Simple Steps to Improve Local Water Quality

Simple Steps to Improve Local Water Quality

Clean water is vital for our health, the environment, and the sustainability of our communities. Pollution and contaminants can harm aquatic life, disrupt ecosystems, and upset the natural balance of our surroundings. By taking steps to maintain and enhance water quality, we ensure clean water for ourselves and future generations while preserving our precious environment. While the state addresses broader concerns, each of us can contribute to better water quality right at home. Here are some easy tips for improving water quality in your own backyard:

"A hand and a spade being used to spread fertilizer in a garden" UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones

UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones

  • Fertilize Appropriately: Plants need nutrients to grow, and proper fertilization is essential for their health. Following recommended rates and application schedules, as provided by UF/IFAS, can help prevent nutrient runoff and leaching, which can lead to water pollution in Florida. Always follow the instructions on the fertilizer label and adhere to local fertilizer regulations. When seeking professional landscaping assistance, make sure the provider is a licensed fertilizer applicator.
  • Maintain Your Septic Tank: Approximately one-third of Florida’s wastewater is treated by septic systems. However, many of these systems fail to adequately treat wastewater, releasing nutrients into our groundwater and surface waters. Regular inspections and pumping every 3-5 years are crucial to ensuring your system functions correctly. Dispose of human waste properly, maintain your drain field, and use water efficiently to keep your septic system in good working order.
"A stormwater pond in a residential neighborhood in Gainesville, FL." UF/IFAS Photo by Samantha Howley

UF/IFAS Photo by Samantha Howley

  • Care for Your Stormwater Pond: Stormwater ponds play a vital role in treating runoff water from neighborhoods. Look for plants along the pond’s banks, as they help filter nutrients from the water. These plants also act as a buffer between the pond and surrounding areas, such as lawns, roads, or sidewalks. Avoid removing or mowing these plants. If you live near a pond, maintain a 10-foot buffer between the pond and any areas where you apply fertilizer or herbicides to minimize the risk of pollutants reaching the pond and affecting its water quality.
  • Use Pesticides Wisely: Unwanted pesticides in water can harm the water’s quality. Reducing pesticide use benefits your family and the environment. By using fewer pesticides, you help preserve biodiversity, protect beneficial insects, and maintain ecosystem health.
  • Water Efficiently: A great way to conserve water is by being smart about how you care for your garden. To start, group plants with similar water needs together and make sure your watering system is set up correctly. Irrigation systems are designed to work alongside natural rain, so if rain is in the forecast, hold off on watering. To figure out when your plants need water, keep an eye out for signs of wilting in your grass or plants. When you do water, it’s best to do it in the morning to minimize water loss through evaporation. When you can, use a watering can, pail, or hose for precise watering. Regularly inspect your irrigation system for leaks, clogs, or breaks. Ensure that all sprinklers are directing water on your plants, not on the sidewalk.
"Lake Mize" UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones

UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones

Improving local water quality is essential for safeguarding our natural resources and the well-being of our communities. By adopting these simple strategies, you can actively contribute to reducing water pollution and preserving the beauty of our local waterways. For more information and guidance on improving water quality at home, don’t hesitate to contact your local UF/IFAS Extension. Together, we can make a positive impact on our environment and future generations.

Multi-County Private Well and Water Quality Workshop

Multi-County Private Well and Water Quality Workshop

Private well system. Image: C. Wofford, UF/IFAS Photography
Tuesday, September 26, 2023, 9:00 am – 11:30 am, at the Washington County Agriculture Center, 1424 Jackson Avenue, Chipley and virtually via Zoom. 

As a private well owner, you are responsible for making sure that your water is safe to drink. Do you know where your well water comes from and what can contaminate it? If you want to learn how to help ensure your drinking water is safe and what you can do to help protect groundwater quality, join us at our upcoming workshop. We will cover how private wells and septic systems work, their maintenance, what to have your water tested for, and how to protect your drinking water quality.  

This workshop is being presented by UF/IFAS Extension Bay, Calhoun, Holmes, Jackson, and Washington Counties. Registration is $5.00 per person. Facilitated water testing is available; water testing rates will vary depending on the test requested. For testing prices, additional details and to register, please visit our Eventbrite page at or call 850-482-9620. Pre-registration is encouraged as seating is limited; virtual options are also available. For persons with disabilities requiring special accommodations, please contact the Extension Office (TDD, via Florida Relay Service, 1-800-955-8771) at least ten working days prior to the class so that proper consideration may be given to the request. UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.    

It’s Been a Cruel Summer, Especially for Southern Oyster Farmers

It’s Been a Cruel Summer, Especially for Southern Oyster Farmers

There is a term that all oyster farmers dislike, it is almost like that one villain from a famous book/movie series where they shouldn’t say his name. That term is “unexplained spring/summer mortality” and it has been a growing issue along with the expansion of oyster farming throughout the southeast. While the art of oyster farming has been around since the time of the Romans, it is a relatively new venture here in the Gulf of Mexico, and Florida is home to over one hundred oyster farms. These farms are meticulously cared for by the oyster farm crew, with many different anti-fouling techniques and biosecurity measures in practice to provide the customer with a safe, clean product that you can consume even in the months without an R (another article on that coming later). Each year, farm managers can expect a 10-30% mortality event during the transition from winter into spring/summer, hence the term “unexplained spring/summer mortality.” Researchers and scientists from all over the southeast have been actively working to find a cause for this phenomenon, but the answer has been hard to find.

