Being in the panhandle of Florida you may, or may not, have heard about the water quality issues hindering the southern part of the state. Water discharged from Lake Okeechobee is full of nutrients. These nutrients are coming from agriculture, unmaintained septic tanks, and developed landscaping – among other things. The discharges that head east lead to the Indian River Lagoon and other Intracoastal Waterways. Those heading west, head towards the estuaries of Sarasota Bay and Charlotte Harbor.
A large bloom of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) in south Florida waters.
Those heading east have created large algal blooms of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria). The blooms are so thick the water has become a slime green color and, in some locations, difficult to wade. Some of developed skin rashes from contacting this water. These algal blooms block needed sunlight for seagrasses, slow water movement, and in the evenings – decrease needed dissolved oxygen. When the algae die, they begin to decompose – thus lower the dissolved oxygen and triggering fish kills. It is a mess – both environmentally and economically.
On the west coast, there are red tides. These naturally occurring events happen most years in southwest Florida. They form offshore and vary in intensity from year to year. Some years beachcombers and fishermen barely notice them, other years it is difficult for people to walk the beaches. This year is one of the worst in recent memories. The increase in intensity is believed to be triggered by the increase in nutrient-filled waters being discharged towards their area.
Dead fish line the beaches of Panama City during a red tide event in the past.
Photo: Randy Robinson
On both coasts, the economic impact has been huge and the quality of life for local residents has diminished. Many are pointing the finger at the federal government who, through the Army Corp of Engineers, controls flow in the lake. Others are pointing the finger at shortsighted state government, who have not done enough to provide a reserve to discharge this water, not enforced nutrient loads being discharged by those entities mentioned above. Either way, it is a big problem that has been coming for some time.
As bad as all of this is, how does this impact us here in the Florida panhandle?
Though we are not seeing the impacts central and south Florida are currently experiencing, we are not without our nutrient discharge issues. Most of Florida’s world-class springs are in our part of the state. In recent years, the water within these springs have seen an increase in nutrients. This clouds the water, changing the ecology of these systems and has already affected glass bottom boat tours at some of the classic springs. There has also been a decline in water entering the springs due to excessive withdrawals from neighboring communities. The increase in nutrients are generally from the same sources as those affecting south Florida.
Florida’s springs are world famous. They attracted native Americans and settlers; as well as tourists and locals today.
Photo: Erik Lovestrand
Though we are not seeing large algal blooms in our local estuaries, there are some problems. St. Joe Bay has experienced some algal blooms, and a red tide event, in recent years that has forced the state to shorten the scallop season there – this obviously hurts the local economy. Due to stormwater runoff issues and septic tanks maintenance problems, health advisories are being issued due to high fecal bacteria loads in the water. Some locations in the Pensacola area have levels high enough that advisories must be issued 30% of the time they are sampled – some as often as 40%. Health advisories obviously keep tourists out of those waterways and hurt neighboring businesses as well as lower the quality of life for those living there.
Then of course, there is the Apalachicola River issue. Here, water that normally flows from Georgia into the river, and eventually to the bay, has been held back for water needs in Georgia. This has changed flow and salinity within the bay, which has altered the ecology of the system, and has negatively impacted one of the more successful seafood industries in the state. The entire community of Apalachicola has felt the impact from the decision to hold the water back. Though the impacts may not be as dramatic as those of our cousins in south Florida, we do have our problems.
Bay Scallop Argopecten iradians
What can we do about it?
The quick answer is reduce our nutrient input.
The state has adopted Best Management Practices (BMPs) for farmers and ranchers to help them reduce their impact on ground water and surface water contamination from their lands. Many panhandle farmers and ranchers are already implementing these BMPs and others can. We encourage them to participate. Read more at Florida’s Rangeland Agriculture and the Environment: A Natural Partnership – http://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/nat/2015/07/18/floridas-rangeland-agriculture-and-the-environment-a-natural-partnership/.
As development continues to increase across the state, and in the panhandle, sewage infrastructure is having trouble keeping up. This forces developments to use septic tanks. Many of these septic systems are placed in low-lying areas or in soils where they should not be. Others still are not being maintained property. All of this leads to septic leaks and nutrients entering local waterways. We would encourage local communities to work with new developments to be on municipal sewer lines, and the conversion of septic to sewer in as many existing septic systems as possible. Read more at Maintaining Your Septic Tank – http://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/nat/2017/04/29/maintain-your-septic-system-to-save-money-and-reduce-water-pollution/.
And then there are the lawns. We all enjoy nice looking lawns. However, many of the landscaping plans include designs that encourage plants that need to be watered and fertilized frequently as well as elevations that encourage runoff from our properties. Following the BMPs of the Florida Friendly Landscaping ProgramTM can help reduce the impact your lawn has on the nutrient loads of neighboring waterways. Read more at Florida Friendly Yards – http://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/nat/2018/06/08/restoring-the-health-of-pensacola-bay-what-can-you-do-to-help-a-florida-friendly-yard/.
