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Cleaning up canals could help Fort Myers Beach water quality

February 15, 2017
Jessica Salmond - News Editor ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

The town could help clean up water by starting with its own back yards.

Did you know the town has a fertilizer ordinance that should regulate the fertilizers used on properties within town limits? Members of the Marine Resources Task Force doubt it's widely-known - or widely followed.

Tackling a stricter fertilizer ordinance will be one of the suggestions the committee plans to make to the Town of Fort Myers Beach to help improve water quality in the island canals.

Article Photos

Small culverts and shallow divots help channel runoff into an area where it can soak into the ground in Bill and Randa Veach's rainwater garden.

"We should be setting the example of tight regulations," said MRTF Chair Bill Veach.

According to the ordinance, fertilizer containing nitrogen and phosphorus cannot be applied between June 1 and Sept. 30 or applied on impervious surface, for example. Any "violation" of the ordinance would be dealt with by special magistrate as a code violation.

However, MRTF members found multiple sections of the fertilizer ordinance to be below the standard of other surrounding island communities, such as a "voluntary" application distance of six feet from a water body and a mandatory three-foot buffer between application and a water body.

Fact Box

Goal 9 of the Comprehensive Plan: "To provide optimal flood protection and improved stormwater quality within the constraints imposed by location and existing land-use patterns."

"A 3-foot buffer, that blew me away," said Shannon Mapes, MRTF's new member. "Twenty-five feet would be better."

Mapes has a degree in laboratory sciences and a minor in chemistry; she's worked in both medical and research labs and also helps conduct Back Bay testing for the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve. She's kayaked back into the canals along Estero Island.

"They're not healthy," she said - citing decaying vegetation, a lack of circulation and a bad smell as indicators of the water's poor health.

With most of the town's stormwater system either non-existent or dysfunctional, fertilizer is joining the rest of the debris and chemicals running untreated into the canals.

"I believe the water quality is directly connected to stormwater," Mapes said. "It's in the comprehensive plan. We need to clean the run-off."

A few MRTF members squirmed as the meeting turned to a discussion on stormwater, which continues to be a hot-button issue in the town. Veach suggested the recommendations focus on the fertilizer ordinance and not get entrenched in the political quagmire of how the town should be dealing with stormwater.

Veach said he thought the town should be focused on the most natural methods possible to treat runoff, such as swales, and should be considering the purchase of empty lots to create a retention system. Swales and retention ponds allow vegetation to soak up nitrogen and phosphorous as the water sinks into the ground. The pipeline outfalls will filter out oils and debris, but can't leech nutrients from runoff.

"I like leeching," Veach said. "For the cost of the (pipe) outfalls, the town could buy a vacant lot instead."

Another runoff problem is hard landscaping.

Many homes put in a plastic ground cover and top it with rock, thereby saving on landscaping costs but increasing the impervious surface on the island. New development is not supposed to put in this kind of hard landscaping - but it's another rule not widely known or regulated. But some homeowners, including Veach, have taken responsibility for water runoff on their own properties. He and his wife, Randa, have created a rainwater garden that collects stormwater into shallow troughs and prevents it from flooding their property.

He suggested the town could be better about educating residents and new property owners about the town's various ordinance and rules and also encourage residential projects, like his own retention garden. Veach also said there are cost-effective and natural methods the town could implement to help the canals, such as oyster beds below docks. Oysters, like vegetation, suck up nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous as food.

But MRTF agreed: the town should be treating its own runoff to avoid contributing to water quality issues.

"My neighbors are concerned about the Back Bay," Gregory Holmes said. "The marinas say it's worse."

The MRTF was tasked by council to research local water quality and water testing following the request of local activists and the SWFL Clean Water Movement.

At the Wednesday, Feb. 8 meeting, MRFT narrowed down its recommendations to focus on four points:

-Develop an easily-accessible beach conditions page on the town website with collected information on all beach-related information: weather, tides, currents information and links to different sources of water testing results.The page would be updated weekly to reflect accurate information.

-Reserve funds in the 2017-2018 budget and future budgets for the town's stormwater and environmental technician to perform water quality testings at his or her discretion.

-Bring fertilizer ordinance up to a stricter standard.

-Remind the council to consider Goal 9 of the Comprehensive Plan: "To provide optimal flood protection and improved stormwater quality within the constraints imposed by location and existing land-use patterns."

"I think there is a lack of understanding, but the facts about stormwater can't be ignored," Mapes said. "We can be proactive and make a big difference. We need to protect our bay, we can do that with the ideas we came up with."

Rae Blake, the town's stormwater and environmental technician, brought forward an extensive list of the various state, regional and local organizations that test the Back Bay and the Gulf surrounding Estero Island at MRTF's January meeting. Based on her research and the amounts of tests occurring, MRTF members agreed it might be too much duplication - and too much spending - for the town to try to do any regular testing of its own in the Gulf or bay. If Blake or a successor had funds at their disposal, however, the town could do testing after a severe weather event; during a freshwater release event from Lake Okeechobee; or spot test the canals in bad condition.

"I think this is a great time to be talking about this. These are things we can do right now," Mapes said. "Let's not get into an algal bloom."



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