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St. Pete nonprofit launches statewide water pollution prevention program

Mark Parker

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A recently installed Watergoat at St. Petersburg's Bear Creek Park. Photos by Mark Parker.

Environmental leaders from across Florida gathered at St. Petersburg’s Bear Creek Park to celebrate the launch of a groundbreaking “Adopt a Watergoat” initiative Thursday afternoon.

The program is the brainchild of Jenna Byrne, founder of the Water Warrior Alliance. The local nonprofit has installed and maintained Watergoats – floating barriers that catch debris – since 2017.

Data has shown that the device is 10 times more efficient than manually collecting waterborne trash. That proficiency was displayed at Bear Creek, as water clarity increased exponentially after passing through its Watergoat.

“I’m excited that it’s in District 1,” said City Councilmember Copley Gerdes. “I’m also excited for it to be utilized not only throughout the city and state but throughout the United States. The program (Byrne) has put together is completely incredible. I’m blown away.”

City Councilmember Copley Gerdes (left) and Jenna Byrne, founder of the Water Warrior Alliance.

Jeff Mills invented the Watergoat in 2006. The devices, typically placed between stormwater drains and waterways, have prevented over 350 tons of debris from reaching the ocean.

However, Mills said its efficacy depends on volunteers who remove the captured vegetation and trash. Byrne and the Water Warrior Alliance forged strategic partnerships with Keep Florida Beautiful, its affiliates and the Surfing Evolution and Preservation Foundation to bolster those efforts.

About 80% of ocean debris stems from stormwater runoff, and local governments have realized the Watergoat’s impact. Pinellas County, Pasco County, and the Cities of St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Gainesville and New Port Richey have since joined the cause.

The Surfing Evolution and Preservation Foundation, founded by Ron Jon Surf Shop’s owners, began utilizing Watergoats in 2018. The nonprofit behind Florida’s “Endless Summer” license plates then began supporting the St. Pete-based Water Warrior Alliance.

“I call Jenna (Byrne) my force of nature,” said Jacquie Youngs, foundation administrator. “She’s taken Jeff’s (Mills) program, my funding – and everybody else she can get her hands on – and is taking Watergoat all over Florida and wherever else she can go.”

Young said Watergoat has built a reputation for success among environmental stakeholders. She added that Byrne would make the device a “household name, believe me.”

Aides for U.S. Rep. Anna Pauline-Luna and Florida Rep. Berny Jacques attended the event, as the lawmakers were in federal and state legislative sessions. Both pledged to support Byrnes’ efforts in Washington, D.C. and Tallahassee, respectively.

James Bays, president of Stewards of our Urban Lakes, highlighted the Watergoat’s impact in St. Petersburg’s Crescent Lake Park. He said volunteers spent 1,300 hours manually cleaning the lake and just 97 maintaining the device.

However, Bays said the Watergoat removed 2,378 of the 3,400 pounds of debris the organization collected in 2023, or about 70%. “A large portion of that was leaves contaminated with oil and grease, Styrofoam, small plastics and cigarette butts … these are really hard to retrieve,” he said.

Water Warrior Alliance partners celebrated the launch of the statewide Adopt a Watergoat initiative with a ceremonial ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday.

Watergoats also prevent invasive plant species from traveling downstream and corral dead fish that exacerbate harmful algal blooms. Barry Rubin, president of the Treasure Island and Madeira Beach Chamber of Commerce, noted the new initiative’s importance to the local and state economy.

He said the hospitality and tourism industry is responsible for one out of every nine jobs in Pinellas County. “If our waterways are not clean, people are not going to come here,” Rubin added.

“And that has a $9 billion economic impact … $9 billion sounds like a lot for the state,” he said. “That’s St. Petersburg and the beaches.”

For more information on the Adopt a Watergoat initiative, visit the website here.

 

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