Urbanization—the process of conversion from forests, grasslands, or agricultural fields to predominantly residential, commercial, and industrial settings—can cause profound changes to the pathways that rainfall takes to become streamflow. This landscape conversion leads to less water infiltrating into soil and more water running directly into streams and other nearby water bodies (such as lakes, wetlands, and bayous). Urban water runoff carries pollutants that have accumulated on the landscape and in soil since the previous rainfall. If the concentrations of pollutants in streams are large enough, they can cause problems for the organisms that live in streams as well as those in the bays and bayous those streams flow into (often called receiving waters).
Stormwater conveyance in Santa Rosa nd Escambia counties.
Photo: Matt Deitch
Local governments play a key role in mitigating the impacts of urbanization on aquatic ecosystems. In northwest Florida, County government is often responsible for limiting pollutant inputs from the network of surface and underground stormwater conveyances known as “municipal separate storm sewer systems” (abbreviated as MS4s). The United States EPA requires urban areas to be regulated as sources of pollutant discharge through their National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (abbreviated NPDES); departments within Escambia County and Santa Rosa County government coordinate the administration of these permits with the US EPA.
The requirements of these MS4 water quality permits vary depending on the population of the area. Permits for medium and large cities or counties having populations greater than 100,000 are categorized as “Phase I” MS4s, while areas with smaller populations are categorized as being “Phase II” MS4s. These two categories have many similar requirements, but also have a few important differences. Permits for both types of MS4s require local agencies to develop methods for community outreach on stormwater pollution issues, controlling runoff from construction sites, and requiring stormwater management in new developments. In addition to the requirements listed above, Phase I MS4s require the implementation of a water quality monitoring program and a plan to reduce pollutants from developed areas.
Stormwater conveyance in Santa Rosa and Escambia counties.
Photo: Matt Deitch
In Spring 2020, the southern portion of Santa Rosa County transitioned from a Phase II MS4 region to Phase I. This means that Santa Rosa County will begin implementation of a surface water monitoring program to evaluate pollutant concentrations in stormwater conveyances (including creeks); and develop plans for reducing pollutants from their MS4s entering the Pensacola Bay System. This program will make important contributions to understanding the effects of urban development on our local streams and estuaries, and improve water quality in the Pensacola Bay System.
This is a great opportunity to remind us of the importance of disposing our personal protective equipment including face masks, plastic gloves, and other single-use items we use to protect ourselves from the coronavirus in the trash after use. Leaving it on the curb or in parking lots means that it can wash into stormwater ponds or creeks and bayous, which can cause problems for the animals that live there.
Stormwater conveyance in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.
Photo: Matt Deitch
Pitt Spring in the Florida Panhandle is one of more than 1,000 freshwater springs in the state. Springs serve as ‘windows’ to groundwater quality, since the water that flows from them comes largely from the Upper Floridan Aquifer. Photo: A. Albertin
As Florida residents, we are so fortunate to have the Floridan Aquifer lying below us, one of the most productive aquifer systems in the world. The aquifer underlies an area of about 100,000 square miles that includes all of Florida and extends into parts of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, as well as parts of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico (Figure 1). The Floridan Aquifer consists of the Upper and Lower Floridan Aquifer.
Figure 1. Map of the extent of the Floridan Aquifer. Areas in gray show where the aquifer is buried deep below the land surface, while areas in light brown indicate where the aquifer is at land surface. Many springs in Florida are found in these light brown areas. Source: USGS Publication HA 730-G.
Aquifers are immense underground zones of permeable rocks, rock fractures and unconsolidated (or loose) material, like sand, silt and clay that hold water and allow water to move through them. Both fresh and saltwater fill the pores, fissures and conduits of the Floridan Aquifer. Saltwater, which is more dense than freshwater, is found in all areas of the deeper aquifer below the freshwater.
The thickness of the Floridan Aquifer varies widely. It ranges from 250 ft. thick in parts of Georgia, to about 3,000 ft. thick in South Florida. Water from the Upper Floridan Aquifer is potable in most parts of the state and is a major source of groundwater for more than 11 million residents. However, in areas such as the far western panhandle and South Florida, where the Floridan Aquifer is very deep, the water is too salty to be potable. Instead, water from aquifers that lie above the Floridan is used for water supply.
