Gulf of Mexico
Sarasota Bay water quality is improving. Herald Tribune File / Thomas Bender

FL - Sarasota Bay's water quality improving but climate issues and manmade threats persist

Sarasota Bay’s water quality has begun improving, though threats remain from warming sea temperatures, stormwater runoff, and the potential wide-ranging environmental impact of more than 200 million gallons of polluted waste released from the Piney Point phosphate plant in 2021, experts say.

One of the first signs of good news for the system that extends from Tampa Bay to Venice was recent word from state regulators that four southern sections – Little Sarasota Bay, Roberts Bay, Blackburn Bay and a portion of Sarasota Bay – were proposed for removal from a list of impaired waterways.

Environmental experts and county leaders, though, aren’t taking the initial encouraging developments as a sign their work is done.

In Sarasota, progress continues on the $210 million Bee Ridge Water Treatment Facility, designed to drastically reduce releases of compounds harmful to Sarasota Bay’s health. The facility is expected to open by the end of 2025.

In Manatee, officials say they are constantly working to upgrade and rehab decades-old infrastructure that can be vulnerable to breaks and spills. About $40 million is budgeted for the next five years.

“Our base water quality level is getting better – sufficient enough that the state of Florida has [removed Sarasota Bay] from the verified impaired list, which is great news. We’re seeing pretty substantial seagrass increases [from this year’s survey and in future growth predictions],” said Dave Tomasko, director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program. “[But] we’re never going to be pristine. There’s nothing pristine about Florida … what we can do is do a better job.”

According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Pollution Notices, there have been 1,511 reported wastewater spills in Sarasota and Manatee counties since July 2017.

State regulators recently proposed that a portion of Sarasota Bay be removed from a list of impaired waterways. "We’re seeing pretty substantial seagrass increases,” said Dave Tomasko, director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program.

Wider fallout from Piney Point

Tomasko and other experts recently released a report on the effects of the Piney Point crisis in March 2021, when a leak in one of the facility’s holding ponds threatened a collapse and the wholesale release of untreated, acidic wastewater. More than 200 million gallons were pumped into Tampa Bay from the reservoir to relieve pressure, triggering widespread concerns about long-term environmental effects, including upper Sarasota Bay.

One of the concerns was the combination of long-term discharge of nutrient dense waters and warming coastal sea temperatures, which can contribute to the abundance of cyanobacteria.

Cyanobacteria appear as a suspended “tumbleweed algae” until it settles to the bottom or washes up on shore. Cyanobacteria can sometimes escape detection in traditional water tests because it doesn’t fit into a normal water sample test tube.

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