The Degradation of Sarasota Bay

Glenn Compton
Outstanding Florida Waters can only be outstanding if they are protected from pollution entering these designated waters. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many areas of the Sarasota Bay Estuarine System.
The water bodies of Sarasota Bay are designated as Outstanding Florida Waters (OFWs). This designation is intended to provide additional protection to special waters recognized for their ecological significance, by providing the highest degree of protection under the State of Florida’s permitting policies. An OFW designation requires that water quality must not be degraded below the level that existed at the time of the OFW designation. However, significant degradation of Sarasota Bay has occurred since its original designation, as documented through water quality data, red tide blooms, areas of seagrass die-off, and manatee mortalities.
There are hundreds of both public and private stormwater point discharge outfalls flowing into Sarasota Bay, many of which have been permitted. Major outfalls discharge directly to Sarasota Bay with little to no permit compliance monitoring of the discharge. There is little to no sampling data collected to determine compliance with Sarasota County’s Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit. An MS4 permit regulates a publicly owned conveyance or system of conveyances (i.e., ditches, curbs, catch basins, underground pipes, etc.).
Sarasota County's MS4 permit is regulated by the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), a federal program required by the Clean Water Act. Sarasota, with the approval and knowledge of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, has taken too many liberties in polluting Sarasota Bay. There is a long list of excuses that have been used to justify the many unmonitored and unsampled discharges to these OFWs and waters of the state, including the reliance upon "presumptive design criteria”.
Many major outfalls, including the City of Sarasota’s downtown watershed, discharge directly into Sarasota Bay. While permitted through NPDES, MS4 or the Southwest Florida Water Management District, these discharges may incorporate some treatment of the wastewater before entering the Bay. But without any monitoring of these discharges, how is one to know if these discharges are compliant with permit conditions that prohibit violations of water quality standards?   
The annual pollutant loading flowing into Sarasota Bay is estimated by pollutant loading models. These "estimates” of pollutant loading are based upon uncalibrated and unverified models that could be off by orders of magnitude. We simply don’t know if these models are accurate or not! Much less, what additional pollutants are entering Sarasota Bay that are not included in these models? And we must not forget that the unsampled sediments adjacent to these outfalls and beyond serve as pollutant "sinks” that add to the degradation of the Bay.
The models Sarasota County uses to comply with the requirements of the MS4 permit appear to be without current, specific outfall sampling needed for calibration or verification. 
The apparent lack of reliable & complete data and information for stormwater outfall discharges means we may never know the complete and quantifiable cause behind such things as seagrass loss, increased manatee deaths, and degraded water quality trends in Sarasota Bay. In other words, to what extent does the accurate account of stormwater loading from these unmonitored sources contribute to these negative impacts?
Historic mistakes have been made in the past regarding stormwater discharges into our local water bodies. But we have yet to learn from many of these past mistakes. Stormwater treatment facilities are still being constructed and permitted with no required monitoring of their discharge under allowable "presumptive criteria” guidelines. This is a problem, not only in Sarasota Bay but also throughout Florida.
Independent compliance sampling of stormwater discharge is needed to document violations of water quality standards. This is made possible through the addition of required sampling by means of specific permit conditions. Unfortunately, such regulatory remedies are seldom, if ever, employed.
Continued population growth can predictably only aggravate existing water pollution problems under currently lax regulatory oversight. The high costs to the taxpayer of correcting these approaching deficiencies in water treatment are all but ignored. Until, of course, another red tide and fish kill episode upsets the business community! On top of these approaching burdens, the costs of additional growth creating the need for even more services are not being dealt with, which is no longer being addressed through concurrency reviews for new development.  

Glenn Compton is the Chairman of ManaSota 88, a non-profit organization that has spent over 30 years fighting to protect the environment of Manatee and Sarasota counties.