A veggie tale for retention ponds

The co-founder of Green Armada tests the waters with a new green idea

click to enlarge RECLAIMING WATER: Mark Maksimowicz swims near his invention, a floating garden that filters retention pond water. It's five weeks old. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
RECLAIMING WATER: Mark Maksimowicz swims near his invention, a floating garden that filters retention pond water. It's five weeks old.

It's 10 a.m., and Mark Maksimowicz is paddling through a murky retention pond. This man-made body of water of water, tucked behind Gandy Boulevard in the Gateway Business Park, shows no signs of life, but Mark isn't taking any chances on an errant alligator or snapping turtle. He carries a white buck knife in his mouth. Just in case. Lately, this is how he spends his mornings.

The retention pond is not unlike hundreds of others that dot Tampa Bay. While residents of the state's more rural areas might enjoy a real pond full of lily pads, fish, croaking frogs and singing birds, most of us settle for this: a nearly dead body of water, thick with algae and, well, nothing else. (Thank the federal Clean Water Act that required developers to create these retention ponds when paving over natural areas.)

But Mark, his wife Sheron and their 18-year-old son Arthur may have the answer to bringing life to these bodies of water. It lies inside a green aluminum pontoon-like structure anchored 15 feet out in this retention pond.

Mark swims out and grabs one of its rounded sides, pulling it closer to shore. Inside are several burlap sacks, vermiculite and the makings of a small garden: Tomato and cucumber shoots peek through thin mud while pickerel and hydrocoytle are beginning to overtake part of the pontoon. I spot elephant ears and cow lilies. Mark assures me cantaloupe seeds are somewhere in there, too.

He calls the contraption a "Watergoat Island," and it works like this: As the plants grow and create a root mass underneath the pontoon, they filter the water by absorbing the excess nitrogen and phosphates (from stormwater runoff) that cause algae blooms. If all goes well, the plants will overtake the pontoon and, from a distance, look like a natural floating wetland. As an added bonus, you can eat the cantaloupe.

"It's avant garde," Mark says.

Mark and Sheron are no novices to the green movement. Mark was co-founder of Green Armada, the local nonprofit that made headlines last year for using large boats to pick up trash in Tampa Bay, even capturing People magazine's "Heroes of the Year."

Last year, he left the organization, which had grown from Mark and two of his cousins to a large nonprofit with a board of directors and 20 operating boats. He wanted to get away from the constant and harried search for funding and focus on the area's trash problem. Because, despite the success of Green Armada and other organizations, more trash than ever is showing up in Florida's waterways. (A report by the Ocean Conservancy found that the amount of debris in the waters around the Florida's Gulf Coast has increased 8 percent annually.)

"Every [commercial about Florida] has a beautiful girl in a bikini on the beach with a drink in hand," he says. "But the truth is, on any given day, there's probably a used condom next to her, or a used diaper. ... The only way we're going to do anything is clean it at its source."

The source, Mark says, is city outflow pipes and stormwater systems that empty into the area's lakes, rivers and bays.

"During a rainstorm, each one of these [outflow pipes] vomits out 25 pounds of trash," he says.

His answer was the Watergoat, an unobtrusive, floating aluminum basket that catches trash coming out of outflow pipes.

Last fall, he began shopping the device to various municipalities; St. Petersburg ended up buying 12 Watergoats for Crescent Lake.

"We're excited, because this is the first time an entire lake has been protected fully from stormwater runoff," Sheron says. "Mayor Baker wants to see them at every lake and every outflow."

To the Maksimowiczes the next step was clear: They needed to find a way to filter out the pollutants that could not be captured by the Watergoat. Thus, the Watergoat Island was born.

In the last few years, the concept of floating wetlands has caught on. Floating Island International creates them out of recycled plastic. Sarasota-based Creative Aquascapes uses coconut fibers and claims its BioHavens provide the same filtration as an acre of constructed wetland. Last year, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand deployed its first floating wetland in a large bay to study the effects on pollution. And the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are also looking into floating wetlands for erosion control, bird nesting sites and fisheries enhancement.

The Maksimowiczes say they're still working out the details on what works best for filtering a retention pond, focusing now on a mix of native wetland plants and edible foods.

"You can pretty much grow anything in there that will grow hydroponically." Sheron says, adding she's determined that 100 tomatoes will fit on one Watergoat Island.

Which begs the question: If the roots are sucking up all the pollutants in a retention pond, will the veggies be safe to eat?

"The first crop we'll send to a laboratory for testing to get a certificate for it," Sheron says, but she assures it can't be any worse than commercially grown crops that use a toxic cocktail of pesticides and fertilizers.

The Maksimowiczes plan to sell Watergoat Islands to local developers and homeowner associations in the big suburban developments. An average island will run about $3,000, they say.

"We want to cover Florida with them," says Mark, retention pond water dripping off of him. "This is obviously something that is going to have to happen. Especially now that Florida is basically one huge parking lot."

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