State of the Beach/State Reports/FL/Water Quality

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Florida Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access85
Water Quality85
Beach Erosion9-
Erosion Response-5
Beach Fill7-
Shoreline Structures5 4
Beach Ecology4-
Surfing Areas56
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}

Water Quality Monitoring Program

The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act) signed into law on October 10, 2000, amends the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), incorporating provisions intended to reduce the risk of illness to users of the Nation's recreational waters. The BEACH Act authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to award program development and implementation grants to eligible States, Territories, Tribes, and local governments to support microbiological testing and monitoring of coastal recreation waters, including the Great Lakes, that are adjacent to beaches or similar points of access used by the public. BEACH Act grants also provide support for development and implementation of programs to notify the public of the potential exposure to disease-causing microorganisms in coastal recreation waters. EPA encourages coastal States and Territories to apply for BEACH Act Grants for Program Implementation (referred to as Implementation Grants) to implement effective and comprehensive coastal recreation water monitoring and public notification programs. CWA section 406(i) authorizes appropriations of up to $30 million per year to develop and implement beach programs. Unfortunately, only about one-third that amount has been authorized each year since the program's inception. In recent years, the total funding available for BEACH Act grants has been about $9.5 million. Funding beyond 2012 has been in jeopardy, since EPA's budget requests for this program in FY2013 and FY2014 were ZERO (money for testing in 2013 and 2014 was ultimately allocated as part of Continuing Resolutions to resolve the Federal Budget impasse) and there was also no money for beach testing in the FY2015 budget. Again, it was restored at the last minute as part of a Continuing Resolution. It is very discouraging to have to fight for this basic funding to protect the public's health at the beach every year. Thankfully, there is a growing movement to provide stable funding. Unfortunately, in 2017 the situation is even more dire. If available, funds are allocated to the states and territories based on a formula which uses three factors that are readily available and verifiable: (1) Length of beach season, (2) miles of beach and (3) number of people that use the beaches. Florida was eligible for a $495,000 grant in fiscal year 2016.

The Florida Healthy Beaches Program (PDF) was the subject of a February 25, 2010 presentation by W. David Polk, Program Coordinator.

Portions of the following discussion is taken from NRDC's report Testing the Waters, A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, June 2014. NRDC's report evaluates beach monitoring data relative to EPA's recommended Beach Action Value (BAV). The BAV is a more protective threshold than the national allowable bacteria levels used in previous years to trigger beach advisories. The EPA considers the BAV to be a "conservative, precautionary tool for making beach notification decisions."

NRDC ranked Florida 13th in Beachwater Quality (out of 30 states). 10% of samples exceeded EPA's new BAV standards for designated beach areas in 2013.

With its year-round swim season and more than 1,000 miles of shoreline, Florida has the most coastal swimmers in the nation. The state has more than 600 public coastal beaches stretching along its Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico shores. The Florida Department of Health monitors beach water quality year-round; peak season is from April to mid-September. Beach closing and advisory notifications are available on the Florida Department of Health's Healthy Beaches web page.

Water Quality Challenges and Improvements

Polluted Water Releases from Lake Okeechobee

When major rains overwhelmed Lake Okeechobee during summer 2013, the Army Corps of Engineers released billions of gallons of polluted water into surrounding estuaries rather than risk a breach of the fragile dike. The deluge of water carried contaminates from area farms and septic tanks, and skewed the salinity at waterways like the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon, reports the New York Times. The disruption caused a burst of dangerous algae to grow causing a perfect storm of environmental dangers. Indian River Lagoon specifically was called a "killing zone" and a "mass murder mystery" after the sudden death of 46 dolphins, 111 manatees, 300 pelicans, and 47,000 acres of sea grass beds. Read more.

History repeated itself during the summer of 2016, as massive plumes of blue-green algae spread from Lake Okeeechobee to the St. Lucie River to the Treasure Coast area along Florida's Atlantic Coast. A documentary from the Weather Channel, Toxic Lake, explores this ongoing environmental disaster, its causes, and potential solutions. There was a ray of hope in late 2016 when voters in Brevard County overwhelmingly passed a 1/2% sales tax to help clean up the Indian River Lagoon. On November 8th, 62% of voters said YES to restoring the Indian River Lagoon. The tax will raise $302 million over 10 years to implement a comprehensive Lagoon cleanup plan. The plan allocates funds for muck removal, septic system removal and upgrades , fertilizer management, public education, and living shorelines. More.

Improved Public Information

In February 2013, the Florida Department of Health (DOH) updated its Healthy Beaches web page to make it more accessible to the public and informative. In the 2013 monitoring season, DOH planned to add the monitoring results for more than 100 freshwater (inland) bathing beaches to its marine Healthy Beaches web page.

Improved Water Quality in Monroe County

Helena Solo-Gabriele, a professor and associate dean for research at the University of Miami's College of Engineering, has been conducting a study of the water quality at Florida beaches using data from the past 13 years. The Florida Department of Health provided the water sample readings via the Florida Healthy Beaches Program, which tests the water quality of beaches in the state on a weekly basis, while county beach managers supplied such information as the amount of foot traffic, whether animals were permitted, bathroom facilities and what they are connected to, structures surrounding the area and whether trash cans had lids as well as their distance from the water. When looking at her research of nine beaches in the Upper and Middle Keys, all showed a decline in the presence of enterococci and fecal coliform since 2000. The nine beaches in the Upper and Middle Keys were John Pennekamp State Park, Harry Harris County Park, Founders Park, Islamorada Library Beach, Anne's Beach, Curry Hammock Park, Cocoplum Beach, Sombrero Beach and Veterans Beach. The two Key Largo beaches in the study, John Pennekamp State Park and Harry Harris County Park, had almost nonexistent levels of fecal coliform in 2010 and 2011. Solo-Gabriele said within the next year she will focus her research on the implemented wastewater treatment plants along the island chain to see if a correlation exists between those facilities and the quality of water at the 17 beaches in Monroe County. More on this.


