Senate Bill 712 Aims to Further Protect Florida’s Water Resources

Senate Bill 712 Aims to Further Protect Florida’s Water Resources

Senate Bill 712 ‘The Clean Waterways Act’ was signed into Florida law on June 30, 2020. The purpose of the bill is to better protect Florida’s water resources and focuses on minimizing the impact of known sources of nutrient pollution. These sources include septic systems, wastewater treatment plants, stormwater runoff as well as fertilizer used in agricultural production.

Senate Bill 712 focuses on protecting Florida’s water resources such as Jackson Blue Springs/Merritt’s Mill Pond, pictured here. Credit: Doug Mayo, UF/IFAS.

What major provisions are included in SB 712?

Primary actions required by SB712 were listed in a news release by Governor Desantis’ staff in June 2020 as:

  • Regulation of septic systems as a source of nutrients and transfer of oversight from the Florida Department of Health (DOH) to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
  • Contingency plans for power outages to minimize discharges of untreated wastewater for all sewage disposal facilities.
  • Provision of financial records from all sanitary sewage disposal facilities so that DEP can ensure funds are being allocated to infrastructure upgrades, repairs, and maintenance that prevent systems from falling into states of disrepair.
  • Detailed documentation of fertilizer use by agricultural operations to ensure compliance with Best Management Practices (BMPs) and aid in evaluation of their effectiveness.
  • Updated stormwater rules and design criteria to improve the performance of stormwater systems statewide to specifically address nutrients.

How does the bill impact septic system regulation?

The transfer of the Onsite Sewage Program (OSP) (commonly known as the septic system program) from DOH to DEP becomes effective on July 1, 2021. So far, DOH and DEP submitted a report to the Governor and Legislature at the end of 2020 with recommendations on how this transfer should take place. They recommend that county DOH employees working in the OSP continue implementing the program as DOH-employees, but that the onsite sewage program office in the State Health Office transfer to DEP and continue working from there. DOH created an OSP Transfer web page where updates and documents related to the transfer are posted.

How does the bill impact agricultural operations?

SB 712 affects all landowners and producers enrolled in the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) BMP Program. Under this bill:

  • Every two years FDACS will make an onsite implementation verification (IV) visit to land enrolled in the BMP program to ensure that BMPs are properly implemented. These visits will be coordinated between the producer and field staff from FDACS Office of Agriculture and Water Policy (OAWP).
  • During these visits (and as they have done in the past), field staff will review records that producers are required to keep under the BMP program.
  • Field staff will also collect information on nitrogen and phosphorus application. FDACS has created a specific form, the Nutrient Application Record Keeping Form or NARF where producers will record quantities of N and P applied. FDACS field staff will retain a copy of the NARF during the IV visit.

FDACS-OAWP prepared a thorough document with responses to SB 712 Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s).  It includes responses to questions about site visits, the NARF and record keeping, why FDACS is collecting nutrient records and what will be done with this information. The fertilizer records collected are not public information, and are protected under the public records exemption (Section 403.067 Florida Statutes). For areas that fall under a Basin Management Action Plan (like the Jackson Blue and Wakulla Springs Basins in the Florida Panhandle), FDACS will combine the nitrogen and phosphorus application data from all enrolled properties (total pounds of N and P applied within the BMAP). It will then send the aggregated nutrient application information to FDEP.

Details of how all aspects of SB 712 will be implemented are still being worked out and we should continue to hear more in the coming months.

Hiking the Panhandle

Hiking the Panhandle

It’s winter…

The sky is clear, the humidity is low, the bugs are gone, and the highs are in the 60s – most days.  These are perfect days to get outside and enjoy.  But the water is cold and you do not want to get wet – most days.  And with COVID hanging around we do not want to go where there are crowds.  Where can I go to enjoy this great weather, the outdoors, but stay safe?

As the summer heat fades, the weather is great for hiking! Photo credit: Abbie Seales

Hiking…

My wife and I have already made several hikes this winter and have enjoyed each one.  Each panhandle county has several hiking trails you could visit.  In our county there are city, county, state, and federal trails to choose from.  The Florida Trail begins in Escambia County, at Ft. Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, and dissects each county in the panhandle on its way to the Everglades.  You could find the section running through yours and hike that for a day.  Community parks, our local university, state and national parks, and the water management district, all have trails.

 

Some are a short loops and easy.  Others can be 20 plus miles, but you do not have to hike it all.  Go for as long as you like and then return to the car.  Some are handicapped access, some have paved sections, or boardwalks.  Some go along waterways and the water is so clear in the winter that you can see to the bottom.  Many meander through both open areas and areas with a closed tree canopies.

