Coral Bay council developing more scientific watershed plan

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ST. THOMAS ­- The Coral Bay Community Council on St. John plans to use a new grant for $45,755 from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Coral Reef Conservation Fund to develop a more scientific watershed management plan to reduce land erosion and help keep the water clean.

The plan will replace the 2008 blueprint for the Coral Bay Watershed Management Project and will comply with the standards used by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to those involved in the plan's development.

The Coral Bay Community Council is a non-profit coalition of 330 Coral Bay residents and landowners with a goal to oversee future development and to promote environmentally sound land and water use in the area.

The grant money will be matched by the organization for almost $92,000 to be spent on studies to determine the level of environmental degradation caused by development around Coral Bay. Matching funds can take the form of in-kind donations, such as volunteer-hours, for example, according to Sharon Coldren, president of the council.

The council's members hope that a new plan that complies with EPA standards will attract future grants from the federal agency and other sources.

Coldren estimates that the 3,000 acres of land above the bay need another $10 million worth of work to correct what she called damage caused by hasty and ill-conceived construction of homes along the steep slopes surrounding the bay.

The two primary threats to wildlife and coral in the bay are sediment run-off from dirt roads and floating trash that washes ashore, both of which can muddy the water and make it less habitable for fish and sea turtles and threaten coral.

The organization has spent five years erecting physical barriers to redirect rain water into guts and settlement ponds, which naturally clean the water before it reaches the bay.

Coldren said those efforts have dramatically and visibly improved water clarity. The next step will be to apply scientific measurements to quantify current pollutant loads and draw up parameters for acceptable loads in the future, she said.

"The problems we had when we formed were so enormous that we were able to lay out a plan of action of things that needed to be done without quantitative measures. We showed that we could do those things," Coldren said. "As part of this new project, we will be working with community partners to envision a future plan that is more compatible with federal and local laws."

According to Patricia Reed, environmental project manager for the Coral Bay Community Council, the new watershed plan will include specific goals with respect to sediment run-off and floating trash.

"The old plan is focused very much on actions. It doesn't necessarily have these very detailed goals in it," Reed said. "We want to be able to say what's here, what we should be safely putting in the bay and what measures we need to take to drop below those levels." Reed said she and a team of "citizen scientists" have been using Secchi disks to measure water clarity weekly for a year. Volunteers drop the disks, which have a distinctive black and white pattern, into the water and measure the depth at which the design is no longer visible.

The weekly measurements give a picture of the overall cloudiness of the water from stirred-up sediment.

Using the grant money, the data will be entered into a computer model and used to gauge numerically what the impact of storms and rainwater runoff is on the bay.

As part of a "monthly shoreline debris study," Reed and the volunteers collect trash from Nanny Point up to Coral Harbor, then sort and weigh it. Reed uses EPA data to determine the sources of floating debris based on the type and amount of the trash items.

Coldren said her organization will take the rest of the year to collect data and write the plan, which should be made public by January 2014.

- Contact reporter Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email

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