out of vehicle tailpipes are a major source of atmospheric deposition of pollution into bay waters.

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