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Tracking the health of Volusia’s waterways for a better tomorrow

Posted On: August 7, 2019

Photo of employees testing water qualityEnvironmental Specialists Stacey Burke and Alyse Howell test the water quality in Deep Creek.

It was one of those textbook summer scorchers of a day in Volusia County, barely a cloud in the sky and the heat unrelenting. Randy Sleister was at the helm of the 18-foot Boston Whaler as it motored its way to one of those familiar spots along Deep Creek just south of Osteen that Sleister knows like the back of his hand. Despite having visited the same spot dozens of times before, the waterway’s ever-changing movement and ecology make each one of the trips uniquely different.

This was no ordinary pleasure excursion or jaunt to Sleister‘s favorite fishing hole. As Volusia County’s water quality manager, Sleister was starting the work day by accompanying his environmental field crew as they dipped a bottle into the water to scoop out several samples. This is a routine repeated dozens of times at approximately 90 sites spread out among the many lakes, rivers, streams, creeks, lagoons, drainage canals and estuaries that inhabit Volusia’s sensitive ecosystem. Sleister and his team are looking for signs and sources of pollutants that could endanger the health of Volusia’s water bodies that residents and visitors alike rely on for endless fun, recreation, fishing, eco-tourism and commerce, not to mention to quench their thirst.

Welcome to Volusia County’s water quality monitoring program, the front lines in the county’s ongoing efforts to help protect and preserve our local aquatic environment and drinking water supply for generations to come. It’s at the forefront of the county’s mission, as few things are more important to the area’s long-term health, well-being, economic vitality and quality of life. It’s really that crucial.

“We’ve got to continue to work on fixing our water issues and improving the condition of our water bodies. We really do,” Sleister said.

The gravity of the message isn’t lost on the whole of county government. Volusia County and the County Council are very much in the forefront of the issue, working in partnership with local, regional and state agencies to protect precious water supplies. It takes those kinds of combined forces and resources to tackle an issue of this magnitude. The monitoring program is part of a multi-pronged approach by the county to address water issues. Among the others:

  • Establishment of a collaborative Mosquito Lagoon Reasonable Assurance Plan designed to improve the lagoon’s water quality.
  • Numerous improvements to the area’s stormwater management system to help prevent rain-soaked pollutants from gushing into surface water bodies.
  • Aggressive public education and outreach campaigns focusing on ways to prevent water pollution.
  • The commissioning of state-funded septic system remediation plans for environmentally sensitive water sheds like DeLeon Springs and Gemini Springs.
  • The acquisition and installation of advanced metering devices to help promote conservation and more efficient water use by the 17,000 customers who get their utility service from the county.

Volusia County already has an enviable record of snaring major state grants to help fund water infrastructure projects. And with the enhanced focus water quality issues are getting under Gov. Ron DeSantis, Volusia officials hope they’ll be able to put even more action plans, well, into action. One thing seems certain: Volusia County will continue to have a fruitful partnership with the St. Johns River Water Management District, which has awarded Volusia millions of dollars to assist with water quality and infrastructure projects. And they’d very much like to continue the cost-sharing partnership, according to Abby Johnson, the district’s intergovernmental coordinator.

“You’ve been very competitive in the (grant) application process,” Johnson recently told the Volusia County Council. “We love it. Keep coming back.”

When it comes to protecting and preserving natural resources, ensuring that action plans are based on sound science and empirical data is critically important to any effort to identify and combat water pollutants. And that’s where Sleister and his crew come in. Volusia’s four-person water quality crew dutifully collects samples nearly every week from all around the county, including Gemini Springs, DeLeon Springs, Blue Spring, Green Springs, Lake Talmadge, Lake Dias, Deep Creek, Turnbull Creek, the St. Johns River, Halifax River, Tomoka River and Mosquito Lagoon. They’re looking for contaminants such as mercury, metals and polluting nutrients from human activity, such as fertilizers applied on lawns or leakage from septic tanks.

The bad news, according to Volusia County’s Environmental management director, Ginger Adair, is that nearly every water body in the county is impaired in some way. The good news is that with the state’s help, the county is aggressively tracking pollutants through its water quality monitoring program. The goal of the program is to generate reliable, comparative water quality data that helps officials diagnose problems, spot trends and develop rehabilitation plans and strategies to safeguard precious water resources.

“You can’t do anything without data,” said Adair. “Without it, you don’t know what’s happening or what to do about it.”

