This shot of the downtown Clearwater area shows how much of the Pinellas County’s lifestyle depends on the health of the watershed.
CLEARWATER – Little things count big when everyone works together to improve water quality in Pinellas County, so say the nine panelists who participated in a Nov. 28 e-TownHall: Watershed, where we live, work and play.
Moderated by Communications Department specialist Len Ciecieznski, panelists included Dale Armstrong, horticulture Extension agent and Jane Morse, commercial horticulture Extension agent, who fielded questions about ways homeowners, gardeners and professional landscapers can help protect the county’s watersheds.
Kelli Levy, Department of Environmental Infrastructure Watershed Division manager, and Nanette O’Hara, outreach coordinator for Tampa Bay Estuary Program, talked about the bigger picture in terms of responsibility for maintaining local watersheds and water quality.
David Downing, assistant director for the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Convention Visitors Bureau, and Mike Miedel, director of the county’s Economic Development, outlined the many ways that watersheds, water quality and the environment goes hand in hand with the county’s economic opportunities.
Terry Tomalin, Outdoors and Fitness editor for the Tampa Bay Times, talked about the importance of water quality for water recreation. Liz Drayer, county resident and mother of two teenagers, gave the public’s perspective on the issue.
So, what is the issue? What is the connection between people and water quality?
Levy explained the concept. A watershed is an area of land through which rainfall travels on its way to the nearest body of water, i.e. Tampa Bay, Gulf of Mexico, Lake Tarpon or Lake Seminole.
“Every square foot of Pinellas County is a watershed,” she said.
Rain falls and is absorbed into the ground until it can’t hold more. The excess runs off into driveways and on into the road as it makes its way to the nearest drain sometimes traveling for miles through a series of pipes or ditches, Levy said.
The intent of the public education campaign, which kicked off with the e-TownHall, is to get everyone to understand the impact of personal pollutants on local watersheds.
Ciecieznski asked Levy if there was one thing the public could do that would have the biggest effect on water quality. Without hesitation, she said, the most beneficial would be management of grass clippings.
“You see landscapers blowing them everywhere,” she said. “Grass eats nitrogen and phosphorous to grow. Turn it (blower) around and blow the clippings back on your yard. Let them feed your lawn.”
O’Hara said if people leave grass clippings on their lawn, they would get one free feeding a year.
“Phosphorous is not the problem. It occurs everywhere naturally in the soil,” she said. “Nitrogen is public enemy No. 1 in Tampa Bay.”
Levy said following instructions when applying fertilizers and never fertilizing before a rain would help reduce nitrogen pollution.
Pet owners can help reduce the bacteria moving through the watershed by picking up after their animals.
“There are more bacteria in pet waste than a cow or human beings,” Levy said.
The public was able to ask the panelists questions using the county’s blog site, Twitter or by phone. A blogger asked why pet waste was a problem since it was a “natural product.”
O’Hara agreed that it was; however, she pointed out that pet waste was an artificially driven problem due to the concentration of so many pets in a small area.
“We all love our dogs,” she said.
An estimated half million live in the Tampa Bay watershed, which ups the potential for high bacteria and water quality problems.
O’Hara talked about the work done to clean up the “mess” left from development done in the 50s and 60s. She credited the success to a collaborative effort between government, private organizations and citizens.
“Water quality in Tampa Bay is as good as it was in the 1950s,” she said, which is quite a feat considering the growth in Pinellas County.
“We’ve made tremendous progress together,” she said. “But there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Tomalin, who spends time fishing, surfing and paddling local waterways, agreed that water clarity had improved as evidenced by a lack of ear infections after spending time engaging in water sports.
Levy said it was likely that pet waste was responsible for Tomalin’s ear infections and his improved health could be attributed to work done to improve water quality.
While water quality is improving in Tampa Bay, the Nov. 28 meeting focused on watersheds – the area between where we live, work and play and area water bodies.
Another blogger asked if money was available to pay to educate the public on the issue. Levy said while money was available, it was much reduced. The Extension Service offers a number of programs that are educating people about best practices for gardening and landscaping in Pinellas.
Armstrong is in charge of the Florida Friendly Landscape program where residents can learn how to design and maintain their yards. Morse handles the commercial side of the program and teaches classes required for certification of professional landscapers. Extension also has a help desk open to residents with questions.
Miedel talked about the challenges for business and industry to ensure they follow environmental regulations.
“There’s not a lot of empty land for offices and factories,” he said.
Much of the industrial sites were developed prior to existing environmental standards and don’t meet requirements. Miedel’s staff works with potential developers to help them design compliant facilities that will give them the best return on their investment and protect the local environment.
Downing said Pinellas County’s beaches and waterways are a big draw for tourism. A clean environment is essential to the health of the $6 billion industry.
“We’re a peninsula on a peninsula. Water sells the destination with all its water-based activities,” he said.
He talked about the work being done by hotels on the beach to become “friendlier to the environment.” He said they were even recycling soap and that 1 million bars had been recycled thus far.
Drayer said her teenagers had good environmentally-friendly habits.
“I’ve been badgering them since they were little on what they need to do,” she said.
But she said her neighbors weren’t as well versed. She said too many people want a “square, green yard” and maintain it with too much fertilizer and pesticides.
She said more could be done by the government and schools to educate the public.
Tomalin advocated empowering “kid ocean warriors,” which is how he describes his children. Oftentimes kids get adults to do the right thing, he said.
Tomalin pointed out something he said was a “big problem.”
“A lot of people drive across the Bay every day and they look at it, but they don’t get in it,” he said. “Get out there in the water. Enjoy. It’s the reason people come here. Once you get fishing, paddling or surfing, you’ll become an advocate for it. You’ll want to protect it.”
“It’s all interconnected: the rain from the sky to the beaches and bays,” Ciecieznski said. “We have an opportunity to do harm or do good. Making better choices mean a better environment for us all.”