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FGCU Water School promotes pond management through HOA project

Dr. James Douglass, Tori Guarino and Carter Oleckna from the FGCU Water School working together to study the ponds at Fairwinds HOA in Bonita Springs. The trio hopes their study encourages residents to eliminate their use of fertilizers and be more conscious of pond health.
Ben Hershenson
Dr. James Douglass, Tori Guarino and Carter Oleckna from the FGCU Water School working together to study the ponds at Fairwinds HOA in Bonita Springs. The trio hopes their study encourages residents to eliminate their use of fertilizers and be more conscious of pond health.

When residents at Fairwinds, a small homeowner association (HOA) in Bonita Springs, noticed the only stormwater pond within the community starting to erode at the edges, there was concern for the safety of the houses built close to the water.

“(Fairwinds) looked into ways they could fix it and all these contractors were saying they could put a bunch of rocks around the border and do this expensive engineering thing,” Dr. James Douglass, professor at FGCU’s Water School, said. “The HOA president was looking for something more natural and I thought it was perfect because the plants that I’m really interested in can help with the erosion problem because they keep the bank in place.”

Now, Douglass along with two FGCU biology students, Tori Guarino and Carter Oleckna, are on a mission to restore the pond at Fairwinds, from both a plant and water quality standpoint. Their project started in October of last year.

“I think one of the reasons that they’re having the erosion problem is because, up until we started with this pond, they always used to mow away all the plants around the edge and then spray poison on it,” Douglass said. “So it would just be bare dirt and it doesn’t take a geologist to know that if you’ve got bare dirt with no plants on it, it’ll erode away really quickly.”

Douglass and his students wanted to make sure they closely follow the scientific process for this study. They set up 10 transects around the pond to take inventory of all the plants from the dry land down to deep water, so they know what was growing at the start. At half of the transects, the team is removing the invasive torpedo grass and planting native jointed spike rush. At the other five transects, they are letting both native and nonnative plants run its course.

“We really want to let all the plants grow and heal in this area, stop the erosion and get the water quality to improve, but (torpedo grass) can take over and crowd a lot of the native plants,” Douglass said. “So we’re like, what’s better? Should we just let everything grow and if it’s native or nonnative, who cares? Or should we deliberately only let native species grow when plants start to grow back?”

So far, around 400 pounds of torpedo grass has been pulled since the project started. The nonnative plant that was pulled is being now used for compost in the food forest.

“This is an example of what we hope will be more common in the future that they call closing the nutrient loop,” Douglass said. “Instead of sprinkling fertilizer over everything and adding more nutrients that are manmade, you take a place where there’s a problem with too many nutrients, you extract the nutrients and use it in the places where you actually want fertilizer.”

When allowing plants to grow to combat erosion, Douglass realizes that most people are used to the opposite: seeing a clean-cut view of the pond that’s behind their house.

“It’s like the default mode and everybody’s mindset is ‘I have to take care of my property, that means I have to get rid of weeds and mow it right down to the edge,’ and that’s the exact opposite of what would be good for the environment,” Douglass said.

Douglass notices a statewide issue with pond management, as there is no state requirement for water quality monitoring, giving no accountability to ensure the pond’s nutrient levels aren’t too high. The Water School trio at Fairwinds has taken the initiative to also test the water quality of the pond as it recovers from being dependent on chemicals.

“Lake managers are basically turning the pond into a swimming pool where it looks good because everything is dead, but it’s not good for pollution,” Douglass said. “One of the ironies is that when we’re making this pond more natural, it might go through this ugly transformation phase where it gets green and nasty, we’re sort of thinking about how we’re going to explain that to the community.”

Jay Newman is a resident at Fairwinds and took the initiative to connect Douglass and the HOA. He suggested that Fairwinds President Ben Hershenson reach out to the Water School to find a natural way to prevent erosion.

“It’s one thing just to see the fact that Dr. Douglass is able to take a real-life circumstance and show his students, that to me is just terrific, I really enjoy that,” Newman said. “Two: it’s only a benefit to our community. We don’t have to spend a lot of money which is always an issue for most HOAs, and the potential benefit we get with a natural Florida native species here is even a greater benefit.”

Hershenson, the Fairwinds president, is hoping that this project will inspire other communities in the area to conduct similar projects.

“Our joint project with FGCU, I know, can be a model for HOAs and similar organizations to help prevent erosion, control flooding, and drastically reduce the introduction of nutrients in our environment,” Hershenson said.

Bonita Bay is one of the major HOAs in Bonita Springs with around 80 managed lakes. Bonita Springs City Council member Chris Corrie is a resident of Bonita Bay and says more is being done already to educate and spread awareness about the impacts of fertilizers and herbicides.

“We have programs where we have speakers come in from FGCU and others that will talk about water quality and what’s important for water quality,” Corrie said. “So, they’re getting the message, it’s just a matter of changing some people’s views.”

As the younger generations start making their way to Southwest Florida, there is hope for a more environmentally conscious community.

“I think as new, younger people move into Bonita Bay, they’re more sensitive to these kind of issues,” Corrie said. “I can tell since I’ve been in Bonita Bay for 15 years, I see a lot more focus on water quality and protection of the littorals than I used to see.” Littorals are aquatic plants along a lake or pond shoreline.

Changing the perspective of letting plants grow naturally at the banks of ponds rather than cutting it clean is a battle Douglass acknowledges and is ready to confront.

“It’s really tricky when there’s thousands and thousands of landscapers and they have this freight train momentum of the way they’ve always been doing it, and the way they’ve always been doing it is bad,” Douglass said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us to get a different mindset going.”

Hershenson is optimistic that with time, the entire community will appreciate what this project will have accomplished.

“When people move into the community and they see that natural look, then they will have nothing to compare it to,” Hershenson said. “When it’s explained to them how much value this is in the long run, I think there’ll be a lot of positive response to it.”