In most coastal counties, officials issue an advisory if a standard is exceeded. However, if the county can conduct follow-up sampling within the same week, the beach may be resampled before an advisory is issued. If the resample confirms an exceedance, an advisory is issued.

Pinellas County has a preemptive rainfall standard for two of its marine beaches: Maximo and North Shore. Maximo Beach’s standard is 0.8 inch within a 24-hour period, and North Shore Beach’s standard is 1 inch within a 24-hour period. Martin County has a preemptive standard based on turbidity. Most counties will warn against swimming after a sewage spill until sampling results are satisfactory. After a hurricane or tropical storm makes landfall, precautionary advisories are issued.

Additionally, Florida tracks the presence of harmful algal blooms in marine water and freshwater and reports findings on line.

A list of all monitored beaches by county can be found on the FDOH's Healthy Beaches Program website.

United States Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) Recommended Criteria
Florida Healthy Beaches Program Categories
Good = 0-34 enterococci per 100 milliliters of marine water
Moderate = 35-103 enterococci per 100 milliliters of marine water
Poor = 104 or greater enterococci per 100 milliliters of marine water

Sampling events resulting in a "poor" classification will normally require re-sampling.

For this and more information about Florida's surfzone water quality program check out the State Department of Health (DOH) Florida Healthy Beaches Program Website. Here you can review the beach water sampling results for reporting counties. Just click on a county name on the map or in the table. Each county page also has a link to data collected at any given site since August 2000, so you can identify the number of warnings issued for a given site over time.

The Beach Conditions Report from Mote Marine Laboratory provides several types of information about Southwest Florida beaches during red tide events: whether dead fish are present, whether there is respiratory irritation among beachgoers, what the water color is, the wind direction and what flags are currently flying at the beaches (for lifeguard-monitored beaches). The report includes beaches in Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota, Lee and Collier counties. Residents and visitors without Internet access may also access the report by calling 941-BEACHES (941-388-5223).

National Ocean Service/National Center for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) has carried out many water quality research projects in Florida.

Water Quality Contact

W. David Polk
Florida Department of Health
4052 Bald Cypress Way
Bin #C-22
Tallahassee, FL
Tel: 850-245-4240

Patti Anderson
Florida Department of Health

Beach Closures

NRDC reported:

In 2013, Florida reported 636 coastal beaches. Of all reported beach monitoring samples, 10% exceeded the Beach Action Value (BAV) of 60 enterococcus bacteria colony forming units (cfu) per 100 ml marine or estuarine water in a single sample. NRDC considers all reported samples individually (without averaging) when calculating the percent exceedance rates in this analysis. This includes duplicate samples and reported samples taken outside the official beach season, if any.

The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the BAV in 2013 were Garniers in Okaloosa County (83%), Roosevelt Bridge in Martin County (80%), Rocky Bayou (Fred Gannon State Park) in Okaloosa County (72%), Carl Gray Park in Bay County (72%), and Liza Jackson Park in Okaloosa County (67%).

For a bar chart showing a 5-year water quality trend, see NRDC's report.

In June 2013, U.S. EPA released its latest data about beach closings and advisories for the 2012 swimming season. Note that for some states the data is incomplete, making state-to-state or year-to-year comparisons difficult. Here's EPA's BEACH Report for Florida's 2012 Swimming Season. EPA no longer publishes this report.

The EPA has information on water quality in Florida, including development of numeric nutrient criteria and Water Quality Standards for the State of Florida's Estuaries and Coastal Waters.

The United States Geological Survey maintains a Website, USGS Florida Water Science Center. It is a valuable source of information including current projects, online reports, publications, and maps, real-time water conditions and educational outreach material for teachers and students.

The Florida Sea Grant Website is another potential source of information.

Storm Drains and Sewage Outfalls

Information on the location and number of storm drains and injection wells was not readily available. Storm drain data exists at the county level.

In March 2014 Gov. Rick Scott announced that 11 Central Florida waste water and storm water projects would receive $27 million in loan funding through the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund program. Three of the 11 projects are slated to receive the bulk of the funding, including Orange County, Cocoa Beach and Lake Wales, which will each get $6 million toward their respective projects. The projects include:

  • Orange County’s Eastern Water Reclamation Facility in Orlando will get $6 million to construct necessary expansion of the facility to ensure adequate treatment capacity in this area of the county’s system.
  • The Cocoa Beach project will receive $6 million for both sewer rehabilitation and storm water improvements.
  • Cape Canaveral - $3.9 million to rehabilitate and upgrade an oxidation ditch, sludge belt press, replacement of a Storm water pipe, streetscaping, ditch dredging and installation of new reinforced concrete pipe.
  • Daytona Beach - $1.4 million to re-route flow on Beach Street from overloaded gravity line through a new ductile iron line to be constructed along Beach Street. The Westside Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant improvements consist of replacing and rehabilitation of the filters to increase water quality.

In March 2011 new stormwater-outfall pipes were being installed at three locations in Brevard County to reduce erosion and pollution. The pipes were installed at the Indialantic recreation area at Sunrise Park and at two other State Road A1A sites -- Irene H. Canova Beach Park and Howard E. Futch Memorial Park at Paradise Beach. The new systems use "exfiltration," consisting of underground drainage pipes full of holes so the water can soak into the sand upland, under the park. It is expected that during approximately 95 percent of rainfall events, water will no longer come out onto the beach. It will recharge into the groundwater.