The tracks of the very common armadillo.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

The boardwalk of Deer Lake State Park off of Highway 30-A. you can see the tracks of several types of mammals who pass under at night.

Being winter, the wildlife viewing may be less.  The “warm bloods” are moving – birds and mammals.  Actually, the birds are everywhere, it is a great time to go birding if you like that.  Mammals are still more active at dawn dusk, but their tracks are everywhere.  We have seen raccoon, coyote, and deer on many of our hikes.  But the insects are down as well.  We have not had a yellow fly or mosquito gives us a problem yet.  Some fear snakes, we actually like the see them, but we have not.  Many will come out of their dens when the days warm and the sun is out to bask for a bit before retreating back into their lair.  You might feel more comfortable hiking knowing the chance of an encounter one this time of year is much less.

One of the many Florida State Forest trails in South Walton.

The Florida Trail extends (in sections) over 1,300 miles from Ft. Pickens to the Florida Everglades. It begins at this point.

But the views are great and the photography excellent.  Some mornings we have had fog issues, but it quickly lifts, and the bay is often slick as glass with pelicans, loons, and cormorants paddling around.  These have made for some great photos.

 

Things to consider for your hike.

Good shoes. Many of the trails we have hiked have had wet and muddy sections.

Temperature.  There can be big swings when going from open sunny areas to under the tree canopies.  Wear clothes in layers and have a backpack that can hold what you want to take off.  Some like to wear the fleece vests so they do not have to put on/remove as they hike.

Water.  I bring at least 32 ounces.  It is not hot, but water is still needed.

Snacks.  Always a plus.  I always miss them when I do not have them.

Camera.  Again, the scenery and the birds are really good right now.

 

The best thing is that you are getting outside, getting exercise, and getting away from the crazy world that is going on right now.  Take a “mind break” and take a hike.

 

Here are some hikes suggested by hiking guides.

 

Gulf Islands National Seashore / Ft. Pickens – Florida Trail (Ft. Pickens section) – 2 miles – Pensacola Beach

Blackwater State Forest – Jackson Red Ground Trail – 21 miles – near Munson FL

Falling Waters State Park – Falls, Sinkhole, and Wiregrass Trail – ~ 1 mile – near Chipley on I-10

Grayton Beach State Park – Dune Forest Trail – < 1 mile – 30-A in Walton County

T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park – Beach Walk and Wilderness Preserve Trail – ~ 9 miles – near Port St. Joe FL

Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravine Preserve – Garden of Eden Trail – 4 mile loop – Hwy 12 near Bristol FL

Torreya State Park – Torreya River Bluff Loop Trail – 7 mile loop – Hwy 271 near Bristol

Leon Sinks Geological Area – Sinkhole and Gumswamp Trail – 3 mile loop – US 319 near Tallahassee

Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park – Sally Ward Springs and Hammock Trails – 2.5 miles out and back – Hwy 20 near Wakulla FL

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge – Stoney Bayou Trail – ~ 6 miles – CR 59 near Gulf of Mexico

Adventures in Fall

Adventures in Fall

Fall is such a spectacular time in the Florida Panhandle.  The crowds are gone and the thermometer rests at a pleasant 50-70-something degrees.  It is the perfect time of year to enjoy our amazing environment.  Nature has a magical way of boosting our energy levels and immune systems and improving mood and focus.  We can all use a heaping helping of that right now.

So where do you start?  Here are some ideas.

Take in a sunrise or sunset.  The beach is often one of the best places to do this, but anywhere will do.  Last weekend, I was at the Okaloosa Island Boardwalk and Pier and the sunset was magnificent.  While there, take a walk along the beach, let the cool sand squish between your toes and discover what might be hiding in the wrack.  The wrack is that line of seaweed deposited after high tide.  Upon close inspection, it contains many treasures including seagrasses, sponges, shells, worm tubes, small crabs and other oddities.

Take a nature hike.  I love the nature trails at our local state and national parks, Henderson Beach, Topsail, Blackwater and Grayton Beach State Parks all have great trails.  You may see some wildflowers this time of year.  Look for animal tracks and resident birds.  You may also see some monarch butterflies on the saltbush, resting as they continue their migration to Mexico.

Check out the springs.  Morrison Springs and Ponce de Leon Springs in the state park in Walton County are an easy drive.  Sit and enjoy the beauty and peaceful nature that surrounds the springs.  Dip your toes in the cool water for a refreshing tingle or jump right in if you dare.

If you have a kayak, canoe or paddle board, it’s a great time to be on the water.  Look for migrating shorebirds, schools of fish or pods of dolphins.  Did you know we have over 60 dolphins that call the Destin area home year-round? You can often find them cruising in the Choctawhatchee Bay, or hop aboard one of our local dolphin cruises to catch a better glimpse.

