Florida waterways were polluted after Ian, posing environmental and health risks

Sewage pipes overflowed into the waterways. The port-a-potties spilled from the top into the floodwaters. Gasoline and motor oil leaks from partially flooded cars and trucks. Deciduous trees began to decay on the waterlogged roads.

Dave Tomasco, director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, described several sightings like this while visiting North Port City and other locations around Sarasota County. His job was to collect data to determine if the water was safe for the general public to enter. He concluded that for now, people should stay away.

“What is in the water is very gross. Our bays look like root beer right now,” Tomasco said.

Hurricane Ian, which initially reached Florida as a Category 4 storm, left scars not only on land but also in the water. Storm winds and torrential rain washed leaves, organic matter, and pollutants into streams and bays, signaling the beginning of potentially dangerous environmental impacts. Researchers say degraded water quality can damage aquatic ecosystems for weeks, months or more and pose a risk to human health in the short term. Pictures and videos from space captured the extent of the runoff.

Drone footage released by the Daytona Beach Police Department on September 30 showed widespread flooding after extensive damage caused by post-tropical Hurricane Ian. (Video: Daytona Beach Police Department)

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Since Ian made landfall a week ago, Tomasco said he’s received dozens of emails about flooding from sewage treatment plants along Florida’s west coast, from Palmetto to Fort Myers. As of Tuesday, Orlando Ask the townspeople To reduce the number of times they flush toilets, showers, wash dishes and do laundry due to flowing sewers.

Satellites show an increase in runoff of some of this material, soil and river flooding on land in the ocean, as shown in images comparing October 1 to six days before Ian hit. A large change in color in waters close to shore indicates a change in water purity or turbidity.

The brown water seen in the pictures contains a substance called tannins, which is a dissolved organic substance that floats near the surface of the water, making it look like tea or coffee. The turquoise color of the water is likely caused by organic matter and sediment from the hurricane.

“The fact that you can see it from a satellite is impressive for the volume of fresh water that comes from the landscape,” said Todd Osborne, a biogeochemist at the University of Florida. “That’s all that torrential rain that’s pushing that material into the near-shore waters…and the storm engulfs the landscape, shifting a lot of sediment and then flowing back into the ocean.”

The amount of runoff caused by Ian, he said, was “much greater than things we’ve seen in the past.”

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Osborne said that emptying freshwater currents into the ocean is a natural process and is not necessarily harmful on a small scale. Organic matter can actually serve As food for microbial groups, it is consumed by other animals higher in the food web.

But hurricanes can put such systems into overdrive. Too much floating organic matter can prevent sunlight from reaching plants in the deep ocean, reducing their ability to make food through photosynthesis and ultimately causing plant life to die. Microbes that break down organic matter also increase activity, consuming large amounts of oxygen that would otherwise be available to others; This oxygen-deprived water makes it difficult for plants and fish to survive.

Researchers are particularly interested in the area’s seagrass, which requires a lot of light and helps maintain the local ecosystem. They help prevent erosion, keep water clear by trapping sediment and particles in their leaves, and provide food for economically important animals and fish. Poor water quality can wipe out parts of the native kelp.

“Time will tell how changes will occur, but depending on ocean currents and things, that’s a major concern from an environmental point of view,” Osborne said. time it takes [the water] For stability this will determine the impact on inshore seagrass habitats. “

The storm may also have washed pesticides and herbicides from farms and yards as well as sewage products into water bodies, posing a risk to people’s health if exposed to them.

“Unless you have to be in the water, it’s not the time to be out there,” he said.

Marine and environmental scientist Hans Perl said such human-caused pollutants and nutrients can also stimulate harmful algal blooms that are dangerous to animals and humans. Harmful algal blooms, also known as red tides, are particularly prevalent off Florida’s west coast and could affect key fisheries for the state’s economy.

“The story is not over when the storm leaves. In fact, it’s kind of a start from an environmental perspective,” said Pearl, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “With all that runoff, we get a lot of nutrients that come from the land. , especially nitrogen and phosphorous, which can increase harmful algal blooms.”

Paerl said as is climate change Increasing the amount of rain From a hurricane, he has Significant changes in water quality have been observed and fisheries habitats in his North Carolina study area as well.

In the wake of Hurricane Ian, on September 29, residents of North Port, Florida, used small boats and high-clearance cars to evacuate their flooded neighborhood. (Video: Rich Matthews, Whitney Liming/The Washington Post)

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Researchers are not sure how long the water quality problems will persist. Flooding continued across parts of Central Florida, causing rivers to rise, creating more devastation and complicating clean-up efforts. Property loss has already been estimated in More than 60 billion dollars in Florida, According to an industry trade group.

Tomasco said Ian’s impacts on water quality are among the worst in recent state history, with Hurricane Charlie in 2004 topping the last Category 4 storm to make landfall on Florida’s west coast. After Charlie passed, at about the same location as Ian, it took weeks to make improvements in affected areas such as Charlotte Harbor, north of Fort Myers. The nearby Peace River has been in poor conditions for two to three months.

“It’s the worst impact of a hurricane that a large part of our state has ever had, worse than the impact of Charlie,” Tomasco said of Ian. “It says a lot because Charlie has been so bad for so long.”

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