Guest commentary: COPPER IS ALL RIGHT IN WIRE AND PIPES, BUT NOT IN OUR WATERWAYS

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Photo with no caption

By Linda Penniman and Dave Trecker

For the Collier Citizens Council

Copper pollution is starting to get attention.

It’s well known that our waterways always under siege have been polluted by animal waste, fertilizer run-off and all manner of toxic metals.

But copper? Copper pollution is new to most people. But it’s a big problem in Florida and elsewhere.

Here’s the background.

Fertilizer run-off dumps large amounts of “nutrients” dissolved nitrogen (nitrates, nitrites) and phosphorus (phosphates, orthophosphates) into our waterways. The nutrients promote algae growth, resulting in unsightly “blooms.”

The algae is traditionally eradicated with copper sulfate, a cheap and very effective algaecide. The problem is the copper doesn’t go away. It accumulates. It may bind to the sediment on the bottom or flow from one waterbody to another, but most of it stays somewhere in the ecosystem.

What’s so bad about copper? It’s highly toxic to fish and other aquatic species. Copper sulfate actually the dissolved cupric ion is listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as a Class 1 toxin.

Its accumulation has become a huge problem in coastal areas. The worst include Delaware Bay, Chesapeake Bay, North Miami, Lake Pontchartrain and Naples Bay!

But the problem isn’t limited to Naples Bay. Communities throughout Collier Country are being slammed by copper pollution.

The worst places are the retention ponds the man-made lakes scooped out to catch water run-off in many of our developed communities. These “lakes” boost property values “waterfront homes” but their main purpose is to control rainwater and irrigation run-off.

The ponds also collect pollutants, including copper. That’s one of their jobs. They do it so well the copper reaches alarming levels.

The retention ponds are unregulated. There are no limits on copper. But the downstream waterbodies into which the ponds empty the lakes, streams, estuaries and bays are highly regulated by the feds and the state.

For example, the copper limit for estuaries is 3.7 micrograms/liter. In Collier County, there are several coastal areas listed as “impaired” where copper exceeds 8 micrograms/liter. But the upstream retention ponds, where there are no limits, have copper levels as high as 3,000 micrograms/liter!

This creates two problems. (1) At least some of the dissolved copper finds its way downhill to the estuaries and bays. (2) When the retention ponds fill with sediment, they must be dredged and the sediment, often loaded with copper, disposed of. In both cases, the remediation is very expensive. And the taxpayer foots the bill.

So what can be done?

Using fertilizer properly, following “best management practices” as mandated by county ordinance is the first step. It’s something everyone can and should do. That cuts down on nutrient run-off.

Eliminating copper is the second step. That can be done by treating lakes and ponds to reduce the nutrients that do accumulate. Fewer nutrients mean less algae build-up. Less algae means less need for copper. These treatments many still in the testing stage include aeration, water plantings along the shore, selective bacterial use and floating islands of grass.

To learn more, plan to join us at a workshop sponsored by the Collier Citizens Council on October 30, 3-5 p.m. at the Pelican Bay Community Center. Experts from around the state will discuss the copper problem and what can be done about it.

Mark the date on your calendar. Copper pollution is not just an environmental issue. If left unchecked, it will become a major pocketbook issue.

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