Updated Oct. 25, 2019 | PALMA SOLA CAUSEWAY – Pinellas County commissioners have banned horses from aquatic preserves in the county, impacting a popular tourism business that also rents horses at Palma Sola causeway in Manatee County.
C Ponies offers rides in an aquatic preserve in Tampa Bay near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Pinellas County, and in Palma Sola Bay and along its narrow causeway beach in Manatee County. Activities include beach rides, water rides and “horse surfing,” standing on horses while they swim. Other horse rental businesses in Pinellas County also are affected.
“We only have one body of water to protect. We only have one planet to save. Once it’s destroyed, it’s destroyed,” said Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, a former competitive horseback rider.
The commission pinned its 5-1 decision Tuesday on evidence – including aerial photos – that horses trample fragile seagrass in the aquatic preserve, and that horse manure and urine pose a risk to human health.
Citing support for the ordinance from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and the City of St. Petersburg, the commission also prohibited the unpermitted damage of seagrass in aquatic preserves.
Recognizing the value of the horseback riding businesses to tourism, commissioners voted unanimously to direct county staff to investigate other locations for horseback riding.
Manatee County officials have contacted Kelli Levy, Pinellas County’s Environmental Management division director, for a copy of the ordinance, Levy told commissioners, adding, “They will be looking into it as well.”
Simply put, horseback riding in the water decreases water quality, Levy told commissioners.
“It’s the wrong activity in the wrong place,” she said.
Tests by DEP and the Florida Department of Health show increased fecal bacteria in waters frequented by horses, Levy said, adding that the bacteria can cause gastrointestinal illness in people exposed to contaminated water through their eyes, ears, nose or cuts.
Florida Department of Agriculture best practices on horseback riding include staying at least 25 feet from water bodies, and the Florida Administrative Code discourages “activities that degrade the aesthetic, biological or scientific values or quality or utility of a preserve,” she said.
Water testing has shown increases in fecal bacteria in the areas where horses are ridden, said Heather Young, an environmental planner for the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.
Water Quality Report
Bayfront Park North Poor
Bradenton Beach Good
Coquina Beach North Good
Coquina Beach South Good
Manatee Beach North Good
Palma Sola South Moderate
Source: Florida Department of Health
“Nutrients and bacteria are the same thing our local governments are working incredibly hard to reduce,” she said, adding that seagrass restoration has been a group effort among many organizations and governments. “These riding operations are being allowed without permission or oversight. There is no guarantee water quality is not being impacted.”
Seagrass at stake
Randy Reynolds, DEP’s aquatic preserve manager for Tampa Bay, said he has studied the Pinellas County horseback riding area for two years, initially snorkeling, then deciding against it due to the water quality.
He observed damage to shoal grass inconsistent with boat propeller scarring, and damage to turtle grass beds in deeper water.
“I’m convinced it’s the horseback riding, not boats,” he said. “They’re punching holes in the seagrass.”
Jessica Bibza, a marine biologist and member of the National Wildlife Federation and the Tampa Bay Estuary Program Technical Advisory Council, told commissioners that one in five jobs are directly tied to the health of Tampa Bay.
“I don’t know why this one activity should be exempt,” she said. “We’ve all invested a lot of time and energy and money to restore the bay.”
Horseback riding defended
Commissioner Kathleen Peters defended the businesses, saying she took an anonymous ride to see things for herself.
“They picked up everything” using several rakes and buckets. “The beach was pristine,” she said.
“Many of these horses are rescue horses. These people are taking in abused horses and are giving them an opportunity to exercise in the water,” Peters said, suggesting in vain that commissioners compromise by imposing a permit fee and allowing only one water trail.
Jennifer Osterling, a guide for C Ponies, brought trash to the commission meeting that she said she collected from the bay during trail rides, including six-pack holders and plastic bottles.
Guides educate riders about the environment, she said, while helping veterans, cancer patients, and the horses.
Kimberly Kult of C Ponies said only 10% of the horse waste is deposited in the water, and guides use pool nets and buckets to remove it.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency excludes horse waste from the definition of “solid waste,” she said, because horse waste is primarily composed of grass.
The exclusion means that horse waste is not required to be disposed of at a hazardous waste landfill, Levy said, adding, “It can be disposed of in the trash, but it doesn’t mean it’s fit for human health.”
Much like the Sunshine Skyway causeway, the Palma Sola Bay causeway attracts people who enjoy other recreational activities besides horseback riding, including swimming, boating, kayaking, paddleboarding and kitesurfing.
A representative from the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program told The Sun in July about concerns that horses are impacting seagrass beds in Palma Sola Bay on the northeastern corner of the causeway, where most commercial horseback rentals occur.
Other local organizations that have discussed concerns about horseback riding at Palma Sola Bay include Keep Manatee Beautiful, the Palma Sola Scenic Highway Corridor Management Entity, the Manatee Council of Governments and Sarasota Audubon.
“We do have concerns about horses and dogs on the causeway,” said Ann Paul, a biologist with Audubon’s Florida Coastal Islands Sanctuaries, days before addressing Pinellas County commissioners.
“They’re peeing and pooping, and there’s no cleansing of the water before it gets in the estuary,” she said. “Where they are walking through seagrass, they’re punching holes in the seagrass. People would like to use that stretch of beach and can’t because of horse poop.”
The Florida Department of Health’s Healthy Beaches Program lists moderate water quality in Palma Sola Bay as of the most recent test on Oct. 23. Tests showed poor quality on Oct. 21 based on enterococcus bacteria from fecal contamination on the south side of the bay, which horse proponents point out is across Manatee Avenue from the horseback riding businesses.