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The city of Marco Island has been put on notice by the state that its waterways are impaired and in need of a corrective plan after an elected official asked the state to officially acknowledge its water quality issues.

The Department of Environmental Protection submitted its findings in a letter to City Manager Mike McNees last week, indicating the need for the development and adoption of a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) to bring nutrient levels back into compliance.

"The department has recently completed its evaluation of available water quality data and has determined that several waterbody segments do not meet nutrient water quality standards," water quality assessment program administrator Jennifer Espy wrote. 

"These waterbody segments have been placed on the State’s Verified List of Impaired Waters, indicating they are in need of a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL)."

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Nitrogen levels in the city's canals have been above standards set by the DEP for the past two years. For a water body to be considered impaired, it must be above those standards for two out of three years.

A TMDL is defined as "the maximum amount of a given pollutant that surface water can absorb and still meet the water quality standards that protect human health and aquatic life," according to the DEP.

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TMDLs are developed through the public rule-making process and with input from local stakeholders.

Once a waterbody is designated as impaired, it is required by state law to implement a TMDL.

"One way of accelerating restoration for an impaired waterbody is for local governments to begin pollutant reduction activities and/or develop a restoration plan," Espy wrote. "Early implementation of restoration activities is more cost-effective and may allow the department to forgo certain regulatory steps, most notably, the development of TMDLs and still move forward improving the waterbody. The benefit is that local and state resources may focus their efforts on measures that will improve water quality sooner."

City officials were briefed in February about high nutrient levels after a consultant produced a report indicating nitrogen levels well above the state standard for a second consecutive year. The report cited quarterly sampling from 12 sites around the city.

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Despite the February report, the state did not issue the letter until it was contacted by City Councilor Sam Young eight weeks ago.

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Young said he asked the state for some acknowledgment about the city's waterways because he wanted to know what it would mean in terms of consequences if the city didn't become more proactive in addressing the problems.

"If we don't hear from DEP, nothing happens," Young said.

Water quality was identified by constituents as one of the most important issues during last year's election cycle. Elected officials have grappled with how to address the problem, including trying to determine what the root causes were for the nutrient levels.

The city has already approved increasing testing from a quarterly to monthly basis at the start of the next fiscal year.

Young has been at the forefront in pushing the city to do more. Earlier this year, he exposed inefficiencies in the way the city was installing Suntree filters and how the city was complicit in exacerbating water quality issues in its application of reuse water to medians and golf courses.

Despite phosphate being banned from the island, Young said reuse water contributed more than over 36,000 pounds, according to calculations from city data. In terms of nitrogen, reuse water accounts for 88,000 pounds. 

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Young also was instrumental in bringing to light a University of Florida research program that could help identify and provide a solution to the water problems.

Young said his letter and a link to report algal blooms to the DEP provided by Rhonda Watkins, an environmental specialist with Collier County Pollution Control, helped speed up the process.

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The link Watkins provided came in response to an email from Young in which he asked for help from the county after benthic algal mats were spotted in Marco Island's canal systems.

"We better start showing some proactive activity before DEP comes down and it becomes worse," Young said.

On Tuesday, the city council will have an opportunity to show more initiative in bringing the city's waterways back into compliance when it votes on a request for proposals to identify the sources of elevated nutrient levels.

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