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Florida scientists will study how homeowners affect the water quality of stormwater ponds

Here's a typical stormwater pond in a Florida community with bank erosion and a lack of plantings along its perimeter
UF/IFAS
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Courtesy
Here's a typical stormwater pond in a Florida community with bank erosion and a lack of plantings along its perimeter

Florida researchers are tasked with identifying the benefits of stormwater ponds, and how homeowners are interacting with them.

More than 70,000 of these waterbodies exist across Florida. They capture stormwater runoff, which brings in a lot of street debris and pollution. Plus, they prevent flooding and erosion.

They're engineered to overflow into a chain of consecutive ponds, theoretically cleaning the water more and more before ending up in a preserve or the Gulf of Mexico.

But residents have a complicated relationship with stormwater ponds. Some purchase what are labeled as "waterfront properties" and have the misguided expectation of seeing perfectly manicured green lawns surrounding a body of water clear enough to view the sky in it. However, those qualities are actually a sign that the ponds are being mistreated.

Michelle Atkinson, an extension agent in Manatee County for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said homeowners want these ponds to look clean by removing necessary plants, which is actually having the opposite effect and forming algae. There should be plants surrounding the ponds to protect their structure, and plants in the water to help intake some of the nutrients.

"Homeowners are now impacting the management and the care of the stormwater ponds. They originally were built with planted areas, and ... folks just sometimes don't understand the plants and feel like that they're weeds, and they want them removed," Atkinson said.

"We're getting smaller and smaller lot lines. There used to be a pond up next to a preserve area. Now there's homes entirely around the edge of the pond. So, there's more things impacting these ponds.”

 The top is an image before stormwater pond plantings and the bottom is after. Without plants, the pond is more likely to experience soil erosion and intake nutrient-rich grass clippings, both of which can degrade water quality by increasing nutrient levels.
Basil Iannone and Michelle Atkinson
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UF/IFAS
The top is an image before stormwater pond plantings and the bottom is after. Without plants, the pond is more likely to experience soil erosion and intake nutrient-rich grass clippings, both of which can degrade water quality by increasing nutrient levels.

A team of scientists with the University of Florida, including Atkinson, have been granted $1.6 million from the National Science Foundation to study stormwater ponds and the people living around them for the next four years or so across the state. They’ll document environmental, social and economic benefits, collectively called ecosystem services.

“We want to have an ecosystem in there that can function and … reduce that nitrogen and phosphorus from heading out into these natural bodies of water,” Atkinson said. “Are aesthetic preferences impacting those environmental functions? That's what we don't know for sure. We have suspicions. We have our hypothesis, but we want to prove it.”

According to the UF press release, the researchers will conduct field work, focus groups, surveys and data collection both at the state level and in two communities in Manatee and St. Lucie counties that have a large number of stormwater ponds and where algae blooms have been a recent problem. The results could apply to other parts of the country.

Atkinson said she wants people to view these ponds as amenities and put some value to them.

“That’s what we're going to try to do is quantify some of those ecosystem services that our ponds do. By adding plants or managing a different way, can we put a value on those services, something that homeowners will feel important enough to want to protect? And say, ‘yes, let's do this in our community, because it's the right thing to do.’”

She said she hopes management changes come as a result of this study —whether it's voluntary from homeowners, or enforced by government.

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Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of Morning Edition at WUSF Public Media.