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Leon County Working To Improve Water Quality

Cypress and Algae on Lake Munson
Nick Evans
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There are few things Floridians treasure more than the state’s environment, but it hasn’t always been adequately protected.  Leon County is working on changing that.

With a new constitutional amendment sending more money to the environment, this year was supposed to be a game changer for conservation projects across the state.  But many seem underwhelmed. 

“So, my expectation, and it’s I guess a Hobbesian view,” Sen. Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) said to a group of political science students. “But my expectation was no matter what the Legislature did, that some voters would be dissatisfied, and that at the end of the day the Legislature would be sued,”

And he’s not wrong.  A coalition of environmental groups—The Florida Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, St. Johns Riverkeepers, and The Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida*—have filed suit, arguing the Legislature mishandled the additional funds. 

With so much money funneling into the system, municipalities across the state pitched hometown projects, and Leon County is no exception.  Theresa Heiker is the county’s Stormwater Management Coordinator. 

“We actually described a variety of projects to the Legislature and to the water management district, which also has grant programs moving on,” she says.

But the 2015 legislative session wasn’t a great outing for Leon.  The county didn’t get money from the Legislature, but Heiker explains it did receive funding from the water management district for a handful of ongoing projects. 

One of the things they’re working on is Lake Munson.

Lake Munson
Credit Nick Evans
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Lake Munson

“What’s going on with this lake, is it’s a cypress dominated system,” Johnny Richardson says.  He’s a water resource scientist with Leon County.

“And you know you can look across it and you can see the cypress and how pretty it is and all that,” Richardson continues, “but you take a look at the water and you see all this green algae on the water.  So it’s in the middle of an algal bloom right now.”

He explains the algae is in bloom because of an overabundance of nutrients—things like phosphorous and nitrogen.  Richardson works with Mark Tancig.

“So on a day to day basis we’re going out and we’re collecting the data that goes into our database that goes into our annual report.” Tancig says.  “So today we’re collecting water samples on Lake Munson.”

These reports ensure the lake stays within the range of acceptable nutrients—what’s known as its total maximum daily load.  They’ll also help state officials develop restoration plans for the broader Wakulla spring shed.  

We shove off the shore and head out onto the lake in a small, flat-bottomed boat.  Birds along the shore take flight as we get nearer. 

There are a total of three sampling points here, and the first is up Munson Slough, the river body that feeds the lake.  And there’s a bit of a surprise when we get there.

Muscadine grapes
Credit Nick Evans
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Muscadine grapes

A branch heavy with muscadine grapes leans out over the water, and Tancig is grinning like Christmas came early.  After gathering a handful, they get to work.

Richardson and Tancig pull out plastic bottles, glass bottles—big ones, small ones—there’s a syringe with a special filter for removing algae, and a long wand with a knot of different sensors on one end.  They’re not just dipping a bottle in the water and calling it a day.  Tancig explains some of the bottles contain pre-measured acids that the lake water will react with.

“These have—this is hydrochloric acid, there’s nitric acid,” Tancig says, “and then we’ve got another—what’s the other acid bottle we’ve got over there?”

“Sulfuric!” Tancig remembers, “So you don’t want to get these on your clothes.  Dangerous job.”

Some of the sampling bottles
Credit Nick Evans
/
Some of the sampling bottles

Many of the samples need to remain fresh so Tancig and Richardson put them in a cooler on ice.  And at the next spot out on the lake they do it all over again.

The pH level at the second sampling site is almost two full points more basic than it was in the slough, and the DO percent—that’s the percentage of dissolved oxygen in the water—is way higher.  

“There’s a certain amount of oxygen that can fill the space in the water,” Tancig explains.  “In the slough, 58.2 percent saturation, so it was at 58.2 percent of that level, here it was 152.8 so there’s actually more oxygen in the water than the water can actually handle.”

“So every now and again you see air bubbles coming up,” Tancig goes on.  “At night that could fall to really, really low levels and then that’s when it really impacts the wildlife and the fish and you get a fish kill.”

Richardson and Tancig’s job on Munson is just about sampling, and they do similar work at 75 different stations throughout the county.  But the county is doing more pro-active stormwater projects too, and they’re surprisingly simple. 

There are traps set up to catch large debris before it makes into the slough, and county workers are preserving a fringe of vegetation along the banks of water bodies rather than mowing to the shore.  This works like a kind of filter as run off heads into the water system.  And the county has bigger plans, too, but those will likely have to wait until lawmakers return to Tallahasee.

Correction: 9/3/2015 An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the plaintiffs in the case as Florida's Water and Land Legacy.