Dead, market ready oysters from one bag. Cause of death, “Unexplained Mortality Event 2022”
Photo by: Thomas Derbes II

Our Pensacola Bay has been a hotbed for oysters lately; The Nature Conservancy recently constructed 33 oyster beds along Escribano Point in East Bay, the establishment of the Pensacola & Perdido Bay Estuary Program, acquisition of a $23 million restoration grant with $ 10 million towards 1,482 acres of oyster restoration, and the establishment of oyster farms and hatcheries. In Pensacola Bay, there are currently 5 oyster farms in operation, one of those farms being a family-owned and operated Grayson Bay Oyster Company. Brandon Smith has been managing the business and farm for over 4 years now and has experienced mortality events during those prime spring/summer months. In recent years, they have experienced mortality events ranging from minimal to what many would consider “catastrophic,” and reports from around Florida and the Southeast convey a similar message. Concerned for not only the future of his family farm, but other oyster farms in the Southeast, he has been working with the most experienced institutions and groups in 2022 to possibly get an answer on his and other local “unexplained mortality events.” Each road led to the same answer of “we aren’t quite sure,” but this didn’t deter Smith or other the farmers who are dealing with similar issues.

In 2023, Smith was invited to participate in a Florida-Wide program to track water quality on their farm. This project, led by Florida Sea Grant’s Leslie Sturmer from the Nature Coast Biological Station in Cedar Key, Florida, hopes to shed some light on the changes in water quality during the transition from winter to spring and spring to summer. Water samples have also been taken weekly to preserve plankton abundance and the presence of any harmful algae if a mortality event does occur. With the hottest July on record occurring in 2023, temperature could play a role in mortality events, and now researchers are equipped with the right tools and open lines of communication to possibly find a solution to the problem.

3-month-old seed being deployed out on Grayson Bay Oyster Company’s farm in Pensacola, Florida (2023).
Photo by: Thomas Derbes II

As with traditional farming on land, oyster farming takes a mentally strong individual with an incredible work ethic and the ability to adapt to change. The Southeast has a resilient system of oyster farmers who display these traits and continue to put their noses down and “plant” seed every year for the continuation of a growing yet small industry, even through the hardest of trials and tribulations. Through collaboration with local and state institutions, stakeholders, programs, and citizens, oyster farmers are hopeful that they can solve this “unexplained mortality event” and help develop resilient farming techniques. An important message is local farms that have environmental and economic impacts cannot exist without the support of their community.

If you’re interested in tracking water quality on select farms, including Grayson Bay Oyster Company, the website is and it is updated monthly.        

Nature-Based Stormwater Solutions in the Florida Panhandle

Nature-Based Stormwater Solutions in the Florida Panhandle

Summertime always makes me think of the supermarket. At least one time each of the past few summers, I clearly remember being at the supermarket during a rainstorm and watching the water wash over the parking lot, talking with all the other people debating whether to run to their car with a buggy full of food. Supermarkets, home goods stores, medical facilities, libraries, and shopping centers all provide important services that we depend on for our everyday life, but their development has altered the natural processes that control the movement of water from the landscape to creeks and ultimately to the bays and bayous around us (collectively referred to as receiving waters). Concrete, asphalt, and building roof surfaces are impervious, meaning that water cannot pass through them. As a result, more water washes off the rooftops, parking lots, driveways, and roads than before the area was developed. Less water sinks into the ground to move slowly toward receiving waters and to recharge aquifers. More impervious surface leads to more runoff to receiving waters, resulting in greater erosion and higher levels of pollutants like nitrogen, phosphorus, and silt in these waterways. These extra pollutants from the landscape and from eroding stream banks have harmful effects many types of organisms that call these waterways home.

New development in Florida is required to include features that “treat” a fraction of the surface water that runs off impervious surfaces before flowing into receiving waters. Treating surface water runoff means holding it back and preventing it from running quickly off the developed landscape; as it is held back, some pollutants may settle out or be consumed by plants. Treatment is commonly accomplished through features like dry retention basins or wet detention ponds, where water is stored and then slowly moves through soil pathways toward receiving waters. These features are common parts of our developed landscape: the big pond behind the supermarket or in front of the new truck stop, or the grassy pit next to the gas station. While these satisfy regulations, they occupy a considerable amount of land, typically are aesthetically lacking, and may not actually reduce pollutant runoff or stormwater volume as intended. They also can be neglected and become a nuisance in the landscape.

