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Clam Bayou, where the trash flows

Drainage problems send tons of debris from the streets of St. Petersburg and Gulfport.

Published May 16, 2007

Kurt Zuelsdorf of Gulfport, owner of Kayak Nature Adventures, stands in the Clam Bayou Nature Preserve in St. Petersburg which has been polluted with piles of cans, bottles and other debris. "This just makes me sick," said Zuelsdorf.
[Times photo: Scott Keeler]

GULFPORT - On a recent morning, Kurt Zuelsdorf waded through the knee-deep brackish water that washes through the mangroves of the Clam Bayou Nature Preserve.

He slogged past plastic bottles, shoes, tires and enough inflatable sports balls to supply any gym class.

"Make a left at the TV!" he said, on the way back to his kayak.

Zuelsdorf stumbled on this litter-clogged section of the nature preserve Thursday, while tracking an otter.

Local and state government agencies have pledged millions of dollars for cleaning up parts of the preserve. But Zuelsdorf's discovery shows that areas away from the main waterways are filling up with litter from storm drains.

Hard rains push the trash into the bayou from the roads and gutters of St. Petersburg and Gulfport. It often gets caught in the mangroves before it makes it out into Boca Ciega Bay.

One area to the south of the bayou has tar roofing shingles, insulation and other construction materials dumped just beyond the waters edge.

Zuelsdorf's discovery came on the same day St. Petersburg became the first and only city in the state to be named a "green city" by the Florida Green Building Coalition.

The Clam Bayou Nature Preserve lies mostly in St. Petersburg, but is also partly in Gulfport. Officials from the two cities do not agree on the source of all the trash.

"We've kind of put the onus on St. Petersburg, which is where all this stuff is coming from," Gulfport City Manager Thomas Brobeil said.

Not true, insisted Mike Connors, the internal services administrator for St. Petersburg, who oversees the city's environmental initiatives.

"A lot of the litter that anyone can experience in Clam Bayou is from all over Boca Ciega Bay," Connors said, adding that a widespread coastal cleanup would be needed to address the problem. The contention that it comes from St. Petersburg alone "is absolutely false, " he said.

A state program to curtail the litter focuses almost exclusively on St. Petersburg's storm drains.

"Right now the vast majority of trash that ends up in Clam Bayou is from the sewers, but there is a small percent that floats in with the rising tide," explained Brant Henningsen of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, also known as Swiftmud.

Swiftmud stormwater engineer Janie Hagberg is designing a plan to fix the outdated storm system that drains the St. Petersburg neighborhood surrounding Clam Bayou. The old storm system doesn't prevent the trash from ending up in the bayou, Hagberg said.

The repair project is expected to begin next year and will involve extensive construction of retention ponds and drainage, followed by a project to restore the bayou to a more natural state. The project will cost Swiftmud more than $6-million and is scheduled to be completed by 2010.

In the meantime, St. Petersburg has enlisted the help of the Green Armada, a nonprofit cleanup group, to maintain the bayou, Connors said.

The Green Armada installed booms in the canals that flow into the bayou to intercept trash and debris as it floats along the surface.

As a result, the bayou's more visible areas are much cleaner than before. Zuelsdorf, who runs a business called Kayak Nature Adventures, said he now leads tours of the cleaner parts. Visitors can see the herons in the mangroves nesting and feeding, schools of minnows under their kayaks, maybe even one of the alligators that calls the bayou home.

But the Green Armada has focused on collecting what gets caught in the booms, which Zuelsdorf said don't hold the trash back during a heavy rain.

"They've helped with the booms, but as far as going in there and collecting any garbage, no way," he said. "In the meantime, they've got tons of garbage in their park. What are they going to do about it?"

With state grant money, Zuelsdorf launched a program called Bring Back the Bayou, which offers paddlers a free kayak rental in return for a bag of trash collected from the bayou. In 10 weeks, his customers have removed about 11,000 pounds of garbage from the water and mangroves.

Volunteers in his program also have also removed 15 shopping carts and a sofa from the sand around the bayou, allowing the water to circulate.

Eleven thousand pounds is "only a fraction of what's out there. There's several city blocks in here that look just like this," Zuelsdorf said about the trash-filled mangroves.

Henningsen, the Swiftmud engineer, said removing all the garbage wedged back in the mangroves would be the obvious final step of the restoration project. But so far, she said, the state agency has not decided who would be responsible for making sure it's picked up.

"Because it's a small area with a low energy and tidal flushing, it's conducive toward the trash accumulation," she said. "Unless someone takes it out of there, it's going to keep accumulating."

So for now, Zuelsdorf and his customers are the only ones cleaning up the garbage in Clam Bayou. But his grant money recently ran out, and he has a business to run.

"Obviously I need help out there," he said. "I can't do it for free forever."

Nick Johnson can be reached at or 893-8361.

[Last modified May 16, 2007, 00:13:47]

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