Finally, our local fresh seafood is available year-round.  Plan a picnic with some fresh shrimp or smoked mullet dip. Seafood offers many of the same benefits as time in nature, so double up on all the goodness that fall has to offer.  Get outside and get happy!

 

Barrier Island Wonderland

Barrier Island Wonderland

Along the northern Gulf coast is a string of long-thin sand bar islands we call barrier islands.  They are called this because they serve as a barrier to the mainland from open water storms.  These long sandy islands are very dynamic and constantly shift and move with the tides, currents, and waves.  They can shift as far as 300 feet after a strong hurricane.

The white quartz sand beaches of the barrier island in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

Life on these islands can be very tough.  In addition to the constantly moving sand, there is salt spray in the wind, intense sunlight much of the year, high winds at times, and little rainfall to provide freshwater.  Even though our area can receive as much as 60 inches of rain a year, much of this falls in the northern end of the counties, and not on the beaches.  That said, there are freshwater ponds on some the islands and even larger dune lakes in Walton County – there life is not as hard.

 

As you cross a barrier island from the Gulf to the bay, you will cross distinct environmental zones.  These zones are defined by the abiotic factors wind and salt spray and are named by their dominant plant forms having distinct animal life associated with them.

The beach zone seems life-less but it is not. Look beneath the sand.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

The beach is barren.  This is the section of sand that extends from the water line of the Gulf to the first line of dunes.  Few, if any plants can grow here.  The high wave energy will not allow plants to grow along the shoreline, nor in the water itself.  The wind and salt spray are high and the sand ever changing.  All of the animal life here lives beneath the sand.  They emerge when the wind and waves have slowed and scavenge on what they can find for food.  Their primary production comes from the decomposition of the strands of seagrass and seaweed that line the shore – what we call wrack.  Many will filter phytoplankton from the water as the waves wash in and seabirds are constant predators.  When conditions get a little too much, they migrate a little offshore in deeper water to wait it out.  But here fish and larger invertebrates become predators – so, they may not stay long.

The primary dune is dominated by salt tolerant grasses like this sea oat.

Inland of the beach is the first dune line – the primary dune.  This dune field is dominated by grasses because woody plants cannot tolerate the high wind.  Most of these herbaceous plants have fibrous root systems that trap blowing sand and form dunes.  The dominant grasses found here would include panic grass, beach elder, and the sea oat.  The seeds of these plants provide food for creatures like the beach mice and some birds.  Ghost crab burrows are often found here seeking shelter from the high energy environment of the beach.  And, as you would expect, predators visit.  Snakes, coyotes, and fox seeking the small mice.

 

Small round shrubs and brown grasses within the swales are characteristic of the secondary dune field.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

This primary dune line blocks some of the wind and salt spray from the Gulf and allows small woody shrubs to grow.  These shrubs will form a secondary dune system, which may grow slightly higher than the primary dunes.  Shrubs like seaside rosemary, goldenrod, and false rosemary can be found here and give the dunes color when they are in bloom.  The grasses found in the primary dune can also be found here.  Beach mice and ghost crabs can work their way to this environment but because the wind is blocked by the primary dune other animals can be found here including: armadillos, opossum, a variety of snakes, and maybe even a gopher tortoise.  Within the secondary dune field there are low areas that, at times, fill with rainwater.  These are called swales and have their own unique wildlife.  Grasses like broomsedge, needlerush, and bull rush can be found here.  Along the edge you may find carnivorous plants such as the sundew.  Freshwater attracts all wildlife, but the tenants could include a variety of amphibians, reptiles, and even some hardy species of fish.

The top of a pine tree within a tertiary dune.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

On the back side of the island are some of the largest dunes.  These are held in place by salt tolerant trees such as live oak, pine, and even magnolia.  However, these trees look different than the ones that grow in our yards.  They are the same species, but their growth seems stunted and often they look like the wind has blown their growth northward.  This is known as wind sculpting and all of it is caused by the salt spray coming from the Gulf.  These trees form a maritime forest where a variety of wildlife species do well.  Deer, armadillo, opossum, skunks, coyote, fox, raccoon, hawks, owls, eagles, all sorts of snakes and woodland birds can be found here.  In these xeric conditions, it is not uncommon to find a lot of cactus.  Most of these creatures are hiding during the day, but at sunset they begin to move.

 

During these colder winter months, we encourage you to explore these beach habitats.

