Florida’s waterways contaminated post-Ian, posing health risks

3 mins read
Florida’s waterways contaminated post-Ian, posing health risks

Sewage pipelines overflowed into waterways. Toppled portable toilets spilled into floodwaters. Gasoline and motor oil leaked from partly submerged vehicles. Downed trees have started decomposing on waterlogged roads.

Dave Tomasko, director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, described several such scenes as he visited North Port and other locations in Sarasota County, Fla. His job was to collect data to determine whether the water is safe for people to enter. For now, he concluded, residents should stay away.

“What’s in the water is pretty gross. Our bays look like root beer right now,” Tomasko said. “It smells terrible.”

Hurricane Ian, which made landfall in Florida as a Category 4 storm, left scars not only on the land but also in the water. The storm’s winds and excessive rain washed leaves, organic matter and contaminants into streams and the bays, signaling the beginning of serious environmental effects that could emerge. Researchers say the degraded water quality could damage aquatic ecosystems for weeks, months or longer and pose a danger to human health in the short term. Images and videos from space captured the extent of the runoff.

Since Ian’s landfall a week ago, Tomasko said he received a dozen emails about overflows from wastewater treatment plants along the western coast of Florida, from Palmetto to Fort Myers. As of Tuesday, Orlando asked residents to limit how often they flush toilets, take showers, wash dishes and do laundry because of overflowing sewers.

Satellites show an increase in runoff of some of these materials, soils and overflowing rivers on land into the ocean, as shown in images comparing Oct. 2 to before Ian hit. Major discoloration in near-shore waters indicates a change in the clarity of the water, or turbidity.

The brown water seen in the images contains a substance called tannins, which is dissolved organic matter that floats near the top of the water, making it look like tea or coffee. Some of the water’s turquoise color is probably from organic matter and sediment churned to the surface by the hurricane.

“The fact that you can see it from a satellite is pretty impressive to the magnitude of freshwater that’s coming off the landscape,” said Todd Osborne, a biogeochemist at the University of Florida. “That’s all that excessive rain flushing that material out into the near-shore waters … and the storm surge inundating the landscape, turning up lots of sediment and then flowing back into the ocean.”

Steve Gardner

A America Times Now Sports reporter and Senior Fantasy Editor, Steve would rather listen to games on the radio than watch them on TV.

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