Nature's storm sewer. Doesn't that have a nice ring to it? No? Well, welcome to Clam Bayou, the second of what I call Gulfport's Big Three of problems. The sewers are the first and the most solvable, provided we want to spend some money, which we clearly don't. But the sanitary sewers (there's irony for you) aren't our only threat to our quality of life in everyone's favorite funky seaside town. On the edge of town, forgotten by most of you, lies another threat: Clam Bayou. Think of it as nature's stormwater treatment plant, because all the stuff that's on our roads and lawns flows into Clam Bayou with every heavy rain. Once there, the mangroves and grass filter any impurities from the water as best they can before the water flows into Boca Ciega Bay. So, sort of like a sewer treatment plant, except for stormwater. Oh, and yes, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), it has too much fecal coliform in it and dissolved oxygen issues. So while it may have some basis in fact, "Clam Bayou: Nature's Stormwater Treatment Plant" isn't what I would want floating (no pun intended) around out there if I were trying to brand the city.
That's a salient point because at city council's most recent workshop they debated branding Gulfport. At the next workshop, council will debate what to do – if anything – about Clam Bayou.
Why should we do anything about Clam Bayou? After all, didn't the state just restore the bayou at a cost of millions? Well, sort of. It did something and parts of Clam Bayou certainly look better, yes, but we have no idea if we should or not, because after all that money, I still can't find a water quality test that shows what disgusting things were or were not in the water before the state redesigned how water meandered through Clam Bayou. That means that no matter what we test for now – and I don't believe anyone's testing for anything, despite assurances from two state agencies that they have reports on the Bayou – we have no idea whether Clam Bayou is better or worse. A few years ago, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program tested certain parts of the bottom and found the pesticides DDT and chlordane as well as other chemicals – many related to automobiles – in the sediment. Every governing body proceeding to absolutely nothing about this. What's more, despite repeated requests over the past decade, I've yet to see a single water quality test for Clam Bayou, which I find odd, considering the Southwest Florida Water Management District deemed it worthy of a few million dollars to redesign the bayou. FDEP told me Tuesday it prepared a report and promised to send it to me, but I've yet to see it.
Of course, we know the muck – that's the technical term and it doesn't have to be a pejorative; in the 'Glades, muck's a good thing – contains toxins, yet I adamantly oppose to dredging the bottom or posting signs warning anglers about the bayou's toxicity. Why? Three reasons.
One, we have made no effort to stop the petrochemical runoff from flowing into the Bayou, so dredging out contaminants before we stop the flow makes no sense. It's like having a sewer spewing human waste all over Clymer Park but deciding to cut the grass so it doesn't look so icky. Two, we have to be careful when we talk about dredging, because charts as far back as the 16th century reflect a depth of less than a foot at the mouth of Clam Bayou. Like it or not, Clam Bayou's functioning as it should – a treatment system for all the toxins we have on our roadways, golf courses, and yards. If we make Clam Bayou deeper, the water won't stay in Clam Bayou long enough to get treated properly, and then we have a larger problem: a toxic Boca Ciega Bay. Yes, Clam Bayou may have been deeper when boats traversed it, prop dredging out the sand. But that was also when Boca Ciega Bay lost all its sea grass and the state sued Pinellas County to stop developing on the shallow body of water. When we stopped prop dredging Clam Bayou, Boca Ciega Bay started to recover. What happens to Boca Ciega Bay if we speed up the water flow through the only remaining tidal estuary on the Bay?
Actually, we don't know. And that's my third – and largest – reason for hesitating to jump in with any fixes: our ignorance. We don't know that dredging is the best solution, and we don't know that it isn't. I oppose dredging and I just as stridently oppose doing nothing. I like the idea that if we get grant money from BP, we'll use it to stop the flow of toxins into Clam Bayou, but I don't like the idea of only doing it if we get a grant. Our natural environments should be a priority all the time, not just at our fiscal convenience.
So where does that leave me? Well, on the side of logic. So far, we've heard from me. We've heard from people who think we need to dredge and post signs warning of the Bayou's toxicity. We've heard – sort of – from a state agency who remapped the bayou and then, much like a televangelist, pronounced it healed but failed to provide any test results showing how. Who haven't we heard from?
Science. We haven't heard from science. You know, an impartial observation of facts that lead to a conclusion as to what we should do to about Clam Bayou's issues. I have strong feelings about how to fix things, but somewhere along the way I neglected to get my hydrology degree, as did everyone else who has expressed vehement opinions on the subject.
But since our city council will discuss this very issue next week... what if they decided that it was time to consider not opinions but fact and directed city staff to find a hydrologist who didn't work for the state or any other interested party? What if they asked for a hydrologist to evaluate the bayou for water quality and make suggestions as to what should happen?
Ah, hello, logic. Even the people who think I have some hidden agenda (spoiler alert: I don't. The environment is my agenda, first, last, and always) can't disagree with a scientist testing the water and testing the fish for toxins. Of course, the Clam Bayou issue, over the past decade, has devolved into some sort of buffet of craziness. And you cannot bring a side of logic to a crazy buffet and expect people to eat it.
Except, of course, I'd like to think that our council has the good sense to dig in.
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.
At press time, the Gabber had access to the following water quality tests:
Courtesy of the EPA
Courtesy of the Pinellas Water Atlas
Update: The morning the Gabber went to press, the DEP e-mailed a copy of its October 2012 report on Clam Bayou; click here to download the document.