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Marco Island’s waterways are halfway to impaired but at this point, it’s still unknown what has caused nitrogen levels to increase over the past two years.

Ecologist Tim Hall, of Turrell, Hall & Associates, briefed the Marco Island City Council last week and recommended that the city increase testing if it wants to find out what’s behind the increase in nitrogen levels.

“Nitrogen is the one that has us a little more concerned,” Hall said. “If you look generally across the scope of the 12 stations, there’s some variation of the levels, but the bigger indication is from year-to-year; 2015 had predominantly the lowest levels; (in) 2016, they were a little higher. In 2017, the readings we’ve gotten, with the exception of two stations, are above the state standards.”

More: Water quality issues prompt discussion on Marco Island fertilizer ordinance

The city’s waterways are currently tested on a quarterly basis in the months of February, May, August and November.

Quarterly testing is sufficient to meet state standards and to determine if the waterways are impaired, but Hall said the city needs to have more data to look at a trending analysis and the correlation between environmental factors affecting nitrogen levels.

“We need to come up with the reason why you want to test,” Hall said. 

Water quality data collected since 2015 shows that nitrogen levels are the main concern in the city’s waterways.

Phosphorus, Chlorophyll-a, dissolved oxygen and Enterococci levels all have fallen within the acceptable standards but nitrogen levels have steadily risen over the past two years.

Hall said the state can consider a waterway impaired if nutrient concentration levels are over state standards two out of three years. 

If the city’s nitrogen levels are above the state standards in one of the next two years, it could fall under that distinction.

“The city needs to be aware of that and thinking proactively about what you can do to make things better and to get back within those state standards,” Hall said.

The City Council has already committed itself to a water quality workshop to discuss potential solutions. The workshop, which was rescheduled after a time conflict with a candidate forum, will take place once the new City Council is seated in November.

The workshop was proposed by Councilor Victor Rios, who suggested the following steps the city could take:

  • Increasing water quality testing to once a month
  • Enforcing the fertilizer ordinance
  • Imposing a 6-month moratorium on the use of fertilizer
  • Ensuring that all landscapers are licensed, trained and licensed to apply fertilizer.
  • Enforcing stormwater control ordinance
  • Encouraging homeowners along waterways to install Ocean habitat mini-reefs.
  • Allocating funds for beach cleanups after dead fish have washed shore numerous times.

Based on the current data, Hall said there was no way to tell whether red tide was having an impact on the water in the canals.

“We don’t know how fast water from the gulf is coming into the canals where that sampling stations are or going out,” Hall said. “You may have an event but may not see the results in your canals for a month because that’s how long it takes to get there.”

Ben Farnsworth, chairman of the Waterways Advisory Committee, said his committee has recommended hiring an expert to put together a study to determine where the city goes next.

“We really don’t know the source of the nitrogen,” Farnsworth said. 

Farnsworth said the committee has also asked the city to consider a vacuum program for cleaning its streets. Citing a few studies, Farnsworth said vacuuming systems have been proven to reduce concentration by keeping potential contaminants, such as grass clippings, from getting into stormwater drains.

“It’s no panacea, no answer, but at least it’s something that you may want to take a look and get a more complete road cleaning and that keeps the stuff from going into the canals and wherever it goes,” Farnsworth said. 

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