There are actually several major aquifer systems in Florida that lie on top of the Floridan Aquifer and are important sources of groundwater to local areas (Figure 2):
- The Sand and Gravel Aquifer in the far western panhandle is the main source of water for Santa Rosa and Escambia Counties. It is made up of of sand and gravel interbedded with layers of silt and clay.
- The Biscayne Aquifer supplies water to Dade and Broward Counties and southern Palm Beach County. A pipeline also transports water from this aquifer to the Florida Keys. The aquifer is made of permeable limestone and less permeable sand and sandstone.
- The Surficial Aquifer System (marked in green in the map in Figure 2) is the major source of drinking water in St. Johns, Flagler and Indian River counties, as well as Titusville and Palm Bay. It is typically shallow (less than 50 ft. thick) and is often referred to as a ‘water table’ aquifer, but in Indian River and St. Lucie Counties, it can be up to 400 ft. thick.
- Not included in Figure 2 is a fourth aquifer, the Intermediate Aquifer System in southwest Florida. It lies at a depth between the Surficial Aquifer System and the Floridan Aquifer. It is found south and east of Tampa, in Hillsborough and Polk counties and extends south through Collier County. It is the main source of water supply for Sarasota, Charlotte and Lee counties, where the underlying Floridan Aquifer is too salty to be potable.
Figure 2. A map of four major aquifer systems in the state of Florida at land surface. The Floridan Aquifer (in blue) underlies the entire state, but in areas north and east of Tampa it is found at the surface. The Surficial (green), Sand and Gravel (red), and Biscayne Aquifer (purple/pink) lie on top of the Floridan Aquifer. A confining unit (area in brown) consists of impermeable materials like thick layers of fine clay that prevent water from easily moving through it. Source: FDEP.
All of the aquifer systems in Florida are recharged by rainfall. In general, freshwater from deeper portions of the aquifer tends to have better water quality than surficial systems, since it is less susceptible to pollution from land surfaces. But, in areas where groundwater is excessively pumped or wells are drilled too deeply, saltwater intrusion occurs. This is where the underlying, denser saltwater replaces the pumped freshwater. Florida’s highly populated coastal areas are particularly susceptible to saltwater intrusion, and this is one of the main reasons that water conservation is a major priority in Florida.
More information about the Floridan Aquifer System and overlying aquifers can be found at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (https://fldep.dep.state.fl.us/swapp/Aquifer.asp#P4) and in the UF EDIS Publication ‘Florida’s Water Reosurces’ by T. Borisova and T. Wade (https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fe757).
Flooding and poor water quality are common issues of concern in the Florida Panhandle. Our frequent heavy rains cause water to quickly run off rooftop, parking lot, and driveway surfaces; this runoff water carries with it the chemicals deposited on land surfaces between rain events by direct application (such as landscape fertilizers) as well as through wind and circulation, a process referred to as atmospheric deposition. Surface water that runs off our developed urban and residential landscape is usually routed into stormwater drains and sewers, and then into stormwater detention ponds or directly into surface streams.
Dry stormwater pond in Escambia County.
Photo: Matt Deitch
Conventional methods for dealing with stormwater runoff is through the use of stormwater ponds. Stormwater ponds allow water to slowly infiltrate into the soil before moving to streams or wetlands via shallow groundwater pathways. Typically hidden behind shopping centers or in the back of residential subdivisions, stormwater ponds attenuate flooding by delaying the time when water reaches the stream and are intended to improve water quality through microbial processes (such as denitrification) or plant uptake, particularly focusing on reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that reaches nearby streams. However, the efficacy of stormwater ponds is highly variable (many do not function as intended), and they often are visually unattractive aspects of a community.
A backyrad rain garden after installation near Navarre FL.
Photo: Nikki Bennett
Stormwater managers in other parts of Florida are increasingly utilizing a suite of management features termed “green infrastructure” as alternatives to stormwater ponds to reduce floodwaters and improve water quality before it enters nearby streams and wetlands. Green infrastructure, which includes features such as rain gardens, green rooftops, rainwater cisterns, bioswales, and permeable pavers, is designed to slow water down and reduce pollutant concentrations by mimicking natural processes of infiltration and biological uptake at its source—off the rooftops, driveways, roads, and parking lots where stormwater first concentrates. As a result, green infrastructure reduces surface runoff that occurs during storm events, leading to less flooding downstream. With the magnitude of peak flow reduced, stormwater runoff is also likely to carry lower amounts of pollutants downstream. In addition to their capacity to reduce flooding and improve water quality, green infrastructure can have many other benefits. It is often visually appealing, with vegetation typically selected to be visually attractive, appropriate for local conditions, and requiring low maintenance.