According to a 1995 USGS survey, approximately 53% of Florida's domestic wastewater from centralized treatment systems is disposed through surface water outfalls and 24% through deep aquifer injection wells. The remainder is managed through other ground water disposal systems, such as percolation ponds, land application, and Rapid Infiltration Basins (RIBs). Six facilities use Atlantic Ocean outfalls for wastewater effluent disposal. These facilities are located in Boca Raton, Broward County, Hollywood, Delray/Boynton Beach, and Miami-Dade County (2). The total daily ocean discharge from these facilities is about 300 million gallons. The South Central Regional Wastewater Treatment and Disposal Plant operated by Delray Beach and Boynton Beach pumps about 13 million gallons per day (down from 17.5 million) of treated sewage out its 30-inch diameter ocean outfall which was installed in 1964.

A group of recreational divers called Palm Beach County Reef Rescue have conducted scientific studies of the Gulf Stream Reef, located 1.5 miles down current from this discharge pipe. They believe that the nutrient-rich wastewater discharge has caused a profuse growth of filamentous red algae on the north end of the reef which is killing the coral. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Palm Beach County's environmental department both reportedly believe there is merit to Reef Rescue's claims. Further investigations are underway, coordinated by Southeast Florida Coral Reef Initiative, which could ultimately lead to limits on the amount of nutrients contained in the discharge. Within the decade, officials plan to end all of the dumping from the plant by making it capable of recycling all of the water it treats, rather than the current 25 percent.

Researchers from University of Central Florida, College of Charleston, Nova Southeastern University and Broward County's Department of Environmental Protection released a study in July 2006 that concluded that coral reefs off the coast of Broward County are sick -- and that the culprit could be the treated sewage that is released into that part of the ocean in Hollywood and Hillsboro Beach. Coral that grew near the wastewater outlets was unable to repair tissue damage, but coral colonies at locations distant from wastewater outfalls healed where scientists removed tissue. Coral growing near the outfall had elevated levels of fungicides, industrial chemicals and fuel oils.

An Ocean Outfall Study report was prepared in 2006 that identified the six existing ocean sewage outfalls in Florida and evaluated options for elimination of these outfalls, which pump 300 million gallons per day of treated sewage into the ocean. Legislation has been enacted to end the discharges by 2025. The Miami-Dade, Broward and Hollywood plants will have until 2018 to install advanced wastewater treatment systems. The treated water could be used for irrigation, supplying cooling water to two proposed nuclear power plants at Turkey Point, recharging groundwater supplies, industrial use, preventing salt water intrusion or replenishing wetlands. Maximizing the use of reclaimed water for irrigation sometimes requires cross-county cooperation. April 2017 update.

Palm Beach County Reef Rescue and Surfrider Foundation' Palm Beach County chapter scored a big victory in January 2007 when the utility board members of the sewage treatment plant in Delray, Florida, agreed to make the outfall pipe carrying the waste of Delray and Boynton Beach residents go out of regular use and be the first outfall of six in South Florida to discontinue the practice ocean dumping over the next few years. The decision also represented a major step toward a resolution of the plant's 18-month-long expired permit in the face of mounting public resistance and criticism from county environmental officials. The Delray Beach outfall was closed in early April 2009.

Sewer Spills

During heavy rains in October and November 2013, smelly, paper- and feces-laden sewage streamed onto Gulf Boulevard near Gulf Winds Drive in St. Pete Beach at least four times after two pumps at the city's Master Pump Station and subsequent temporary pumps failed. More on this.

A sewer spill occurred in October 2013 in Miami after a sewer line burst, spilling 250,000 gallons.

In July 2013 there was a large (500,000 gallon) sewage spill in the Panhandle at Fort Walton Beach. There was also a second spill two days later, dumping about 58,000 gallons of sewage into Tom's Bayou and Boggy Bayou.

An article published in the Sun Sentinel in February 2012 discussed the increasing number of sewage spills in south Florida due to aging sewer infrastructure. From the article:

"In Broward County, the number of sewage discharges from pipe breaks jumped from 4 in 2002 to 20 in 2011, according to environmental agency reports. They increased from 5 to 25 in Miami-Dade. In Palm Beach County, they rose from 7 to 11, although the number has been declining from a high of 19 in 2005. And as the county with some of the newest infrastructure, the problem is less acute."

Here's another article from February 2012 which focuses on southwest Florida's sewage infrastructure. It cites a number of spills from pipelines and wastewater treatment plants. The article notes that 2011 was the worst year for raw sewage spills since Sarasota County started keeping electronic records six years prior.

A report The Gulf of Mexico – Florida’s Toilet by Clean Water Network of Florida (June 2008) contained the following text:

"In Okaloosa County the Destin Water Users WWT effluent included prohibited levels of fecal coliform bacteria, nitrates, and heavy metals. In Manatee County, the city of Palmetto WWTF frequently discharges toxin-laden effluent into an aquatic preserve. In Key West, effluent with levels that violated standards for copper, cyanide, and dissolved oxygen were injected into the groundwater.

A history of mechanical failures, routine exceedances of water quality standards, leaky pipes and accidental spills were found to be the rule, not the exception, for wastewater treatment. Considering the records of only the 95 WWTPs with permitted capacities of 1 mgd or more, at least 65 (68%) were found to have a record of frequent and serious violations. And considering that records were not available to us for some of the plants where the compliance record is left blank in our text, the actual number of major plants with sewage pollution records, if fully known would actually be much higher.

From Pensacola to the Florida Keys, raw or partially treated sewage spews out of wastewater treatments systems. Of all the counties, Pinellas, perhaps due to an aging WWT system, showed the highest percentage with violations—100%, with all ten of its WWTs over 1 mgd capacity showing everything from excess nitrogen to chronic toxicity of their discharges.

One plant, the City of Clearwater WWT, which discharges its effluent into Old Tampa Bay, has had numerous spills containing chemicals toxic to aquatic organisms. Pinellas County’s South Cross Bayou plant was one of the few that had violations so frequent and persistent that it encountered DEP enforcement more stringent than the usual “consent order.” With numerous discharges of raw sewage in 2006-2007, DEP assessed a $30,000 penalty. In next-door Hillsborough, 7 of its 8 large plants have similar problems and records."

