Iron-oxidizing bacteria produces an orange color and oily sheen in the floodplains of Congaree National Park, South Carolina. Used with permission from Karen Jackson, ©2020, Clemson University
“Someone dumped oil in the creek behind my house!” I had dozens of people call with that exclamation when I was a field inspector for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s (FDEP) wetlands compliance program. A significant portion of the job entailed responding to concerns and complaints from citizens regarding damage to wetland areas. In the field, I would come across an oily film along creeks in rural, near-pristine conditions in northern Holmes County and in heavily populated neighborhoods in the tourist hot spots of Destin and Panama City. The first time I saw it, I was taken aback. A shiny, rainbow sheen is something you might expect in an oil-soaked parking lot, not a relatively untouched body of water.
The reaction between iron, native bacteria, and oxygen can produce this orange sheen and filamentous material in streams and groundwater (as it exits the soil). Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Thankfully, an experienced colleague explained the workings of iron-oxidizing bacteria to me, and I was able to allay the fears of all those frantic homeowners. All the places I’ve ever seen evidence of iron bacteria on the water were adjacent to wetlands with some level of iron in the soil. The bacteria essentially “eat” ferrous iron, which is common and able to react with other elements in oxygen-free (anaerobic) environments. Wetlands are classic examples of anaerobic soils, and the mucky conditions of a stream floodplain are ideal for iron bacteria. These are naturally occurring, harmless bacteria that gain energy by breaking down iron available in the soil. In addition to the oily film, side effects of iron-oxidizing bacteria can include a swampy odor, a reddish filament, or red chunks of iron. In large amounts, these byproducts can clog wells if present in pipes. This can be problematic and prevent water flow, but the iron and bacteria are not threats to human health
A colleague with Escambia County recently responded to a homeowner call about bright orange water flowing out of their front yard. While not the typical creek location, environmental conditions were absolutely suited for this phenomenon. Their neighborhood is situated adjacent to a large wetland area, and several of the homes have French drains in the backyards that drain out to the street. During heavier rainfalls, excess groundwater enters those pipes, picks up iron bacteria in the soil, and exits to the surface along the road. The red-stained curbs are evidence that iron is common in the local soil.
When touched, the sheen produced by iron bacteria will fracture. This is an easy way to differentiate it from actual oil. Photo credit: City of Kirkland, Washington
While it’s possible someone could dump oil in a backwoods area (and if you do ever see that, report it to FDEP), it is much more likely that you are seeing the natural aftereffects of iron-oxidizing bacteria. To determine the difference between iron bacteria and actual oil, one simple test is to touch the water and its oily film with a stick. If the sheen fractures into small pieces, it’s iron bacteria. If it oozes back to an intact slick (and smells like petroleum), it could very well be oil.
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.
Well-maintained stormwater ponds can become attractive amenities that also improve water quality. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Prior to joining UF IFAS Extension, I spent three years as a compliance and enforcement field inspector with the local Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) office. It was a crash course in drinking water regulation, wetlands ecology, stormwater engineering, and human psychology. For about half of that time, I worked in the stormwater section with an engineer, certifying the proper construction and specifications of stormwater treatment ponds built for residential and commercial developments. During a construction boom in 2000-2003, my coworkers and I traversed back roads from Perdido Key to Freeport, trying to catch every new project and make sure it was done right. If they weren’t, it also fell to the 3 of us to make sure mistakes were corrected.
Since 1982, Florida Statutes have required that rainfall landing on newly constructed impervious surfaces (rooftops, streets, parking lots, etc.) must be treated before turning into runoff that leaves the property and ends up in local water bodies. The pollutants in stormwater runoff—heavy metals, fertilizer, pesticides, trash, bacteria, and sediment—are the biggest sources of water quality problems for the state, more so even than industrial and agricultural sources.
The most common stormwater ponds have sandy bottoms, grassed berms, and piped inlets with riprap to slow the influx of water. Photo credit, Michelle Diller
Therefore, new developments are required to treat that runoff. This may be accomplished by several means, including regional stormwater ponds. However, the most common are still curbs and gutters, which drain to an often-rectangular hole in the ground with a chain-link fence around it. Ideally, water pools into these dry ponds while raining, reducing flood risk and holding water long enough to allow it to soak into the soil. Most of the ponds in northwest Florida have sandy bottoms that percolate easily. Maintenance is required, however, and when heavier soils, trash, or muck accumulate they must be cleaned out to function properly. Depending on the geology of any given location, the ponds may need sand filters or “chimneys” added to allow water to soak into the native soil.
Admiral Mason Park, adjacent to the Veterans’ Memorial Park along Pensacola Bay, is an example of a regional City stormwater treatment facility that also serves as a park. Photo credit: Visit Pensacola
If an area is naturally low-lying, close to the water table, or has highly organic, water-holding soils, it may be necessary to construct a “wet” stormwater pond. In these, water stands to a level below an overflow device, and can become a water feature for the development. Many residential developers will sell lots around a stormwater pond as “waterfront property” and a well-maintained one really can be a nice amenity. However, at their core, these are stormwater treatment mechanisms. A wet pond functions differently than a dry one and is dependent on healthy stands of shoreline vegetation to take up extra nutrients, metabolize them, and render them into harmless compounds. Many of these ponds have fountains to aerate the water and keep them from becoming stagnant. The City of Pensacola and Escambia County have several great examples of these types of ponds that serve as regional stormwater detention and community amenities. These were constructed in lower-lying areas to handle chronic problems with stormwater in areas that were built up and paved many decades before stormwater rules came into effect. Many other innovative and newer stormwater treatments exist as well, including bioretention, rainwater harvesting, green roofs, and pervious pavement.
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
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!
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 – https://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 – https://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 – https://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 – https://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.