August 5, 2013

August is National Water Quality Month

Lara Miller,
Natural Resource Agent 

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of water quality? Is it drinking water, the brown water in a nearby pond, litter scattered along the bank of a creek or stream? Chances are, if you live in Pinellas County, the body of water closest to you is impaired. This means the water body is not meeting water quality standards set by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. At this time, nearly all water bodies in Pinellas County are considered impaired.
The details behind the impairment standards are complex, but what is clear is the top three causes of impairment in Florida’s waters are: nutrients, dirt and bacteria. The main way these elements enter our waterways is by stormwater runoff which occurs when water from a rain event “runs off” across the land instead of seeping into the ground. As the water moves across the land, it is capable of picking up these elements (nutrients, dirt and bacteria) along the way.


Typically nutrients have a positive association, but when it comes to water quality, that is not always the case. When nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus accumulate to unnaturally high levels in a water body they can promote the growth of algae to an undesirable level, resulting in discolored water. An overgrowth of algae can act in the same way as too much soil in the water, blocking sunlight from penetrating through the water. As the algae die they become food for bacteria and this process of decomposition reduces the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water which may lead to the suffocation of aquatic life such as fish.

The major sources of these excess nutrients are fertilizers, animal waste, sewage treatment plants, and failing septic systems. You can help to reduce the over abundance of nutrients by: having your soil tested to determine if there is a need for fertilizer applications and making sure to apply as directed by bag labels (if recommended), picking up after your pets, installing rain gardens, and ensuring your septic system (if you have one) is working effectively.


We are all familiar with dirt (scientifically known as soil). When natural systems are disturbed during land use changes such as development or agricultural production, soil can become exposed to wind and rain, allowing it to runoff into a nearby body of water. When soil enters a body of water it may become murky, preventing under water plants from receiving the sunlight they need to make food through the process of photosynthesis.

While soil is naturally occurring, excess amounts of soil entering our waterways can be harmful. There are some ways we can help prevent this from occurring. Construction workers may put up silt fences to contain the dirt and debris created as they build, and developers can design communities to leave more natural areas in place and install fewer pavements to preserve the existing vegetation. Protecting established ecosystems promotes soil stabilization because the developed root systems help to hold the soil in place and slow the flow of rainwater runoff containing soil particles.


Bacteria can be good and bad, but certain bacteria serve as an indicator that other germs and virus might be present that can make us sick. In rare cases, extreme rainstorm events may cause sewage treatment systems to reach a maximum load, forcing cities to divert overflows into nearby bodies of water. Bacteria can also come from domestic and wild animal waste of urban and rural lands.

You can help prevent bacteria from impacting our waterways by: keeping an eye out for news reports during periods of high rain, urging citizens to reduce the pressure on the sewage system; farmers can implement best management practices (BMPs) to better manage livestock manure; and domestic pet owners can pick up after their pets.

It is important to remember that water connects us all; if you live in Pinellas County, you live in a watershed. Watersheds are important to consider because they represent a larger system and emphasize how peoples’ actions “upstream” may have negative affects to communities “downstream” regardless of county lines. You can find out more from the sources below.

You CAN make a difference! Register today for Joe’s Creek Neighborhood Greenway Clean Up on Saturday, September 28, 2013. The event is sponsored by Pinellas County, Tampa Bay Estuary Program and Keep Pinellas Beautiful. If you are interested, please e-mail Keep Pinellas Beautiful at:


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