By Nancy Stoner
On a beautiful, sunny Florida day last week, I visited Roberts Bay near Sarasota and saw several stormwater and wastewater treatment projects that have restored the bay’s health. It’s remarkable what the Sarasota Bay National Estuary Program has accomplished with a staff of five people. The keys were innovation, partnership and public support for the effort.
Many partners joined the tour, including state and local officials, environmental groups and even engineers that designed the projects. Clearly, they were very proud of their accomplishments and the end result of reducing the nutrient pollution entering Roberts Bay so successfully that it was removed from Florida’s impaired waters list in less than 10 years.
A wide variety of approaches were used to restore Roberts Bay. We went to see several of these innovations. The Celery Fields Regional Stormwater Facility is now crowded with birdlife and birdwatchers. The Honore Avenue low-impact development project used traffic circles to expand capacity on an existing road while also adding stormwater treatment on-site, calming traffic and beautifying the neighborhood. Unlike a traditional road widening project, it’s expected that the Honore Avenue project will help retain, if not increase, the value of homes along the road.
Then we toured a park where sewers have replaced leaking septic systems using a vacuum pumping approach since the area is too flat for gravity sewers. We went inside to see the pumps, which were built in Indiana – that shows that environmental projects create business for American companies.
Then, the best part of the tour – Roberts Bay. We passed by oyster beds and mangroves out into the open water, which had several islands teeming with birds: Louisiana and great blue herons, white and brown pelicans, cattle and great egrets, cormorants, anhingas, and even loons. Also, a group of playful dolphins entertained us so much that we stopped the boat to watch them.
While Roberts Bay was not crowded with boats, there were other pontoons, motorboats and several kayaks out that day, as well as lots of folks in nearby seafood restaurants enjoying the local catch. Sarasota clearly understands the tremendous economic value of these resources to the city and the largest industry in Florida – tourism.
Hats off to the Sarasota Bay National Estuary Program, the City of Sarasota, the Sarasota Water Management District, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and all the other local partners who made this effort so successful.
About the author: Nancy Stoner is Acting Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water.