Editor’s Note: This is part four of four in a series taking a look at the possibility of a Santa Rosa Sound pass, a historical view, the challenges and legislation.
Santa Rosa Sound is impaired, and it has been for years.
Through the dumping of effluent from the Navarre Beach Wastewater Treatment Facility, runoff of contaminants on the pavement, leaking septic tanks and burst sewage pipes, the sound has landed on the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for several years.
Santa Rosa Sound contains high concentrations of the fecal coliforms, bacteria that live in the human gut and are used as an indicator for water quality.
In addition to the fecal bacteria, Santa Rosa Sound is stable environment for the deadly bacteria vibrio vulnificus. If vibrio enters the blood stream through an open cut while a person is swimming, fever, chills, decreased blood pressure and blistering skin can occur. In serious cases, the infection is fatal.
Just last year another case of vibrio vulnificus was contracted by a man swimming in Santa Rosa Sound, and there have been at least eight confirmed cases from Santa Rosa Sound in the last 10 years according to the Florida Department of Health.
The water quality has additional effects to humans said Barbara Albrect, a watershed expert and University of West Florida professor. She pointed out that ingesting fecal infested water can cause additional illnesses, and animals living in a contaminated environment can accumulate contaminates in their system thus tainting seafood.
District County Commissioner Rob Williamson, as well as other commissioners, has publicly stated that cleaning the sound is a priority. Williamson, like many, is in favor of reopening the pass to flush the sound to improve water quality.
“We have clear evidence that the Navarre Pass would positively impact the environment, especially the only impaired waterway in Santa Rosa County, which is the sound,” he said.
The waterway that once connected Santa Rosa Sound and the Gulf of Mexico could provide an answer for the water quality issue. Chuck Pohlmann, president of the Navarre Pass Political Action Committee, points to Fire Island that runs along Great South Bay in New York.
During Hurricane Sandy the island was washed out in one stretch, now referred to as “New Inlet.” This pass-like break in the barrier island connects the Great South Bay, a brackish waterway struggling with water quality issues, and the Atlantic Ocean.
And the waters were cleaned. According to news reports as well as New York governor’s reports the water quality improved and native eelgrass was presented with new platforms for growth.
Without a pass on the table, Santa Rosa County has resorted to other methods to improve water quality.
The county has applied for roughly $12.3 million in Pot 3 RESTORE money, one of multiple funds paid out by BP following the 2010 oil spill. Each fund has a specified list of uses and purposes, and Pot 3 caters to water quality improvement.
But Pot 3 also has a requested 2 to 1 matching meaning for every $1 of Pot 3 the county should put up $2 either in cash, previous investment, other grants or in-kind contribution. While not a requirement, meeting this request means the county is more likely to receive those funds than others via for the same dollars.
The funds would reroute effluent from the Navarre Beach Wastewater Treatment Facility ($6 million plus matching), convert property owners from septic tanks to sewer systems ($1 million plus matching), construct a hydrodynamic separator to remove runoff pollutants ($4 million plus matching) and more.
The matching requirement will bring the total proposed cost to nearly $37 million.
Even with these projects, increasing population in Navarre means increased runoff of pollutants, septic tank construction and higher effluent production. The septic to sewer conversion also relies on property owners to opt in, often at a cost to the homeowner.
While these projects move toward reality, the pass continues to be argued as an immediate solution with potential economic gains. U.S. congressman Matt Gaetz predicts that opening Navarre Pass would result in $1 billion of investment into Santa Rosa County.
But Albrecht said she is not sure that reopening the pass will have the desired effect. She said in a previous interview that the new water flow could have negative effects on the complex ecosystem of seagrass beds and marine life in Santa Rosa Sound.
Albrecht, like many, does not know the answer.
Whether they are for or against, leaders of the argument over reopening the Navarre Pass all agree on one thing: a new environmental study needs to be done.