In May 2005, the Clean Water Fund, a nonprofit Florida environmental group, released a report Are We Wading in Waste? - Sewage Overflow in Florida that reported that nearly 56 million gallons of sewage spilled into Florida's waterways and neighborhoods in 2004. The group reported the largest spills totaling 15.1 million gallons occurred in St. Lucie County and were attributed to 2004's hurricanes. The other "top ten" counties for sewer spills were Pasco, Osceola, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Volusia, Orange and Brevard. A follow-up report in 2006 titled Are We Still Wading in Waste? found that the state accounted for 44 million to 51 million gallons of wastewater and sewage spilled in 2005, but that the actual total may be much higher.

In November 2005 there was an estimated five million gallon sewage spill from the Arlington East Treatment Facility in the Sandlewood area of Jacksonville, causing high bacteria levels in Hogpen Creek. A million gallon spill happened in the same area in 2003. As a result of these spills, St. Johns Riverkeeper is threatening to sue JEA, alleging the city-owned utility illegally discharged almost 8 million gallons of raw sewage since 2001 into local waterways. They also allege that the Florida DEP has documented 43 other permit violations at the same facility from September 2001 to February 2004. In January 2006, the Florida DEP fined JEA $45,000 for the November 2005 spill.

Florida DEP maintains information on domestic and industrial wastewater facilities, including permitting information as well as compliance and enforcement information. Also included is information on NPDES Stormwater Facilities.

Here is information on Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Nonpoint Source Management Program. NOAA and U.S. EPA announced final approval of Florida's Coastal Nonpoint Pollution Control Program in February 2008.

Injection Wells

Approximately 260 facilities discharge to other surface waters. Nearly 50 facilities use deep aquifer injection.[1] This report is somewhat outdated and doesn’t reference thousands of injection wells along south Florida’s coastal areas. According to Florida DEP, there are 111 Class I injection facilities located along both coasts of Florida from approximately mid-state south.

The practice of using deep aquifer injection wells and other groundwater disposal systems for wastewater is coming under increasing scrutiny, due to the possibility of these practices contributing to contamination of aquifers used for potable water. The Sebastian Inlet and Palm Beach County chapters of Surfrider Foundation are concerned about evidence suggesting that shallow and deep well injection is degrading nearshore water quality at swimming and surfing beaches. The chapters have worked with Dr. Peter Barile of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce, whose research has indicated that minimally-treated sewage may be degrading water quality along some beaches in that area.

Surfrider's Palm Beach County chapter has developed a position statement on Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) and other Injection Wells in Florida that states:

We believe that the State of Florida and the Federal Government must halt the funding, permitting, and construction of all new aquifer-injection wells, and deny any requests to increase injections into existing wells, and initiate aquifer-remediation activities to protect Florida's coastal environment, other surface waters and humans from contaminants already injected.

Also see this article that appeared in Surfer Magazine.

In November 2004, The Surfrider Foundation, along with Wetlands Alert, sent a notice of intent to sue to the White House, the Attorney General’s office, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and others, charging numerous violations of federal law, including the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Safe Drinking Water Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The charges stem from the practice of using underground injection wells to dispose of sewage and wastewater in the state of Florida and elsewhere. According to activists from the Surfrider Foundation’s Palm Beach County Chapter, the Federal Government continues to support the use of injection wells, which flush billions of gallons of sewage into underground aquifers. Studies have shown that instead of being filtered through the limestone and other sedimentary rock as planned, contamination from the sewage is making its way into coastal waters, where it is killing corals and other marine life, as well as threatening the health and welfare of surfers and other beachgoers. “We are seeing dramatic increases of such things as red tides and other harmful algal blooms as a direct result of contamination from these injection wells,” said local activist Tom Warnke. “Currently over 600 miles of Florida’s coastline has been compromised.”

In February 2005, The Sierra Club announced that it is suing the state Department of Environmental Protection because it is charged with regulating injection wells. Sierra Club maintains the agency should have ordered some sort of fix upon discovering that contaminants could be moving into the aquifer. The Sierra Club contends in the suit that since 1994, trillions of gallons of the treated sewage has migrated from the injection zone into the Floridan Aquifer, from which drinking water is drawn. The dispute concerns the South District Wastewater Treatment Facility in Miami-Dade County, where 112 million gallons of treated wastewater per day is pumped more than 2,500 feet below the ground. The plant has had clean-water violations ever since regulators found a decade ago that ammonia, nitrogen and fecal coliform bacteria -- all signs of sewage -- had leached into monitoring wells that border the Floridan Aquifer, a possible future drinking-water source.

The website of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has an article Florida's Geology Makes Wastewater Disposal a Potential Threat to Ecosystem Health in the Florida Keys which was published in the October 2004 issue of Sound Waves.

In November 2005 EPA announced that they had signed a new rule revising the requirements for disposal of treated municipal wastewater below underground sources of drinking water (USDW) in certain counties in Florida. Following is text from EPA's website:

For more than 20 years, some municipalities in Florida have been using underground injection as an alternative to surface disposal of treated domestic wastewater. Recent evidence suggests that, at several of these facilities, the injected fluids are migrating upward into underground sources of drinking water (USDW). Because operation of Class I wells with fluid movement into an USDW is prohibited by Federal Underground Injection Control (UIC) regulations, these facilities would be forced to cease injecting and adopt an alternative method to manage their wastewater, which could increase the environmental risks to surface water and coastal environments.

In this rule, EPA amends the current Federal UIC regulations to allow owners and operators of Class I municipal disposal wells in specific areas of Florida to continue using their wells, even if they have caused or may have caused movement of fluid into a USDW, provided they meet new requirements to treat their municipal wastewater with pretreatment, secondary treatment, and high-level disinfection prior to injection.

