Piney Point crisis: How manatees could be impacted by wastewater leak

Manatee County

MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – As the wastewater leak situation continues at the Piney Point reservoir, many are worried about the effects the water spilling out will have on Florida’s wildlife, especially the threatened West Indian manatee.

As Floridians have seen, an unrelated “unusual mortality event” in the mammal has been confirmed on Florida’s east coast due to death of sea grass, the manatee’s main source of food.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute’s Executive Director Dr. James Powell said he and his team are concerned that the additional nutrients spilling from Piney Point and going in to Tampa Bay could potentially cause algal blooms.

He said those blooms would decrease visibility and clarity of water in sea grass habitats, a cause for concern like Florida’s east coast.

“Without sunlight, plants can’t grow, sea grasses can’t grow. Sea grasses are food for manatees and so we’re concerned that over time, both in the short term and also in the longer term, is that it might impact sea grass growth,” he explained.

While officials are confident in new outpour models at Piney Point, with the pond now containing less than 300 million gallons of contaminated water as authorities work to drain it, 8 On Your Side asked Dr. Powell about a worst case scenario for Florida wildlife. He said it all begins with sea grass.

“I would certainly expect it to be catastrophic, first on sea grasses and also just feeding that algal bloom,” he said. “I could see a major ecological shift occurring and potentially a tipping point – again this is, you know, speculation.”

Dr. Powell said manatees in the short term may be able to swim out of the way but many other species would be “impacted immediately.”

A main concern for Dr. Powell here in the Tampa Bay area is the manatee site near the TECO power plant in Apollo Beach. Manatees go there to warm themselves in the cold season and, though things are warming up, he is worried about the effects for next season.

Dr. Powell said his team tracks six manatees that were released at the location and many go to find sea grass to feed near the Piney Point area.

“If there’s no food available to them, they could be in a bad strait, particularly if they have to swim far out in the cold water to try and find adequate food and that puts them at risk to cold temperatures,” he said.

In addition, Dr. Powell said red tide is “creeping up the coast,” another bad situation for Florida wildlife.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, a total of 573 manatees have died from Jan. 1 through March 26. That number is quickly approaching the reported 637 manatee deaths in the entirety of 2020.

Crews at Piney Point continue to work around the clock to drain the pond and the evacuation notice for residents in the area remains in place.

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