Restoring the Health of Pensacola Bay, What Can You Do to Help?  – A Florida Friendly Yard

Restoring the Health of Pensacola Bay, What Can You Do to Help? – A Florida Friendly Yard

We have been posting articles discussing some of the issues our estuaries are facing; this post will focus on one of the things you can do to help reduce the problem – a Florida Friendly Yard.

Florida Friendly Landscaping saves money and reduces our impact on the estuarine environment.
Photo: UF IFAS

The University of Florida IFAS developed the Florida Friendly Landscaping Program. It was developed to be included in the Florida Yards & Neighborhoods (FYN) program, HomeOwner and FYN Builder and Developer programs, and the Florida-Friendly Best Management Practices for Protection of Water Resources by the Green Industries (GI-BMP) Program in 2008.

 

A Florida Friendly Yard is based on nine principals that can both reduce your impact on local water quality but also save you money. Those nine principals are:

 

  • Right Plant, Right Place – We recommend that you use native plants in the right location whenever possible. Native plants require little fertilizer, water, or pesticides to maintain them. This not only reduces the chance of these chemicals entering our waterways but also saves you money. The first step in this process is to have your soil tested at your local extension office. Once your soil chemistry is known, extension agents can do a better job recommending native plants for you.
  • Water Efficiently – Many homeowners in the Florida panhandle have irrigation systems on timers. This makes sense from a management point of view but can lead to unnecessary runoff and higher water bills. We have all seen sprinkler systems operating during rain events – watering at that time certainly is not needed. FFY recommends you water only when your plants show signs of wilting, water during the cooler times of day to reduce evaporation of your resource, and check system for leaks periodically. Again, this helps our estuaries and saves you money.
  • Fertilize Appropriately – No doubt, plants need fertilizer. Water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide produce the needed energy for plants to grow, but it does not provide all of the nutrients needed to create new cells – fertilizers provide needed those nutrients. However, plants – like all creatures – can only consume so much before the remainder is waste. This is the case with fertilizers. Fertilizer that is not taken up by the plant will wash away and eventually end up in a local waterway where it can contribute to eutrophication, hypoxia, and possible fish kills. Apply fertilizers according to UF/IFAS recommendations. Never fertilize before a heavy rain.
  • Mulch – In a natural setting, leaf litter remains on the forest floor. The environment and microbes, recycling needed nutrients within the system, break down these leaves. They also reduce the evaporation of needed moisture in the soil. FFY recommends a 2-3” layer of mulch in your landscape.
  • Attract Wildlife – Native plants provide habitat for a variety of local wildlife. Birds, butterflies, and other creatures benefit from a Florida Friendly Yard. Choose plants with fruits and berries to attract birds and pollinators. This not only helps maintain their populations but you will find enjoyment watching them in your yard.
  • Manage Yard Pests Responsibly – This is a toughie. Once you have invested in your yard, you do not want insect, or fungal, pests to consume it. There is a program called the Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM) that is recommended to help protect your lawn. The flow of the program basically begins with the least toxic form of pest management and moves down the line. Hopefully, there will not be a need for strong toxic chemicals. Your local county extension office can assist you with implementing an IPM program.
  • Recycle – Return valuable nutrients to the soil and reduce waste that can enter our waterways by composting your turfgrass clippings, raked leaves, and pruned plants.
  • Reduce Stormwater Runoff – ‘All drains lead to the sea’ – this line from Finding Nemo is, for the most part, true. Any water leaving your property will most likely end in a local waterway, and eventually the estuary. Rain barrels can be connected to rain gutters to collect rainwater. This water can be used for irrigating your landscape. I know of one family who used it to wash their clothes. Rain barrels must be maintained properly to not produce swarms of mosquitos, and your local extension office can provide you tips on how to do this. More costly and labor intensive, but can actually enhance your yard, are rain gardens. Modifying your landscape so that the rainwater flows into low areas where water tolerant plants grow not only reduces runoff but also provides a chance to grow beautiful plants and enhance some local wildlife.
  • Protect the Waterfront – For those who live on a waterway, a living shoreline is a great way to reduce your impact on poor water quality. Living shorelines reduce erosion, remove pollutants, and enhance fisheries – all good. A living shoreline is basically restoring your shoreline to a natural vegetative state. You can design this so that you still have water access but at the same time help reduce storm water runoff issues. Planting below the mean high tide line will require a permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, since the state owns that land, and it could require a breakwater just offshore to help protect those plants while they are becoming established. If you have questions about what type of living shoreline you need, and how to navigate the permit process, contact your local county extension office.