EPA believes this requirement will address viruses and bacteria (i.e., pathogens) which the Agency’s 2002 Relative Risk Assessment of Management Options for Treated Wastewater in South Florida identified as the contaminant in municipal wastewater that presents the greatest risk to USDWs. High-level disinfection of this municipal wastewater is an effective method to inactivate pathogens.

EPA has also found that pretreatment programs and prohibitions on wastewater from significant industrial users have prevented contaminants from getting into wastewater in the first place, and that secondary treatment is a critical step in wastewater treatment prior to high-level disinfection.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) oversees the UIC Program in the State. FDEP will propose State regulations that are at least as stringent as this new Federal rule. The State already requires this level of treatment for reclaimed water used on lawns and parks. Facilities in the City of St. Petersburg already meet this standard and improvements to meet the standard at Miami-Dade South District facility are underway.

A related concern is the practice of using wells to dispose of surface drainage water. Drainage wells have been used for flood control for decades in urban Orange County and elsewhere in Central Florida and there are reportedly 487 drainage wells in the area. The concern is that with every thunderstorm, a mixture of dog waste, automobile chemicals, yard pesticides and other impurities washes down these wells and may eventually contaminate Central Florida's drinking water supply. New wells were banned in the 1980s because of this concern, but in the mid-1990s state regulators slowly began to allow aging drainage wells to be replaced, partially because of the roll they play in refilling the aquifer. The St. Johns River Water Management District in Palatka is paying consultants at least $1.5 million to study the effects of two different types of drainage wells -- one that drains runoff directly from street gutters, and one that diverts overflow from a lake into the aquifer.

Septic Tanks and Cesspools

Florida has an estimated 2.6 million septic tanks. SB 550 in 2010, a springs protection bill, banned land application of waste from septic tanks effective on Jan. 1, 2016. This deadline may be extended to 2017. About 100 million gallons of waste is pumped out of Florida's septic tanks each year and some is spread at 92 regulated sites, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Leaking septic tanks around Five Mile Creek in Fort Pierce and Sagamore Waterway in Port St. Lucie have come under scrutiny as a potential source of algae growth and water quality problems in St. Lucie River and Estuary.

Scientists estimate 300,000 septic tanks are in the five counties that hug the Indian River Lagoon, 140,000 of them within the drainage basin that flows to the estuary. Untold thousands fail, or were installed improperly or under old rules that failed to protect groundwater. Brevard, alone, harbors 67,000 to 95,000 septic tanks. No one knows exactly how many. The densest concentration — more than 27,000 tanks — are in Palm Bay.

In the Florida Keys, antiquated sewage treatment systems contribute to coral reef pollution and degradation. Local governments there have just begun to replace 16,000 cesspools with modern treatment plants. Better controls on farming and coastal development are needed so that rainwater doesn't wash fertilizers, toxins and sediment onto the reefs.

A bill passed by the state legislature in December 2012 that would have mandated septic evaluations for 19 counties and three cities in the state with "first magnitude springs" outlined an option somewhat odd for legislation seeking a policy change: the option not to comply.

"House Bill 1263 changes the law related to when to have your septic system evaluated," according to a Florida Department of Health release. "The law gives local governments the choice on whether or not to adopt an evaluation program for their area."

And as of January 2013, all 19 counties and three cities that were required to take action on septic tank inspections under the bill, passed by the 2012 Legislature, voted to opt out of that requirement, according to the DOH.

Florida DEP has a website that discusses evaluating and solving problems with septic systems.


Another type of facility that could prove harmful to marine life is a sea water desalination plant. These plants typically suck in millions of gallons per day of seawater (and the marine organisms living in that seawater) and purify the seawater to provide a source of drinking water using reverse osmosis technology. The byproduct of this process is a brine stream that is about twice as salty as seawater. In Tampa, the nation's first seawater desalination plant built to serve as a primary source of drinking water began providing water for residents in 2003. At full capacity it is designed to generate 25 million gallons a day of drinking water. The plant has experienced major difficulties in operating at design capacity due to premature plugging of reverse osmosis membranes, and the long term economics and reliability of the plant remain in question.

Tampa Bay Water has tightened monitoring of the plant, and a $1 million program to detect whether the plant's operation is harmful to marine life is in place. Previous studies have indicated that the plant shouldn't have any adverse impact on the Bay's salinity or sea life.

Texas and California are also watching the plant's progress as officials in those states consider whether to move ahead with desalination plants of their own.

Cruise Ship Pollution

There is increasing concern in Florida regarding discharges of sewage, "gray water" and other wastes from cruise ships. Port Everglades, Florida is the third-largest cruise-ship port in the nation. A typical cruise ship can generate up to 30,000 gallons of sewage per day. Once a ship is three miles out to sea, raw sewage can legally be dumped in the ocean. Wastewater from galleys, laundries and hair salons (gray water) can be dumped untreated anywhere in the ocean. Although cost-effective technologies exist to prevent sewage dumping and passenger surveys have indicated that 93% support actions to require cruise ships to upgrade their treatment systems, not a single cruise corporation in Miami or elsewhere has committed to upgrade its fleet to state-of-the-art sewage treatment technology.

Surfrider Foundation's Sebastian Inlet Chapter has mounted a campaign against gambling boat pollution. See video of a protest.

Surfrider Foundation also has published a general discussion of Cruise Ship Pollution.

Algal Blooms

Harmful algal blooms, also commonly referred to a "red tides" have caused concern in Florida and have been implicated in the death of marine mammals. Although historical records indicate that algal blooms have occurred for centuries, there is a concern that nutrient runoff from development, farming and phosphate mining may be making the events occur more frequently and last longer.

