The Sarasota Tiger Bay Club, an organization of local citizens, policy makers and business leaders, meets monthly for luncheons at Michael’s On East Restaurant to hear a panel of experts address important topics of concern. The topics range from updates about pending legislation in Tallahassee, to local issues like the direction of the School Board to possible remedies for seasonal traffic.

The December meeting focused on water quality with Jon Thaxton, Vice President of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation moderating a panel with Dave Tomasko, Executive Director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, Justin Bloom, founder of the Suncoast Water Keeper, Sandy Gilbert, CEO of START and Jennifer Shafer, Principal of Shafer Consulting and Co-Executive Director of the Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida.

After Jon Thaxton opened the program by asking the panelists to introduce themselves and their organizations to the audience, Dave Tomasko began the proceedings by giving his assessment of the current state of Sarasota Bay. While he allowed that certain parts of the Bay are holding their own, he expressed concern that overall water quality has significantly declined over the past 15 years. Impacted by lingering red tides and the recent release of heavily polluted water from Piney Point, macro algae has become a major problem by clouding the water and hindering the growth of seagrass, the signature species in the Bay. Seagrass is the signature species in our local waters because most sea life depends on it in some stage of their life for either a safe habitat or a food source. Seagrass in Upper Sarasota Bay increased by 50% from 1988 to 2014, but is now down by 20% with most of the loss attributed to the 2018 red tide. Seagrass in Lower Sarasota Bay increased by 30% from 1988 to 2014, but we lost all those gains from 2014 to 2018. Dave cautioned the audience that we must avoid following the path of the Indian River Lagoon which has lost over 70% of its seagrass from the polluted releases from Lake Okeechobee. It’s also no coincidence that most of this year’s record manatee deaths from starvation have also occurred in this impaired waterway as their principal food source withered away.

Dave concluded his remarks by reminding the audience that we successfully improved water quality in the Bay in the 90’s by upgrading our wastewater infrastructure and converting more septic systems to sewers and it’s time to move in that direction again.

Justin Bloom, founder of the Suncoast Waterkeeper, related that he began his career by winning a major Clean Water Act settlement against the City of St Petersburg that forced them to improve their wastewater infrastructure to help clean up Tampa Bay. Through another Clean Water Act citizens ‘suit, he was also instrumental in pressuring Sarasota County to upgrade its wastewater facilities to eliminate the frequent nutrient rich releases into Sarasota Bay. This led the County to agree to upgrade its wastewater facilities beginning with the expansion of the Bee Ridge plant to Advanced Wastewater Treatment standards or AWT. After a similar settlement with the City of Largo last year, Justin is now working to bring the City of Bradenton into compliance with the wastewater treatment program permit to avoid frequent spills into the Manatee River and Sarasota Bay.

Justin also reported that he and the Suncoast Waterkeeper are currently working on litigation against the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for failing to react sooner to prevent the devastating release of extremely polluted water from one of the gypsum stacks at Piney Point. Patched over thirty times in recent years, followed by warnings from many quarters that the stack could fail in a major storm, no permanent remedy was developed. The Suncoast Waterkeeper suit calls for the complete closing of the facility with proper treatment of the pollution that threatens the Bay and the region’s ground water. Justin concluded by mentioning that the litigation is currently headed to the courts for a decision.

Sandy Gilbert, CEO of START, focused on the importance of cleaning up stormwater runoff that is the source of 65% of the excess nutrients in Sarasota Bay that reduce water quality and feed red tide. Because most of our local stormwater ponds are only operating at 40% to 60% efficiency in filtering out excess nutrients before they flow downstream to the Bay, he said START began a Healthy Pond Program this year to address the problem. Funded by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, START in cooperation with Sarasota County’s NEST program advised over a dozen local communities about ways to upgrade their ailing stormwater ponds to reduce unsightly algal blooms and control costly erosion. In addition, START was able to provide funding to the participating neighborhood communities to help buy aquatic plants for the pond’s Littoral Shelf or shallow area that absorb nutrients, blunt wave action that causes erosion and shade out algal growth. By the end of this year’s planting season, the START Healthy Pond program planted over two and a half miles of pond shoreline in Sarasota County.

Following the recognized success of the START Pond Program, Sandy explained that the Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation provided a $250,000 three-year grant to form the Healthy Pond Collaborative, a partnership with START, the Sarasota County Nest program, the University of Florida IFAS Sarasota Extension and the Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida. This new alliance is poised to move forward during the next three years to expand public awareness about the importance of maintaining healthy stormwater ponds and provide the funding to help some of our local communities to achieve that goal.

In closing, Sandy asked the audience to realize that everyone has an impact on water quality and to contact him at sandem133@aol.com to arrange a screening of START’s Red Tide & You presentation for their community or organization that shows people how they can reduce their nutrient footprint in our waterways.

Jennifer Shafer, Co-Executive Director of the Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida, concluded the planned panel remarks by reminding the audience of the many local organizations that are working to help improve the quality of our coastal waters. This includes The National Estuary Programs in Charlotte Harbor, Sarasota Bay and Tampa Bay that along with Mote Marine Laboratory provide planning, monitoring and data sharing and the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast and the Sarasota Audubon Society that conserve and restore land. In addition, Jennifer mentioned important local restoration projects at Bay Park, Selby Gardens and Southface Sarasota at the Florida House that have restored urban environments and provided public demonstration areas exemplifying water quality processes. Other organizations cited by Jenifer for their work to improve water quality were the Sarasota Bay Watch and the Gulf Shellfish Institute for their work restoring our shellfish populations and The Suncoast Urban Reforesters , the Native Plant Society, the EcoVets and The Rotary Clubs for their reforestation work with the microforests at the Celery Fields and Stoneybrook. By the time Jennifer finished her talk, the audience definitely got the message that many minds and hands are working to improve water quality along the Suncoast and there is a role for volunteers and citizen scientists to assist in these ongoing efforts.

Jon Thaxton directed questions from the floor to the appropriate panelist that included the possible outcomes at Piney Point, new approaches to deal with red tide and the status of the Conservation Easement and the wetlands at Bobby Jones Park.

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