So on this recent Tuesday morning, Sleister and his field crew headed out to the southern section of the St. Johns River basin to sample the water at four sites in the river, Deep Creek and Lake Harney. The St. Johns River is so long the county and the St. Johns River Water Management District split up the sampling duties on the meandering waterway. It’s a multi-step process that Sleister’s crew executes like a well-choreographed stage performance. One member of the team uses instruments to collect information on conditions like wind velocity, wind direction and air temperature. Another member lowers an instrument probe called a sonde into the creek to gathers data such as the water’s temperature, pH level, salinity, conductivity and dissolved oxygen content. A second disk is lowered into the water to measure its depth and clarity. Then a water bottle is dipped into the water several times to scoop up multiple samples.

Depending on the type of testing they will undergo, some of the samples are immediately filtered right there on the boat and others treated with acid as a way to freeze, or preserve the sample in the precise condition it was in at the time of collection. Then the samples are quickly and carefully packed in an ice chest. Once they’re brought to shore and taken to the office, the water samples are re-packed and iced down again to ensure they don’t degrade before they get to the lab for analysis. That’s absolutely critical to obtaining accurate and reliable data from the samples.

“We want to know what’s in the water at the very moment that the water is collected,” explains Kelly Young, a surface water specialist for the county. “That way, when the samples are at the lab, we know we’re getting really good results.”

The process is repeated over and over to create a massive archive of information on the conditions of local water bodies. In the case of the St. Johns River, the county has been conducting water testing for more than 30 years. One of the chief benefits of all that data is the ability to track long-term trends to see if the health of a water body is getting better or worse over time. Oftentimes, the news isn’t good. But the data helps drive decisions on what waterways need the most attention and remediation. Without the data, it would be little more than guesswork.

“The stuff we’re gathering goes toward making those decisions,” said Alyse Howell, an environmental specialist for the county and part of the water sampling field crew. “We’re checking to make sure that the waters are healthy and safe.”

Clay Ervin, Growth and Resource Management director for the county, said the importance of the county’s water quality monitoring program can’t be overstated.

“The data collection is absolutely critical,” said Ervin. “The water sampling gives us the feedback we need to make changes and improvements in our programs. Those who are actually maintaining and managing these water infrastructure facilities are able to do a better job because of all the data collection.”

Water sampling is not only an important job, but’s also an immense undertaking. That’s why local and state governments partner up to tackle the job. It’s simply beyond the resources of any single agency to do the job alone. And that makes the state’s partnership with the county particularly vital to the St. Johns River Water Management District, one of five regional districts tasked with managing Florida’s water resources.

The district, which encompasses all or parts of 18 Florida counties, has a robust water monitoring program that dovetails in Volusia with the county’s program. Its program, which supports both a long-term permanent water quality monitoring network in the 18-county region and project-based work to address current management concerns, consists of more than 200 permanent surface water monitoring stations, more than 200 project-based surface water monitoring stations, 16 continuous water quality monitoring stations and nearly 500 groundwater wells.

“The cooperative agreement the St. Johns River Water Management District has with Volusia County is of great benefit to the district’s water quality monitoring program,” said Dr. Margaret Guyette, technical program manager for St. Johns’ water monitoring program. “Our Volusia County cooperators provide vital water quality samples and data from diverse water resources across Volusia County. This work helps us achieve one of the district’s core missions – protecting and restoring water quality across the district.”

Years ago, the county used to have its own lab for processing the thousands of water samples it collected. But facing budget constraints precipitated a decade ago by the Great Recession, it became more cost-efficient for the county to shutter its lab and ship its water samples to the St. Johns River Water Management District’s lab in Palatka. Depending on the location and the data needs, some locations are sampled monthly, some every other month and some quarterly. The samples are overnighted by couriers for the approximately two-hour drive to Palatka, where they arrive by 7 a.m. the day after they’re collected. That’s important because the samples can begin degrading within two to three days and become worthless. At the lab, the water is analyzed for the presence of impurities, like phosphorous, nitrates, nitrites and a wide array of metals such as aluminum, cadmium, copper and zinc. Depending on their levels, the pollutants can upend the delicate environmental balance and lead to ecological disasters like algae blooms and fish kills.

The data generated by the laboratory analysis of the water samples is shared with local agencies and gets plugged into modeling programs to help guide restoration and pollution mitigation plans that are created by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Volusia County recently invested in a new water quality management software program to help provide more timely interpretation and analysis of the data. Eventually, the plan is to make the data available online to the public. It’s all part of the ongoing efforts by government at all levels to work together to address what many consider to be this generation’s pre-eminent challenge.

Back out on the boat, as water samples are being pulled out of the middle of Lake Harney, Young wonders whether the public understands the urgency of the team’s mission – the urgency of reversing man-made harm to the very water resources needed to sustain life. She certainly hopes so.

“We hope people will be conscious of the fact that we’ve got waters that need help,” said Young. “And the help is actually coming from them. We need people to be aware of it and make some changes.”

Check out this video, which was shot during the reporter's research.

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