“Red tide” in Florida’s coastal waters is caused by Karenia brevia. The Department of Health gets frequent harmful algal bloom bulletins from the NOAA, which uses satellite imagery techniques plus buoy data and field observations to detect potential algal blooms. The Department of Health also gets bulletins from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which samples for K. brevia weekly in certain locations. The Department of Health alerts local health departments to be prepared for cases of respiratory distress or shellfish poisoning when a bloom is detected, and some of the health departments post red tide warnings at beaches. The Department of Health also has a red tide hotline that gets thousands of calls a year. One use of the hotline is to take reports from people who have experienced red tide-related health effects. Even non-swimmers can get respiratory distress from K. brevia because its toxins can aerosolize and be brought to the beach in air when there is onshore flow. Red tide can affect manatees as well as humans. Here is an article from NASA with a map of affected areas in 2005. More info. Even more info.

In 2005, a large algal bloom formed in early January which initially stretched from Tampa Bay to Sanibel Island/Sarasota Bay. The algal bloom was blamed in the death of at least 58 manatees, as well as crabs, sponges, soft corals and at least 77 sea turtles. A substantial amount of dead fish were reported along the Florida panhandle, offshore of Fort Myers and in lower Tampa Bay. By early September 2005, 732 tons of dead fish and other marine animals had been removed from the beaches of Pinellas County. In Collier County, 178 tons of dead fish had been accepted at the Collier County Landfill by September 14.

In September 2005 the city of Sanibel asked the state to declare a state of emergency because of the continuing red tide and associated odors and fish kills. City officials pointed to the increased releases of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee as a contributing factor.

By August 2005 scientists were reporting that the red tide had choked off oxygen and created a large dead zone which killed marine life on the ocean floor about 10 miles offshore of Tampa Bay. The state's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg reported that the area of no or low oxygen could potentially affect more than 2,200 square miles between Herando County and Sarasota County. Several large patches of algae were still found off Collier County and Pinellas County in November 2005.

The red tide bloom returned in late June 2006, affecting many of Florida’s Gulf Coast beaches. From the beginning of the year through Oct. 9, observers counted 386 sea turtle strandings between Pinellas and Collier counties, an 80 percent jump over the previous decade’s average.

Collier County has established an email notification system to alert beachgoers about red tide outbreaks. You can sign up here

There were also large ares of inland waterways effected by algal blooms in 2005, including Lake Okeechobee, the St. Lucie River, the Caloosahatchee River and Indian River Lagoon. High volume, continuous pumping from Lake Okeechobee seemed to be causing or exacerbating the condition. The inland waterway algal blooms were blue-green or green, and some samples were found to contain the toxic species Microcystis aeruginosa. A plume of brown water was observed stretching as much as 10 miles into the ocean from the St. Lucie inlet and divers reported that the depth of the brown water plume extended as deep as 12 feet in some places.

In summer 2014 a large red tide bloom formed off Florida's Gulf Coast. NBC News reported in August 2014:

"The current red tide bloom is around 20 miles off the southwestern coast of Florida, too far away to bother beachgoers, at least for now. But it’s big … really big, stretching 60 miles wide, 90 miles long and at least 100 feet down. While the red tide appears almost every year, officials have not seen one this size since 2005. So far, the death count is modest: around 1,000 fish and some crabs and octopi, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). But that could change if it moves closer to shore."

Current information on red tide conditions around Florida can be found on the website of the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

NOAA has a Harmful Algal Bloom Operational Forecast System that provides information on the location, extent, and the potential for development or movement of harmful algal blooms along Florida and Texas beaches in the Gulf of Mexico.

Human health effects of the algal blooms seem to consist primarily of respiratory problems, especially when winds blow onshore. Typical symptoms include a nagging, persistent cough, watery eyes and itchy throats. During a three-month algal bloom event in 2001 Sarasota Memorial Hospital's emergency room admissions for respiratory problems were 54% higher for people living along or visiting the coast than during the same period the next year, when there was no algal bloom. The alga species in this particular case was believed to be Karenia brevis.

Greg Bossart, director of marine mammal research and conservation at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, is studying the possibility that algal blooms could be the cause of recent mass strandings of scores of dolphins on Hutchinson Island and in the Florida Keys. Among the toxins found in harmful algal blooms are brevatoxin, saxitoxin and domoic acid.

Here is additional information on Red Tides and Harmful Algal Blooms.

Algae blooms that create red tide, which kill fish and threaten tourism in Florida, would become a focus of government study under legislation drafted by Rep. Connie Mack that the Federal House of Representatives approved in March 2010. The bill calls on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop a strategy for dealing with algal blooms and to coordinate research on the subject. The ocean studies could cost as much as $34 million a year, with another $7 million per year for freshwater studies, although specific funding would be determined in later legislation. The goal is to monitor or control the outbreaks. A similar bill drafted by Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine is pending in the Senate.

The Phytoplankton Monitoring Network (PMN) is a National Ocean Service/National Center for Coastal Ocean Science program operating in ten coastal states with the ultimate goal of linking laboratory scientists to the general public. PMN's seven goals are:

  • To create a comprehensive list of harmful algal species inhabiting coastal marine waters
  • To monitor and maintain an extended survey area along coastal waters throughout the year
  • To isolate areas prone to harmful algal blooms (HABs) for further study by Marine Biotoxins researchers
  • To identify general trends, such as time and area, where HABs are more likely to occur
  • To promote increased awareness and education to the public, particularly students, on HABs
  • To increase the public's awareness of research conducted by federal and state workers on HABs
  • To create a working relationship with open communication between volunteers and researchers through PMN

Oil Spills

The threat of oil spills is present along any coast where offshore oil drilling is allowed or where oil tankers transport their product. Calls for oil drilling off Florida's shores in both state and federal waters in 2009 and 2010 have increased concerns about the potential for oil spills that would cause serious impacts to Florida's multi-billion dollar tourist economy and coastal ecosystems.

The massive release of oil during the period April 20, 2010 to late July 2010 from the Macondo well being drilled by the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig off the coast of Louisiana impacted beaches in the Florida Panhandle area. Wildlife, human and ecosystem impacts from this oil spill may be felt for years to come and may extend further south along Florida's Gulf Coast shoreline.