For those who have boats, there is the Clean Boater Program. This program gives advice on how boaters can reduce their impacts on local waterways. Read more at Clean Boater – https://floridadep.gov/fco/cva/content/clean-boater-program.
One last snippet, those who live along the waterways themselves. There is a living shoreline program. The idea is return your shoreline to a more natural state (similar to the concept of Florida Friendly LandscapingTM). Doing so will reduce erosion of your property, enhance local fisheries, as well as reduce the amount of nutrients reaching the waterways from surrounding land. Installing a living shoreline will take some help from your local extension office. The state actually owns the land below the mean high tide line and, thus, you will need permission (a permit) to do so. Like the principals of a Florida Friendly Yard, there are specific plants you should use and they should be planted in a specific zone. Again, your county extension office can help with this. Read more at The Benefits of a Living Shoreline – http://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/nat/2017/10/06/the-benefits-of-a-living-shoreline/.
Though we may not be experiencing the dramatic problems that our friends in south Florida are currently experiencing, we do have our own problems here in the panhandle – and there is plenty we can do to keep the problems from getting worse. Please consider some of them. You can always contact your local county extension office for more information.
Scallops and shrimp over grits.
I have been involved in the aquaculture industry since the late 1980’s when I got my first job out of college on a tropical fish farm in Plant City, FL. As you can imagine, the industry has changed a lot since then. When folks find out I have worked in aquaculture, the same question seems to arise: “Is farm-raised fish safe to eat as wild caught?” I would like to say that I don’t understand where this question comes from, but over the years I have seen a bewildering number of mass media headlines touting misinformation about farm-raised fish and not enough touting the benefits. In fact, I saw a post this week on Facebook actually claiming that tilapia have no skin or bones and cannot be found in the wild, both not true. It is no wonder people are so confused. Many of the claims made are not research-based and a quick review of the scientific literature will disprove the statements, but who has time for that?
Aquaculture currently supplies over fifty percent of all seafood consumed and will expand in the future due to a limit on the amount of wild fish that can be sustainably harvested, and increasing demand by a growing population. Sustainable, responsible aquaculture is needed to fill that gap. Fish are farmed using a variety of production methods including ponds, raceways, recirculating land-based systems and in ocean net pens. Each one of these fish species and production methods comes with pros and cons, similar to the production of livestock and fruits and vegetables. Each species can be evaluated based on its environmental impact, production method and even country of origin.
The American Heart Foundation recommends eating fish (particularly fatty fish rich in Omega-3s) two times per week. We currently only consume about half of that. This recommendation includes a variety of farm-raised and wild-caught fish. Both are crucial to meet current and future demand for seafood and omega-3 fatty acids. A common misconception is that farmed fish is not as healthy or nutritional valuable as wild caught fish although this claim has been largely disproven. One recent paper (Trushenski et al, 2017) compared the nutritional values of wild-caught and farmed bluegill, largemouth Bass and hybrid striped bass and concluded that the farmed fish provided more long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs) per portion that wild fish, however both are excellent sources of high quality protein and nutrients.
With the Lenten season upon us, a time of a traditional increase in seafood consumption, what is an easy way to choose wild and farm-raised seafood? One website and smartphone app that I find easy to use is Seafood Watch (www.seafoodwatch.org). Seafood Watch uses an extensive evaluation system using research and a panel of experts to label seafood products as green (best choice), yellow (good alternative) and red (avoid) depending on the variety’s sustainability.
With this information and a little bit of homework, I hope you come to the same conclusion that I have. Both farm-raised fish and wild-caught fish are delicious, nutritious and great additions to your diet.
Baked tilapia, rice and vegetable medley.
This solar-powered bicycle rental facility provides a healthy alternative to driving around a large city. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Climate change is one of those topics that most people don’t want to think much about. It can be overwhelming, it can be controversial, and it can be downright frightening. A year ago, Yale and George Mason University completed the most recent surveys in the “Six Americas” study, which determined levels of belief and concern in global warming. The “Six Americas” range from people who are alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, or dismissive when asked about climate change. Interestingly enough, 34% of Americans consider themselves concerned while 23% were cautious. Ranking third were 11% who are doubtful about climate change.
When you start to drill down into the individual questions asked on the survey, you see more agreement. For example, when Escambia County citizens were asked whether global warming is caused by human activities, somewhere between 45%-50% said yes. However, when asked whether they think global warming is actually happening (regardless of cause), the percentage went up to 65%-70%. When asked if they support funding research into renewable energy sources, Escambia County residents jumped up to an 80%-85% agreement. That, to me, is nothing short of a miracle, having lived in Escambia County long enough to know there’s rarely that much agreement on anything!
