Naples City Council should backtrack on its decision to start planning a new stormwater system that would continue the city's frowned-upon practice of dumping polluted water into the Gulf of Mexico, according to a growing number of locals who advocate for the health of the gulf and the beach.
For decades, the city has dumped runoff, which can contain grass fertilizer and other pollutants, into the gulf through 10 drainage pipes that cross the beach. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has concerns about the city's drainage process due to erosion and other negative effect on sea habitats.
In August, the council took a half-measure toward fixing the problem by agreeing to pay engineers $281,000 to figure out a way to consolidate the city's drainage pipes and dump the stormwater farther into the gulf, away from the beach. The plan passed by a 4-3 vote and included a strong dissent from City Councilwoman Linda Penniman.
"It would be more than I could stand to vote for this," Penniman said. She later added, "We're going to add injury to insult by letting this godawful stuff go into the water and only add to the pollution."
The council's approval came after members received a presentation on stormwater solutions during an April 2013 workshop. Some of the solutions, including redirection and storage of the runoff, cost more than $10 million.
Council members described their action in August as the most cost-effective solution. But for Penniman, the money would be well spent on other alternatives. In addition to environmental concerns, Penniman said allowing the dumping to continue would also threaten the city's all-important beach tourism industry.
"In my opinion, you're just taking a problem and you're sending it out further," Penniman said this week. "So the problem is only going to get back to us later rather than sooner."
The city says the discussion is ongoing. Engineers will bring preliminary estimates back to the council for further guidance, and a future project could include some water treatment. That presentation is tentatively scheduled for May.
"This looks like the most feasible — that's feasible from a technology, engineering and potential standpoint," Mayor John Sorey said in August.
But the plan doesn't have the support of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. Jennifer Hecker, a conservancy director, told council in August the proposed solution to consolidate the outfalls is "inappropriate" for the city.
"If Naples can't afford to really take care of this problem in a way that is the gold standard solution, then we can't ask other communities who have far less resources to do the same," Hecker said.
The local chapter of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a healthy water advocacy group, created a petition on change.org that asks the city to come up with a plan to reuse the stormwater or route it to a water treatment plant before dumping it. By Thursday night, the petition had close to 350 signatures.
Harrison Langley, head of Collier County Waterkeeper, acknowledged the high cost of his group's request, but said the city's environmental consciousness is such that taxpayers would be willing to pay the price.
"There's enough support," Langley said.
In 2011, the Department of Environmental Protection threatened to withhold beach re-nourishment permits if the city didn't remove its beach outfalls, but later balked when the city promised to limit the outfalls' environmental impacts.
The city has also said it regularly receives complaints about the pipes from beachgoers who report foul discharges and broken pilings. Some residents have called for the pipes' outright removal from the beach because they diminish their quality of life, according to city staff.
In August, City Councilman Sam Saad voted no to consolidating the drainage pipes and acknowledged the city's role in the problem.
"We produce so much of this stormwater runoff because we hardscape concrete and build houses over places that used to be more absorbent," Saad said. "The less of that we allow into the gulf and into the bay, the more that we can reuse ourselves, the better. "