Fall Color in Florida Swamps

Fall Color in Florida Swamps

A blackgum/tupelo tree begins changing colors in early fall. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

It’s autumn and images of red, brown, and yellow leaves falling on the forest floor near orange pumpkins enter our minds.  However, Florida isn’t necessarily known for its vibrant fall foliage, but if you know where to look this time of year, you can find some amazing scenery. In late fall, the river swamps can yield beautiful fall leaf color. The shades are unique to species, too, so if you like learning to identify trees this is one of the best times of the year for it. Many of our riparian (river floodplain) areas are dominated by a handful of tree species that thrive in the moist soil of wetlands. Along freshwater creeks and rivers, these tend to be bald cypress, blackgum/tupelo, and red maple. Sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is also common, but its leaves stay green, with a silver-gray underside visible in the wind.

The classic “swamp tree” shape of a cypress tree is due to its buttressed trunk, an adaptation to living in wet soils. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is one of the rare conifers that loses its leaves. In the fall, cypress tress will turn a bright rust color, dropping all their needles and leaving a skeletal, upright trunk. Blackgum/tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) trees have nondescript, almost oval shaped leaves that will turn yellow, orange, red, and even deep purple, then slowly drop to the swamp floor. Blackgums and cypress trees share a characteristic adaptation to living in and near the water—wide, buttressed trunks. This classic “swamp” shape is a way for the trees to stabilize in the mucky, wet soil and moving water. Cypresses have the additional root support of “knees,” structures that grow from the roots and above the water to pull in oxygen and provide even more support.

A red maple leaf displaying its incredible fall colors. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

The queen of native Florida fall foliage, however, is the red maple (Acer rubrum) . Recognizable by its palm-shaped leaves and bright red stem in the growing season, its fall color is remarkable. A blazing bright red, sometimes fading to pink, orange, or streaked yellow, these trees can jump out of the landscape from miles away. A common tree throughout the Appalachian mount range, it thrives in the wetter soils of Florida swamps.

To see these colors, there are numerous beautiful hiking, paddling, and camping locations nearby, particularly throughout Blackwater State Forest and the recreation areas of Eglin Air Force Base. But even if you’re not a hiker, the next time you drive across a bridge spanning a local creek or river, look downstream. I guarantee you’ll be able to see these three tree species in all their fall glory.

Meet the Author:  Dr. Pat Williams

Meet the Author: Dr. Pat Williams

Pat is the County Extension Director and the Agriculture/Horticulture/Natural Resources agent for UF/IFAS Extension Wakulla County while also serving as the Master Gardener Volunteer Coordinator for both Franklin and Wakulla counties.

Meet the Agent_Williams 2020Final

Pat by their outdoor mural at the Extension office.

He earned his doctorate from Texas A&M University in horticulture, a M.S. degree from Kansas State University in horticultural therapy, a B.S. degree in ornamental horticulture/floriculture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and an A.S. degree in ornamental horticulture from Crafton Hills College.

Over his horticulture career that started at age 13 working for Chrysanthemum Gardens in Crestline, CA, he has resided in 10 different states with a wide range of environmental influences (CA, KS, NJ, ME, NY, WA, TX, KY, TN and FL).  He has held various positions in his career from teaching adults with developmental disabilities in NJ and ME, designing, installing and maintaining landscapes, landscape construction, being a horticultural therapist in New York City, working for the USDA in WA, teaching in a TX federal prison for his Extension appointment, teaching horticulture in a TN high school and was an university horticulture professor for 14 years in KY after teaching at Kansas State University, Washington State University and Texas A&M University as a teaching assistant.  He started with the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in April 2017 as the Sarasota County Residential Horticulture Agent/Master Gardener Volunteer Coordinator and transitioned to the Wakulla County Extension office in June 2020.

Kayak POL

Kayaking the Myakka River, FL.

Teaching and greenhouse growing are his professional joys.  Florida is the first state where there has not been a greenhouse to play in and he misses it greatly, however Extension does offer many opportunities to share his passion for plants and outdoors with a new group of learners.  Otherwise Pat grew up on the beaches and ski resort areas of southern CA and still finds solace today relaxing on the beach or kayaking.  He has traveled a bit visiting 49 states with only Hawaii to go.  When indoors he would rather be baking or cooking in the kitchen as his second career choice would have been a chef.  There is usually a yard full of flowers, herbs and vegetables and he is an extremely proud FSU Seminole Dad to Tara, a 2020 graduate.

Pat wears many hats at the Wakulla office and handles topics other than 4-H Youth Development or Family and Consumer Sciences.  Once again he finds himself in a transition adapting to the new horticultural environment of Florida’s panhandle and developing more programs in agriculture and natural resources.  Please feel free to reach out to see how the UF/IFAS Extension Wakulla County can be of assistance.