The takeaway message from that survey, to me, is that regardless of where people stand on climate change/global warming, there are some starting points that can be common ground. If the majority of a community believe climate change is happening and that supporting renewable energy research is a good thing, then they can work towards those outcomes to the mutual benefit of all.
An example of one small but significant step towards sustainable energy use includes bicycle share/rental facilities. On a recent trip to Salt Lake City, solar-powered bike stations were strategically placed around the downtown area. For a small fee, the bicycles could be checked out (for 30 minutes at a time) up to 24 hours. This ensures there are plenty of bicycles available for other users, and stations are close enough to one another that it’s easy to check bikes in and out if you need more time. The benefits of encouraging bicycles are numerous; reduced traffic and burning of fossil fuels, reduced need for parking in high-value real estate, and health benefits for riders. The other investment necessary to make biking more prevalent and successful are bike lanes, which were plentiful in Salt Lake City to keep riders and drivers safe. Once safe bike lanes are in place, those who live in the area with their own bikes are more likely to use them on a regular basis, further decreasing vehicular traffic.
There are many great organizations and publications around the country dedicated to increasing bicycle use and safety. For more information, check out Trail Link, Momentum Magazine, or the Burlington Bikeway.
One third of homes in Florida rely on septic systems, or onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems (OSTDS), to treat and dispose of household wastewater, which includes wastewater from bathrooms, kitchen sinks and laundry machines. When properly maintained, septic systems can last 25-30 years, and maintenance costs are relatively low.
A conventional residential septic tank and drain field under construction.
Photo: Andrea Albertin
A general rule of thumb is that with proper care, systems need to be pumped every 3-5 years at a cost of about $300 to $400. Time between pumping does vary though, depending on the size of your household, the size of your septic tank and how much wastewater you produce. If systems aren’t maintained they can fail, and repairs or replacing a tank can cost anywhere between $3000 to $10,000. It definitely pays off to maintain your septic system!
The most common type of OSTDS is a conventional septic system, which is made up of a septic tank (a watertight container buried in the ground) and a drain field, or leach field. The septic tank’s job is to separate out solids (which settle on the bottom as sludge), from oils and grease, which float to the top and form a scum layer. The liquid wastewater, which is in the middle layer of the tank, flows out through pipes into the drainfield, where it percolates down through the ground.
Although bacteria continually work on breaking down the organic matter in your septic tank, sludge and scum will build up, which is why a system needs to be cleaned out periodically. If not, solids will flow into the drainfield clogging the pipes and sewage can back up into your house. Overloading the system with water also reduces its ability to work properly by not leaving enough time for material to separate out in the tank, and by flooding the system. Sewage can flow to the surface of your lawn and/or back up into your house.
Failed septic systems not only result in soggy lawns and horrible smells, but they contaminate groundwater, private and public supply wells, creeks, rivers and many of our estuaries and coastal areas with excess nutrients, like nitrogen, and harmful pathogens, like E. coli.
It is important to note that even when traditional septic systems are maintained, they are still a source of nitrogen to groundwater; nitrate is not fully removed from the wastewater effluent.
How can you properly care for your septic system?
Here are a some basic tips to keep your system working properly so that you can reduce maintenance costs by avoiding system failure, and so that you can reduce your household’s impact on water pollution in your area.
- Don’t flush trash down the toilet. Only flush regular toilet paper. Toilet paper treated with lotion forms a layer of scum. Wet wipes are not flushable, although many brands are labelled as such. They wreak havoc on septic systems! Avoid flushing cigarette butts, paper towels and facial tissues, which can take longer to break down than toilet paper.
- Think at the sink. Avoid pouring oil and fat down the kitchen drain. Avoid excessive use of harsh cleaning products and detergents, which can affect the microbes in your septic tank (regular weekly or so cleaning is fine). Prescription drugs and antibiotics should never be flushed down the toilet.
- Limit your use of the garbage disposal. Disposals add organic matter to your septic system, which results in the need for more frequent pumping. Composting is a great way to dispose of your fruit and vegetable scraps instead.
- Take care at the surface of yourtank and drainfield. To work well, a septic system should be surrounded by non-compacted soil. Don’t drive vehicles or heavy equipment over the system. Avoid planting trees or shrubs with deep roots that could disrupt the system or plug pipes. It is a good idea to grow grass over the drainfield to stabilize soil and absorb liquid and nutrients.
- Conserve water. You can reduce the amount of water pumped into your septic tank by reducing the amount you and your family use. Water conservation practices include repairing leaky faucets, toilets and pipes, installing low cost, low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators, and only running the washing machine and dishwasher when full. In the US, most of the household water used is to flush toilets (about 27%). Placing filled water bottles in the toilet tank is an inexpensive way to reduce the amount of water used per flush.