A serious oil spill from a tanker occurred in Broward County in August 2000 that left 85 tons of tar (15,000 gallons of crude oil) on the beaches and disrupted turtle hatching season. In December 2003 it was announced that Broward and other counties will get $2.2 million in compensation. The money will go to two agencies, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which will use it to help areas hardest hit. A final damage assessment from the two agencies documented a week of beach closings in spots from North Broward to North Dade, about 7,800 dead turtle hatchlings, 25,000 pounds of dead fish and 12 dead birds. Plans include sand dune creation, tree planting and wood hut construction at yet to be named beach sites; dune walkovers and disabled access at John U. Lloyd State Park; and seabird protection signs at Dania Beach pier. Brevard and Palm Beach counties will get money to enforce lighting laws designed to protect turtle hatchlings. Ten acres of mangroves also will be planted on Virginia Key in Miami-Dade[2]

Perception of Causes

Florida's Integrated Assessment Reports (305(b) reports) can be accessed from DEP's website.

As mentioned above, Florida red tides were particularly problematic in 2005. There were more fish kills and other events, such as abnormal fish appearance or discolored waters, attributed to red tides in the first three months of 2005 than during the same time period in four of the previous five years. In March of that year, the well-publicized die-off of several dozen manatees in southwest Florida was potentially linked to red tides. Preliminary research from scientists working in southwest Florida’s Lee County on both red tides and red-drift algae (nontoxic microalgae whose blooms are also triggered by the presence of nutrients in water) suggests that occurrences of such blooms are worsening, are linked to wastewater discharges as well as other nutrient sources, and are initiated near shore, closer to sources of human-made pollution, rather than offshore as previously thought.

A state plan to reduce nutrients in the portion of the St. Johns River that flows through Northeast Florida has been found to be insufficient by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The river would not have met state standards for dissolved oxygen under the proposal by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the EPA found, despite the EPA having approved that plan in April 2004. The EPA rejected the plan after reviewing it for a second time following a challenge in federal court by two environmental groups, the St. Johns Riverkeeper of Jacksonville and the Clean Water Network of Florida, based in Tallahassee. In the state plan that was rejected, nutrient levels were to be reduced up to 30 percent.

In October 2005, authorities with Region 4 EPA officially "disapproved" a disputed water quality rule Florida DEP used to remove Sarasota Bay, Little Sarasota Bay and hundreds of other polluted water bodies from an "impaired waters" list the state maintains under provisions of the 1972 Federal Clean Water Act.

Florida's alleged efforts to avoid Clean Water Act pollution cleanup responsibilities were the subject of a 2002 federal lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club, Florida Public Interest Research Group, Clean Water Network and others that challenged the EPA to protect Florida waters. The plaintiffs charged not only that Florida changed its water quality standards to "de-list" hundreds of polluted water bodies, but the EPA violated the Clean Water Act when it approved a 2002 state list that excluded waters with high mercury contents.

In July 2005, the EPA reluctantly acknowledged for the first time that Florida arbitrarily changed state standards for: 1) water quality criteria; 2) biological assessment; 3) nutrient assessment; 4) fish and shellfish assessment; 5) toxicity testing; and 6) impairment de-listing procedures.

The water quality standards dispute between the state and USEPA extended into 2012, when a compromise of sorts was announced. The EPA said that it had approved more lenient state rules for part of the state's waterways, but would still impose the federal rules for the rest. That means the state rules cover only 15 percent while the new federal rules cover 85 percent — about 100,000 miles of waterways. State DEP officials said they were disappointed the EPA would impose federal rules on any part of the state and vowed to "work with them to craft solutions" to put the state in charge of all pollution rules.

In September 2009 the Gulf Restoration Network gave Florida a grade of D+ on how well they implement the Clean Water Act and protect their state waters and public health. The Clean Up Your Act report grades the Gulf States on issues such as establishing water quality standards, policies to prevent Dead Zone-causing pollution, public health protection, and facilitating public participation in the policy-making process.

In January 2010 EPA proposed numeric nutrient water quality standards for lakes and flowing waters, including canals, within the State of Florida and proposed regulations to establish a framework for Florida to develop “restoration standards” for impaired waters. EPA issued this proposed rule pursuant to a determination that EPA made on January 14, 2009, under section 303(c)(4)(B) of the Clean Water Act. The determination states that numeric nutrient water quality standards for lakes and flowing waters and for estuaries and coastal waters are necessary for the State of Florida to meet the requirements of Clean Water Act section 303(c). EPA signed the proposed rule addressing lakes and flowing waters on January 14, 2010, per the terms of a consent decree. More info.

Environmental Health Indicators

Florida's 2010 FACT report contains a section on Environmental Health which looks at nine indicators:

  • Overall Conditions of Coastal Waters
  • Watershed Based Initiatives to Improve and Support Water Quality Monitoring
  • Onsite Sewage Treatment and Disposal System (OSTDS) Management Measures
  • Number of Acres of Water Designated as Outstanding Florida Waters
  • Number And Type of Aquaculture Facilities and Businesses
  • Number and Type of Fish Consumption Advisories
  • Healthy Beaches Water Sampling Program and Advisories by County
  • Major Algal Blooms and Red Tide Events
  • FCMP Grants to Improve Environmental Health

Under the "Healthy Beaches Water Sampling Program and Advisories by County" indicator it is noted "Table 4-11 provides a ten year summary by year, by County, of the number of beach advisories issued. State-wide the highest number of advisories for a single year was issued in Okaloosa County in 2003 and 2005, but Escambia County has the highest total number of advisories for the entire 10 year time period."