Santa Rosa Sound
Photo: Dr. Matt Deitch

These nine principals of a Florida Friendly Yard, if used, will go a long way in reducing our communities’ impact on the water and soil quality in our local waterways. Read more at http://fyn.ifas.ufl.edu/about.htm.

Exploring the Economic, Environmental and Social Issues Impacting the Coastal Dune Lakes

The lodge at Camp Helen State Park was the perfect backdrop for the Coastal Dune Lake Seminar Series Water School. Brandy Foley of the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance shares her paleolimnology research work on the lakes.

On a beautiful October day, 35 people gathered at the Camp Helen State Park lodge to share information about the rare Coastal Dune Lakes (CDLs) that line the coast of Walton and Bay Counties. Organized by the University of Florida Extension Programs in Bay and Walton counties, the Water School included a morning seminar series featuring speakers from various groups that work together to support the lakes.  Laura Tiu, Sea Grant Agent for Walton and Okaloosa counties started off the day giving a broad overview of the history and ecology of the lakes.  Brandy Foley of the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance shared her research on the paleolimnology, or study of the lake sediments over time, of two coastal dune lakes.  Clayton Iron Wolf, a ranger at Camp Helen, gave a summary of the importance of Lake Powell and its benefit to the park.  Jeff Talbert of the Atlanta Botanical Garden thrilled attendees with his pictures and research on the Deer Lake State Park restoration project.  Norm Capra, who wears many hats, including that of the Lake Powell Community Alliance and Friends of Camp Helen State Park, shared the work they have done promoting conservation of shorebirds there.  Dr. Dana Stephens, Director of the Mattie Kelly Environmental Institute at Northwest Florida State College shared analyses of many years of water chemistry and quality data collected on the lakes.  Melinda Gates, Environmental Specialist for Walton County, wrapped up with a presentation on the efforts to protect and preserve the lakes.

The attendees seemed pleased with the event with one hundred percent of attendees rating the quality of information presented, usefulness of information, speakers’ knowledge, overall value of the program, and quality of location as good or excellent. The seminar helped attendees identify important roles of the CDLs in the ecosystem and understand why it is important to protect them. Several participants plan to make behavior changes based in the workshop including: joining or volunteering with Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance, Audubon, Sierra Club or Lake Watch Volunteers; sharing the information; living minimally; and engaging in activism. The seminar was followed by a kayak tour lead by Scott Jackson, Bay County Sea Grant Agent, to the outflow of Lake Powell and a visit to a faux sea turtle nest demonstration by Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.  This Water School was part of a regional series offered by UF/IFAS Extension.  For more information on future schools, please subscribe to our Panhandle Outdoors Newsletter.

Maintain Your Septic System to Save Money and Reduce Water Pollution

Maintain Your Septic System to Save Money and Reduce Water Pollution

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.

    1. 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.
    2. 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

Celebrating Choctawhatchee Bay – National Estuaries Week

Celebrating Choctawhatchee Bay – National Estuaries Week

Rocky Bayou Aquatic Preserve - Niceville, Florida

Rocky Bayou Aquatic Preserve – Choctawhatchee Bay, Niceville, Florida – Photo by Laura Tiu

September 17-24, 2016 was the nation’s 28th time to celebrate America’s coasts and estuaries during National Estuaries Week.  This week helps us to remember to appreciate the challenges these coastal ecosystems face, along with their beauty and utility.

Estuaries, semi-enclosed bodies of water with both fresh and saltwater, dot the Gulf Coast of the United States from Brownsville Texas to Key West, Florida. These estuaries are important as they serve as drainage basins for many of the large river systems, and play a significant role in the nation’s seafood industry.

Florida’s six major Panhandle estuaries, which includes Perdido Bay, Pensacola Bay (including Escambia Bay), Choctawhatchee Bay, St. Andrew Bay, St. Joseph Bay and Apalachicola Bay, are unique ecosystems teeming with life and diversity. Critical habitat includes important seagrass beds that support both the larval and adult stages of fish and invertebrates. In Choctawhatchee Bay, there is also critical foraging habitat for the federally protected Gulf sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus desotoi) and stream habitat for the endangered Okaloosa darter.