Rain garden at the VA Central Western Massachusetts Health Care System facility.
Photo: US Air Force
With our frequent rainfall, moderately developed urban areas, and expanding communities, the Florida Panhandle is ideal for using green infrastructure to reduce flooding and improve water quality. Features such as bioswales, rain gardens, and permeable pavement can be added to new development to mitigate stormwater runoff; they can also be added to existing neighborhoods to reduce flooding where roadside areas or other shared spaces allow. In addition to mitigating the effects of rainfall, green infrastructure can also improve property values because of their visual appeal. For green infrastructure techniques to be effective, they require widespread use throughout a neighborhood rather than at a handful of locations; so if it sounds like green infrastructure would benefit your community, talk with your neighbors and reach out to UF IFAS agents to discuss how it could be added to your community!
Contact you local county health department office for information on how to test your well water. Image: F. Alvarado Arce
Residents that rely on private wells for home consumption are responsible for ensuring the safety of their own drinking water. The Florida Department of Health (FDOH) recommends private well users test their water once a year for bacteria and nitrate.
Unlike private wells, public water supply systems in Florida are tested regularly to ensure that they are meeting safe drinking water standards.
Where can you have your well water tested?
Your best source of information on how to have your water tested is your local county health department. Most health departments test drinking water and they will let you know exactly what samples need to taken and ho w to submit a sample. You can also submit samples to a certified private lab near you.
Contact information for county health departments can be located at: http://www.floridahealth.gov/programs-and-services/county-health-departments/find-a-county-health-department/index.html
Contact information for private certified laboratories are found at https://fldeploc.dep.state.fl.us/aams/loc_search.asp
Why is it important to test for bacteria?
Labs commonly test for both total coliform bacteria and fecal coliforms (or E. coli specifically). This usually costs about $25 to $30, but can vary depending on where you have your sample analyzed.
- Coliform bacteria are a large, diverse group of bacteria and most species are harmless. But, a positive test for total coliforms shows that bacteria are getting into your well water. They are used as indicators – if coliform bacteria are present, other pathogens that cause diseases may also be getting into your well water. It is easier and cheaper to test for total coliforms than to test for a suite of bacteria and other organisms that can cause health problems.
- Fecal coliform bacteria are a subgroup of coliform bacteria found in human and other warm-blooded animal feces, in food and in the environment. E. coli are one group of fecal coliform bacteria. Most strains of E. coli are harmless, but some strains can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, and respiratory illnesses among others.
To ensure safe drinking water, FDOH strongly recommends disinfecting your well if the water tests positive for (1) only total coliform bacteria, or (2) both total coliform and fecal coliform bacteria (or E. coli). Disinfection is usually done through shock chlorination. You can either hire a well operator in your area to disinfect your well or you can do it yourself. Information for how to shock chlorinate your well can be found at http://www.floridahealth.gov/environmental-health/private-well-testing/_documents/well-water-facts-disinfection.pdf
Why is it important to test for nitrate concentration?
High levels of nitrate in drinking water can be dangerous to infants, and can cause “blue baby syndrome” or methemoglobinemia. This is where nitrate interferes with the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen. The Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) allowed for nitrate in drinking water is 10 milligrams nitrate per liter of water (mg/L). It is particularly important to test for nitrate if you have a young infant in the home that is drinking well water or when well water is used to make formula to feed the infant.
If test results come back above 10 mg/L nitrate, use water from a tested source (bottled water or water from a public supply) until the problem is addressed. Nitrates in well water can come from fertilizers applied on land surfaces, animal waste and/or human sewage, such as from a septic tank. Have your well inspected by a professional to identify why elevated nitrate levels are in your well water. You can also consider installing a water treatment system, such as reverse osmosis or distillation units to treat the contaminated water. Before having a system installed, contact your local health department for more information.
In addition to once a year, you should also have your well water tested when:
- The color, taste or odor of your well water changes or if you suspect that someone became sick after drinking well water.