Pathogen Monitoring

An FCMP grant is allowing DOH to collaborate with the Oceans and Human Health Center at the University of Miami to investigate sources of ocean pollution and to develop new monitoring tools. The project will monitor pathogens in nearshore waters and within sediments of the intertidal zone. It will also analyze E. coli, fecal coliform, C. perfringens and a suite of pathogens. Results will be used to determine whether or not elevated levels of enterococci are correlated with the presence of pathogens.

DOH is also examining: (1) the occurrence of microbial indicators of fecal pollution in public beach waters; (2) the source of the indicators; and (3) how local factors influence indicators’ occurrence and persistence. The study’s main objective is to increase understanding of the relationship of documented pathogens to indicators used in beach monitoring. Determining possible sources of contamination will assist in the assessment and prevention of chronic and acute beach pollution and allow prioritization of pollution remediation projects.

Public Education

DEP's website has information on Florida's volunteer water quality monitoring program and other volunteer opportunities.

Two useful brochures that link landscaping design with water conservation and a reduction in "urban runoff" pollution are Florida Friendly Landscaping and Florida Friendly Yards. Surfrider Foundation's Ocean Friendly Gardens program has a similar focus and approach.

Florida's 2010 FACT report has a section on Environmental Stewardship that attempts to measure trends in this area by looking at seven "Environmental Stewardship Indicators":

  • Membership and Participation in Stewardship Organizations and Activities
  • Level of Awareness of Coastal Issues
  • Environmental Stewardship Money Derived from Specialty License Plate Sales
  • Number of Volunteers and Amount of Debris Removed in the Annual Florida Coastal Cleanup
  • Number of Volunteers Participating in Selected Florida Stewardship Programs that Protect and Restore Coastal Resources
  • Number of Marinas, Businesses, and Boaters Participating in Florida Clean Waterways Programs
  • FCMP Grants for Environmental Awareness and Community Stewardship

Florida's Clean Marinas and Boatyards program is helping to prevent pollution and protect the state's sensitive waterways. In its first five years, Florida officially certified 79 Clean Marinas and 12 Clean Boatyards within 25 counties.

Certified Clean Marinas and Boatyards in the Florida Keys include Key Largo Kampground, Bayside Marina at Worldwide Sportsman, Snake Creek Boatworks, and Taveenier Creek Marina in the Upper Keys; the City of Marathon Marina and Bahia Honda State Park in the Middle Keys; and Boca Chica Naval Air Station in the Lower Keys. Together, the environmentally friendly facilities have recycled more than 600,000 pounds of glass, 1.5 million pounds of paper, 3.7 million pounds of aluminum, 5.6 million gallons of oil and a million gallons of antifreeze.

Recently, the Clean Marina Program expanded its scope to include marine retailers, which sell and service new and used recreational vessels. Extending the program to retailers provides an opportunity to inform thousands of boaters about clean boating habits at the point of sales and services. Clean Marinas, Boatyards, and now Marine Retailers, go above and beyond required environmental regulations by adopting safeguards that keep solvents, sewage, fuel and oil out of the water, while protecting manatees and other marine creatures.

The Clean Boating Partnership, which includes state and federal government agencies and the Marine Industries Association of Florida, developed the Clean Marina Program to help marinas, boat yards and boaters protect water quality using simple environmental practices that prevent pollution.[3]

Jacksonville’s Museum of Science and History (MOSH) holds an annual Water Education Festival. The festival fills MOSH with dozens of interactive displays and activities, designed to teach the importance of Florida’s water and natural resources in ways to appeal to children. Other highlights include making crafts, playing water education games, and interacting with water animals from the Jacksonville Zoo. Fun features include a marine animal touch tank, a “wild weather” presentation, and water songs performed by the Orange Park Elementary School Singers. Admission is free throughout the event. The Water Education Festival is sponsored by the St. Johns River Water Management District and the city of Jacksonville’s Environmental Protection Board.

The Florida Marine Debris Reduction Guidance Plan is a compilation of recommended strategies and actions toward reducing the impacts and amount of marine debris in Florida. It is the result of multiple years of collaboration between stakeholders including federal and state agencies, local governments, non-governmental organizations, universities, and industry. Moving into the future, the Plan will act as a guide to measure progress toward addressing the marine debris problem in Florida.

Several Educator's Guides have been produced by COSEE SE, various Sea Grant organizations and others.

The five U.S. Gulf of Mexico States — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas — formed the Gulf of Mexico Alliance in 2004 to increase regional collaboration and enhance the ecological and economic health of the Gulf of Mexico region. The Alliance is focused on the following priority areas:

  • Water Quality
  • Habitat Conservation and Restoration
  • Ecosystem Integration and Assessment
  • Nutrients & Nutrient Impacts
  • Coastal Community Resilience
  • Environmental Education

In addition, the Gulf of Mexico Alliance is deeply concerned about the potential environmental impacts the BP oil spill incident on the Gulf Coast region. Each Gulf state is implementing an emergency response plan, and due to the strong Gulf States alliance, agencies are coordinating to address the uncertain future of the region in the wake of the oil spill. Ongoing activities of the Alliance will support future mitigation actions related to water quality and the habitats impacted by this incident.

General Reference Documents and Websites

EPA has compiled several NPS (Nonpoint Source) Outreach Products that are a selection of television, radio, and print products on nonpoint source pollution that have been developed by various agencies and organizations around the country. They are good examples of outreach in the mass media. Also see What You Can Do.

NOAA, in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, International City/County Management Association and Rhode Island Sea Grant, has released an interagency guide that adapts smart growth principles to the unique needs of coastal and waterfront communities. Smart Growth for Coastal and Waterfront Communities builds on existing smart growth principles to offer 10 coastal and waterfront-specific guidelines that help manage development while balancing environmental, economic, and quality of life issues.


  1. Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
  2. "Beaches get $2.2M for oil spill", by Curtis Morgan, The Miami Herald, December 18, 2003.
  3. "Clean Marina Program Takes Off"

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