After Ian, Florida’s waterways could remain polluted for months

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As Hurricane Ian swept through central Florida in late September, the manager of a Port Orange sewage treatment plant worried about what would happen when the storm forced sewage to overflow a four-mile pipe and spill into a nearby body of water. He desperately searched for a chemical compound that would reduce harm to marine and human life. But there would be no more accessible for nearly two days.

“We tried other providers, but they were also stuck because of Hurricane Ian,” Chris Wall, director of the water reclamation facility, said in a recent filing with the Department of Environmental Protection. Environment (DEP) of Florida.

Video taken September 29 shows Hurricane Ian hitting Fort Myers, Florida with damaging winds and devastating flooding. (Video: Max Olsen)

Untreated sewage overflowed from the site, representing only a portion of the millions of gallons of spills that have been reported in the state since the storm. In the weeks following Ian’s departure from Sunshine State, city employees and concerned citizens filed hundreds of pollution reports with the state’s DEP. Many of the most common in Florida were linked to sewage systems, which discharged bacteria and viruses harmful to humans into waterways. Researchers say it could take months for the ocean to flush out the contaminated water.

“We knew there was a large amount of sewage that was being released into the waterways, not just in one area, but in many areas,” said Jennifer Hecker, executive director of the Coastal & Heartland National Estuary Partnership. (CHNEP), part of the National Estuary Program of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “I’ve been working on this for almost 30 years, and I’ve never encountered anything of this scale and magnitude.”

As more debris cleared a month after Ian landed, CHNEP and environmental partners were able to collect samples from Southwest Florida’s watersheds, rivers and estuaries to assess pollutants. and common bacteria. Still, Hecker said conditions in mid-October for water sampling weren’t ideal; some boat ramps were still blocked and access to some waterways remained difficult due to storm damage.

Florida waterways contaminated after Ian poses health risks

By mid-October, the team had found many places where the water was six to 10 times the state’s safe threshold for types of bacteria found in feces such as E. coli and enterococci. . These bacteria can cause urinary tract infections, life-threatening heart inflammation, and other serious infections.

Drone footage released by the Daytona Beach Police Department on Sept. 30 showed widespread flooding after extensive damage from Post-Tropical Cyclone Ian. (Video: Daytona Beach Police Department)

Since November 1, microscopic algae called Karenia brevis (commonly known as red tide) were also present in concentrations high enough to cause respiratory problems for residents of Charlette, Lee and Sarasota counties, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“From Sarasota Bay south to Naples, bacteria levels in the water are generally high and well above the criteria for bacteria in our waterways,” said Christine Angelini, director of the Center for Coastal. Solutions from the University of Florida, which is one of CHNEP’s partners collecting the data.

In Florida, flesh-eating bacteria follow Hurricane Ian’s wake

Additionally, she said excess nutrients and debris are depleting oxygen levels in major waterways, such as the Peace River, which could lead to a massive loss of fish important to the economy of the region. the state.

Ian’s torrential rains and historic storm surge strained already vulnerable sewage systems. Florida’s sewage treatment systems rely heavily on electric “lift stations” that pump sewage from trenches about 10 feet deep to surface plants that clean the water. These stations are inexpensive and use smaller pipelines at shallow depths.

“We don’t have a lot of topography,” said Sarina Ergas, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of South Florida. “It’s very flat.”

This is why Florida must pump sewage to treatment plants.

But one downside is that pumps usually depend on electrical power to operate. In Ian’s wake, millions of Floridians were without power. If power is interrupted, the EPA said, it can “interrupt normal operation” of sewage treatment and lead to flooding “upstream of the lift station.”

Hour-by-hour analysis shows county’s backlog toll before Hurricane Ian

When Ian caused a power outage in the town of Maitland, just northeast of Orlando, the pumps failed, creating high volumes of water that the surrounding area could not contain. As a result, 150,000 gallons of untreated sewage accumulated in water bodies.

Stations sometimes have backup generators, but federal incident reports filed shortly after Ian showed that they are not always reliable. An auxiliary pump in North Fort Myers ran out of fuel, which was slow to recover due to Ian’s debris. A backup generator in Tampa Bay unexpectedly shut down after running for several hours. Another near Orlando went out just two weeks after annual preventative maintenance.

Some of the most severe damage occurred in the town of Bradenton. At a lift station, power from Florida Power & Light, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy, failed. Then the backup generator also broke down, “after a long period of operation,” the city’s water company said. As the storm raged, 4 million gallons of untreated sewage spilled from the site into Wares Creek. Later, the company applied lime — which binds pollutantsand picked up other debris.

The sheer size of Ian, which brought more than 20 inches of precipitation to parts of the state, makes it difficult to plan infrastructure strong enough to withstand similar storms. John Shaw, an expert witness in court and consultant to municipalities on sewage, said a hurricane is “a flood that you really can’t design for. Let’s just call it an act of God beyond the capacity of [pumping] station. And you can’t design a facility that’s going to survive an act like that.

What Made Hurricane Ian So Intense: In Numbers

Sometimes cities do not enforce sewer system regulations rigorously. A few months ago, the Suncoast Waterkeeper and other environmental organizations settled a lawsuit with the city of Bradenton over a history of sewage spills into the Manatee River long before Ian struck. The city has pledged to upgrade the aging infrastructure, possibly with bigger pumps, over the next three years using federal grants.

“These are large municipalities with miles and miles of sewer lines that over the past few decades have fallen into disrepair. They need to invest in their modernization,” said Justin Bloom, founder and board member of Suncoast Waterkeeper.

Bloom believes that many of the water quality issues after Ian could have been avoided had there been more regulation and enforcement of these systems. “By improving the regulations, I think we have to anticipate more storms and more violent precipitation,” he said.

Although he said there was no “overnight solution”, Bloom hoped there could be improvements “by this time next year…but that’s going to take a while” .

For immediate damage repair, researchers say a return to clean waterways depends on how quickly natural weather systems and ocean circulation can remove contaminants from rivers and estuaries.

“A lot of it depends on the kind of weather conditions in the weeks and months to come,” Angelini said. “We really don’t know what that end point is and when we’ll get back to more normal levels.”

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