- A new well is drilled or if you have had maintenance done on your existing well
- A flood occurred and your well and/or septic tank were affected
Remember: Bacteria and nitrate are not the only parameters that well water is tested for. Call your local health department to discuss your what they recommend you should get the water tested for, because it can vary depending on where you live.
FDOH maintains an excellent website with many resources for private well users at http://www.floridahealth.gov/environmental-health/private-well-testing/index.html, which includes information on potential contaminants and how to maintain your well to ensure the quality of your well water.
Common Salvinia Covering Farm pond in Gadsden County
Photo Credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS Gadsden County Extension
Close up of common Salvinia
Photo Credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS Gadsden County Extension
Aquatic weed problems are common in the panhandle of Florida. Common Salvinia (Salvinia minima) is a persistent invasive weed problem found in many ponds in Gadsden County. There are ten species of salvinia in the tropical Americas but none are native to Florida. They are actually floating ferns that measure about 3/4 inch in length. Typically it is found in still waters that contain high organic matter. It can be found free-floating or in the mud. The leaves are round to somewhat broadly elliptic, (0.4–1 in long), with the upper surface having 4-pronged hairs and the lower surface is hairy. It commonly occurs in freshwater ponds and swamps from the peninsula to the central panhandle of Florida.
Reproduction is by spores, or fragmentation of plants, and it can proliferate rapidly allowing it to be an aggressive invasive species. When these colonies cover the surface of a pond as pictured above they need to be controlled as the risk of oxygen depletion and fish kill is a possibility. If the pond is heavily infested with weeds, it may be possible (depending on the herbicide chosen) to treat the pond in sections and let each section decompose for about two weeks before treating another section. Aeration, particularly at night, for several days after treatment may help control the oxygen depletion.
Control measures include raking or seining, but remember that fragmentation propagates the plant. Grass carp will consume salvinia but are usually not effective for total control. Chemical control measures include :carfentrazone, diquat, fluridone, flumioxazin, glyphosate, imazamox, and penoxsulam.
For more information reference these IFAS publications:
Efficacy of Herbicide Active ingredients Against Aquatic Weeds
For help with controlling Common salvinia consult with your local Extension Agent for weed control recommendations, as needed.
During a recent fishing trip, as we jigged for bait and got repeated stuck by the tiny hooks, talk turned to the recent reports of a death and infections in the Florida Panhandle from the saltwater-dwelling bacterium, Vibrio vulnificus. Many reports used the term “flesh-eating bacteria” to refer to Vibrio. This description is false and misleading and causes unnecessary fear and panic. Most healthy individuals are not at risk for V. vulnificus infection, however, to ensure that your time on the water is safe and enjoyable, be aware of your risk and take steps to minimize becoming infected.
The name Vibrio refers to a large and diverse group of marine bacteria. Most members are harmless, however, some strains produce harmful toxins and are capable of causing a disease known as “vibriosis.” Because of Florida’s warm climate, Vibrio are present in brackish waters year-round. They are most abundant from April to November when the water is the warmest. For infection to occur, pathogenic Vibrio strains must enter the body of a susceptible individual who either eats raw and contaminated seafood or exposes an open wound for a prolonged period in water containing these bacteria.
Symptoms of vibriosis may arise within 1–3 days, but usually occur a few hours after exposure. Infections typically begin with swelling and redness of skin, followed by severe pain, blistering, and discharge at the site of the wound. If you suspect infection, seek medical treatment immediately.
Anglers can reduce their risk by following a few safety tips. Because fish, including live bait, carry Vibrio on their bodies, avoid or minimize handling whenever possible. The proper use of landing gear and release tools can help to minimize handling. If you cannot avoid handling the fish, use a wet towel or gloves to protect yourself. Be aware of areas that can cause injury like spines, barbs, and teeth.
Always wash your hands thoroughly after fishing, especially before handling food. Be sure to clean your gear after each use, taking special care with sharp objects like hooks and knives.
Adapted from: Abeels, H., G. Barbarite, A. Wright, and P. McCarthy. 2016. Frequently Asked Questions about Vibrio in Florida. SGEF-231. https://eos.ucs.uri.edu/EOS_Linked_Documents/flsgp/SGEF_231_fact-sheet_2016.pdf
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A happy angler with a Trigger fish near Destin, Florida (Photo credit: L. Tiu).