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USF professor and student design septic system to save the Belize Barrier Reef

A University of South Florida professor and one of her doctoral candidates have helped a national park in Belize stop flushing away its coral reefs.

"We were the right people at the right time," said graduate student Christine Prouty, who worked on a wastewater project there with Dr. Maya Trotz, an associate professor in USF's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. "We were experts on wastewater who knew how to put people together to make a difference."

The two discussed their work and its impact on Sunday at Sulphur Springs Museum and Heritage Center, which is currently hosting an exhibit on the Caribbean's coral reefs and sharks.

Their work centered on Laughing Bird Caye National Park, a 1.8-acre island off the coast of Placencia, Belize.

Nearly 100 tourists a day visit the park while snorkeling and scuba diving the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest reef system in the world behind the Great Barrier Reef in Australia .

The park's restroom facilities were connected to an inadequate septic system, in constant danger of overflowing.

Septic tank runoff that escapes into sea water can result in an overgrowth of algae and destroy coral reefs. The reefs provide a home for a vast range of aquatic life and also protect coastal areas from wave damage.

This issue was discovered in 2014 by Trotz and Prouty, who are using Placencia as a test subject for researching how coastal communities can beneficially use wastewater.

"People just don't show up and not make an impact," Trotz said. "That is a lesson everyone can take away from this."

Trotz and Prouty worked with two groups, the Southern Environmental Association and Eco-Friendly Solutions, to design and fund a new, larger septic system, which was installed earlier this month.

This project has been completed as the island plans to build tourist shops that could draw more visitors there.

"It doesn't matter how many shirts you sell to tourists if you do not properly manage your wastewater," Prouty said. "Priorities are important."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.