Choctawhatchee Bay is in Okaloosa and Walton counties in the Florida Panhandle. It is approximately 30 miles long and from three and a half to six miles wide, with a total area of 129 square miles. It is relatively shallow varying from 10 to 40 feet deep. Large portions of the western half of Choctawhatchee Bay are militarily restricted (Eglin Airforce Base).  The Bay is fed by the Choctawhatchee River and numerous small creeks that feed into several bayous.  The only opening to the Gulf of Mexico is the East Pass, which ironically is at the Western end of the Bay in Destin, Florida.  This is where the saltwater and freshwater mix.

Continued industrial and residential development in the watershed regions that drain into many of these estuaries has impacted them in a number of ways. Pollution comes from storm water runoff, lawns, industry and farms. The shorelines are impacted by development, which causes sedimentation and in turn loss of vegetation.  This reduces water clarity and habitat for wildlife.

Many organizations work to protect this estuary and reach out to others through education, restoration, and recreation events. Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance (CBA) is one such organization committed to ensuring sustainable utilization of the Choctawhatchee River and Bay.  They, working with their partners, provide leadership for the stewardship of the Bay. Alison McDowell, director of the CBA, notes that 75-85% of commercially and recreationally important species that are caught in the Gulf spend part of their lifecycle in the Bay. McDowell says a key factor in the Bay’s health is monitoring the water quality and reducing erosion, and the Oyster Reef Restoration program started in 2006 does just that.

There are often opportunities for the general public to join in some of the conservation efforts taking place in the Bay. For more information, like the Okaloosa or Walton County Extension Facebook page.

Kayaking Choctawhatchee Bay

Kayaking Choctawhatchee Bay – Photo by Laura Tiu

 

 

Water Wars… Can We Avoid It in the Panhandle?

Water Wars… Can We Avoid It in the Panhandle?

On a recent camping trip out west I was made aware of just how valuable water is. The American west has been battling water issues for a few years now.  Some camp showers had buttons that would provide you water for a couple of minutes, others charged $.50 for four minutes, some charged $1.00 for four minutes.  Not one campsite had water available at the site.  You had to walk, load your container, and return.  This forced you to be a little wiser on how you used it.  You did not want to have to go back and get more very often.

The Bill Young Reservoir in south Florida.   Photo: Southwest Florida Water Management District

The Bill Young Reservoir in south Florida.
Photo: Southwest Florida Water Management District

However, I was troubled by some of the things I saw as I traveled through the southwest. Areas in the desert where farmers were trying to grow row crops, citrus, and pecans – irrigation systems set up everywhere, reservoirs with canals and dikes to feed much needed water to the farmers… and signs in town where you could buy water to drink at $.25/gallon.  It seemed an inefficient use of this resource.  It would make more sense to grow crops that used less water, maybe… no water.  Recently we have heard a lot about “water wars” and “water rights” in the American southwest.  Farmers seeking more, municipalities trying to grab their piece of the pie, football fields and golf courses, and even camp grounds.  Some locations you cannot wash your car, or your dogs.  It is a real dilemma they are facing.  There were numerous creeks and streams I drove over that were absolutely dry, cattle in open rangeland seeking anywhere to find something to drink.

 

Could this happen in Northwest Florida?

You would think not. In the book Mirage by Cynthia Barnett, it mentions a comment made by Major John Wesley Powell.  Major Powell was an ex-confederate officer who was hired by the U.S. Geological Survey to survey land across the south and to the southwest after the Civil War.  He mentions problems with developing the American southwest primarily due to the lack of water… but water was something that Florida would never have to worry about – the state was saturated.  And yet here we are… 150 years later discussing water rights in Florida.  Currently it does not appear to be an issue.  At any campground in Florida you will find a water source at each site and you can take a shower as long as you like – at no charge.  We are one of the most productive agricultural states in the country – producing row crops, citrus, and cattle.  Most in our communities have manicured watered lawns and many have swimming pools.  There does not seem to be a problem here.  BUT, many communities are beginning to see problems.  Salt water intrusion into the water supply, lowering of the water table and aquifers, and even some streams running low.  Could we… Florida… the land of water… be heading towards a “water war”?

This is a common method used to irrigate crops across the U.S. Photo: UF IFAS

This is a common method used to irrigate crops across the U.S.
Photo: UF IFAS

The University of Florida Extension Program has recently hired water management specialists in districts across the state. They will be looking at issues that include water quantity and quality to address the needs of each region.  These specialists, along with the county faculty, will be working with local residents to discuss the local issues and help mitigate problems that could be looming on the horizon.  We encourage all residents to consider how to better manage their water.  Think in terms as if you had a set amount each month – budget this to meet your needs – and stick to your budget.  Hopefully with research, education, and insight, we can avoid a true “Water War”.