Nature-based stormwater infrastructure projects can play an important role in protecting communities in northwest Florida from the effects of heavy rainfall that occurs periodically in the region. Nature-based stormwater projects are designed primarily to incorporate the natural processes of infiltration that occur in undeveloped areas in the developed landscape, treating stormwater by reducing volumes of surface runoff and concentrations of pollution that could otherwise flow directly into receiving waters. Depending on their design, these features can also provide aesthetic enhancements that can increase the value of properties and the overall wellbeing of the communities where they are implemented. When used in coordination, nature-based projects such as roadside treatment swales, bioretention cells, rain gardens, green roofs, and porous pavement can provide similar levels of stormwater treatment as dry retention basins and detention ponds while also enhancing the aesthetic, recreational, or functional potential of the landscape.

Local government and extension staff across northwest Florida are working to introduce more nature-based stormwater projects into the panhandle landscape. To learn more about recent demonstration projects that have been implemented in our region, visit the WebGIS project

Septic System Care After a Storm

Septic System Care After a Storm

Flooding after a storm can damage septic systems, causing them to fail. Image: B White, NASA Public Domain

After floods or heavy rains, the soil in your septic system drainfield can become waterlogged. But, for your septic system to treat wastewater, water needs to drain freely in the drainfield. Special care needs to be taken with your septic system after a storm in order to ensure its proper function.

What should you do if flooding occurs?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers these guidelines:

  1. Relieve pressure on the septic system by using it less or not at all until floodwaters recede and the soil has drained. Under flooded conditions, wastewater can’t drain in the drainfield and can back up in your septic system and household drains. Clean up floodwater in the house without dumping it into the sinks or toilet. This adds additional water that an already saturated drainfield won’t be able to process. Remember that in most homes all water sent down the pipes goes into the septic system.
  2. If sewage from the septic tank has backed up into your house, clean up the affected area and disinfect the floor using a chlorine solution of a half cup of chlorine bleach to each gallon of water for thorough disinfection.
  3. Avoid digging around the septic tank and drainfield while the soil is waterlogged. Don’t drive vehicles or equipment over the drainfield. Saturated soil is very susceptible to compaction. By working on your septic system while the soil is still wet, you can compact the soil in your drainfield, and water won’t be able to drain properly.This reduces the drainfield’s ability to treat wastewater and leads to system failure.
  4. If you suspect your system has been damaged, have the tank inspected and serviced by a professional. How can you tell if your system is damaged?  Signs include: settling, wastewater backs up into household drains, the soil in the drainfield remains soggy and never fully drains, a foul odor persists around the tank and drainfield. The tank shouldn’t be opened or pumped if the soil is waterlogged. Silt and mud can get into the tank if it is opened and can end up in the drainfield, reducing its drainage capability. Pumping under these conditions can cause a tank to float or ‘pop out’ of the ground and can damage inlet and outlet pipes. Only a licensed professional should clean or repair the septic tank.
  5. For septic systems with electrical components, make sure to check all the electrical connections for damage before restoring electricity (to pumps, for example).
  6. Have your private well water tested if your septic system or private well were flooded or damaged in any way. Your well water may not be safe to drink or to use for household purposes (making ice, cooking, brushing teeth or bathing). You need to have it tested for total coliform bacteria and E. coli to ensure it is safe to use.

Many county health departments provide testing for bacterial contamination. If they do not offer testing, they can help point you to commercial labs in the area for testing.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) also maintains a site where you can search for certified water testing labs by county: Certified Water Testing Laboratories

For more information on septic systems and maintenance go to UF/IFAS Septic Systems or EPA Septic Systems

UF/IFAS Water School Webinar Series: Managing Stormwater in a Changing FL Panhandle 2023

UF/IFAS Water School Webinar Series: Managing Stormwater in a Changing FL Panhandle 2023

Join us for a two-part webinar series: Managing Stormwater in a Changing FL Panhandle 2023 on May 3 from 8-11 am CST (9-12 pm EST), and May 17 from 8-11 am CST (9-12 pm EST). For those that have attended in previous years, we have a lot of new material to present and discuss.

Please register here: Stormwater Management Eventbrite A detailed agenda can be found on the Eventbrite page.

May 3: Session 1 will focus on Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) and its maintenance, as well as presentations and discussion on the ecological function of GSI+LID (Low impact Development) and the Community Rating System

May 17: Session 2 will focus on implementing GSI+LID at the community level, with presentations and discussion on updates and opportunities for LID+GSI in Rules and Regulations, available funding and educational resources for project implementation and community-based social marketing.

PDHs and CEUs offered:

  • 4 Professional Development Hours (PDH) will be offered through the Florida Board of Professional Engineers. Two PDHs will be offered for Day 1 and two will be offered for Day 2.
  • 4 Continuing Education Units (CEU) will be offered for Pesticide Applicators through FDACS in the following categories: Ornamental & Turf, Private Applicator Ag, Right-of-Way, Aquatic, Natural Areas, Commercial Lawn & Ornamental, Limited Commercial Landscape Maintenance, Limited Lawn & Ornamental and Limited Urban Fertilizer.

The webinar is free for those not seeking PDHs or CEUs. For those seeking PDHs or CEUs, the cost is $50 for Day 1, and $50 for Day 2.

We look forward to your attendance! Feel free to contact Andrea Albertin if you have any questions: or (850) 875-7111