- Have your septic system pumped by a certified professional. The general rule of thumb is every 3-5 years, but it will depend on household size, the size of your septic tank and how much wastewater you produce.
By following these guidelines, you can contribute to the health of your family, community and environment, as well as avoid costly repairs and septic system replacements.
You can find excellent information on septic systems a the US EPA website: https://www.epa.gov/septic. The Florida Department of Health website provides permiting information for Florida and a list of certified maintenance entities by county: http://www.floridahealth.gov/Environmental-Health/onsite-sewage/index.html.
The Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) identified septic systems as the major source of nitrate in Wakulla Springs, located in Wakulla County. Excess nitrate is thought to promote algal growth, leading to the degradation of the biological community in the spring.
Photo: Andrea Albertin
Floods are a common concern in many areas of the U.S. Gulf coastal residents should be particularly aware. Floods may come in the form of flash floods, which come with little warning. Other flood conditions come on slower, as with large thunder storm fronts and tropical storms. With hurricane season not far away, it’s a good time to think about your property and the floodplains in your area.
Figure: Flood Information Portal.
Photo: Courtesy of the Northwest Florida Water Management District.
Floodplains are broadly defined as land susceptible to flooding by any source. Areas designated as flood hazard areas are known also as “base flood” or “100-year-flood” zones. However, this can be confusing to some. A 100-year-floodplain does not mean that once your property floods, you’ll most likely not see it flood again for 100 years. The calculation actually means that there is a 1% chance that flooding will occur in any year. Floodplains are calculated by statistical estimates based on historical storm data.
Most mortgage lending agencies and banks, as well as real estate and insurance companies are well informed sources regarding floodplain information. Floodplain maps are updated periodically and are available for the public online and in print. FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program has recently revised the digital flood insurance rate maps for many counties in Florida.
The Northwest Florida Water Management District (NWFWMD) offers a great tool for us in the Panhandle. The NWFWMD has created a map website, known as the “Flood Information Portal”. This site is dedicated in showing the extent of areas of flood risks. The site is also helpful in determining flood insurance rates and building requirements. The site is very user friendly with a search function, where one can search for floodplain information for a specific address. A detailed report can also be generated showing both the effective and preliminary flood map for the particular address selected. The map website can be found at http://portal.nwfwmdfloodmaps.com. For more information please contact your local county extension office and county, or city, planning department.
Before a flood strikes, find out if buying flood insurance is right for you. If you are in an areas prone to flooding already, consider modifying your home to combat any future flooding issue. If you believe your property is at risk, please be prepared. Keep in mind that flooding in an area can lead to street closures, power outages and temporary reduction in public services.
Supporting information for this article can be found in, “The Disaster Handbook” at the UF/IFAS web address: http://disaster.ifas.ufl.edu/
UF/IFAS Extension is An Equal Opportunity Institution.
There has been an increasing demand by clientele for information and training on small-scale food production methods to meet the growing demand for locally produced food and for personal consumption. One of the University of Florida Extension’s high-priority initiatives is “increasing the sustainability, profitability, and competitiveness of agricultural and horticultural enterprises.” One food production method currently being investigated is aquaponics.
Koi are a popular fish species used in aquaponic systems.
Photo: Laura Tiu
Aquaponics is a technique for sustainable food production that utilizes the combination of aquaculture with hydroponics to grow fish and vegetables without soil. The process begins with fish producing waste, which is then pumped through a bio-filter to convert into fertilizer for the plants. Plants use nutrients from that water, and the freshly oxygenated water is returned to the fish tank. By recirculating the water from the fish tank to the grow bed, the need for water is greatly reduced compared to traditional irrigation. Additionally, producing crops aquaponically can reduce leaching, runoff, and water discharges to the environment by reusing nutrient effluent from aquaculture and hydroponic systems.
For new growers, being able to have access to training and to see a demonstration unit can eliminate many of the pitfalls typically encountered. A small aquaponics system, using local-sourced materials, is being constructed at the Walton County Extension office in DeFuniak Springs, FL. This system will demonstrate the technology and capability of small-scale aquaponics. The system is expected to be operational in April 2017. Working together, the Sea Grant, Horticulture, and Agriculture agents will be able to share construction and operation information with interested clients. Data will be collected from the system in order to give clientele real-world expectations of the operating costs and production potential from the system. Information will be shared in face-to-face interactions, at workshops, via webinar and in published articles. The goal is to see an increase in the number of aquaponics operations in the Panhandle of Florida contributing to an increase in availability of locally and sustainably produced food.
If you would like to see the system or learn more about aquaponics by subscribing to our Aquaponics list serve, please email Laura Tiu, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Greens tend to do very well in aquaponic systems.
Photo: Laura Tiu
A panhandle favorite, tomatoes can be grown using aquaponics.
Photo: Laura Tiu