Blue-Green Algae Task Force: Focus should be on preventing, not removing toxic blooms
TCPalm covers the Florida Blue-Green Algae Task Force meeting and several members of the public who addressed them during a meeting at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, and interviews Mark Perry.
When it comes to combating toxic blue-green algae blooms, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
But you'd better be ready with a cure, too.
That was the message Thursday from the Florida Blue-Green Algae Task Force and several members of the public who addressed them during a meeting at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has received about 100 proposals for ways to prevent, combat and remove algae blooms, and task force members — all academics with expertise in water issues appointed to the reactivated panel in April by Gov. Ron DeSantis — were asked to weigh in on concerns that should be addressed when evaluating them.
In general, members said to beware of unintended consequences.
“We’re in the mess we are now because we manipulated the system,” said Michael Parsons, a marine science professor at Florida Gulf Coast University and director of the Coastal Watershed Institute in Fort Myers.
Chemicals and biological agents can kill massive algae blooms, said Valerie Paul, head of the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce, but when the cells die they release their toxins, which can be harmful to humans.
Also, the dead cells can feed subsequent blooms.
The best way to prevent problems, said Harbor Branch Executive Director James Sullivan, is to prevent blooms or fight them when they’re still small.
And the way to prevent blooms is by reducing the nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer runoff, said Wendy Graham, head of the Water Institute at the University of Florida.
Focus on nutrients
"Your focus should be to remove nutrients from the water to prevent blooms," said Reinaldo Diaz, the Lake Worth Waterkeeper. "Otherwise, you're just treating the symptoms and not the cause."
Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart, agreed: "It all goes back to nutrient loading. ... Your No. 1 focus should be on prevention."
Unfortunately, Parsons said, "There are going to be blooms in the future. Until we have the ability to prevent them, we’re going to have to come up with ways to remove them.”
At the group's second meeting July 1 in Fort Myers, the task force looked at a major source of bloom-feeding nutrients: fertilizer runoff from agriculture.
Members agreed the voluntary "best management practices" designed to curtail high nutrient loads in agricultural runoff don't seem to be working.
The state, said Florida Chief Science Officer Tom Frazer, who leads the panel, may need to try something "radically different," although there was no indication what that might entail.
On Thursday, the panel looked at another nutrient source: the state's 2.4 million septic systems.
But before they can make a recommendation on how to deal with septic systems, members said more research is needed to determine how much the tanks contribute to algae blooms.
Gary Goforth, a Stuart environmental engineer who previously designed water treatment systems for the South Florida Water Management District, told the panel less than 10 percent of the nitrogen in the St. Lucie River estuary comes from septic tanks.
And the estuary never gets large blue-green algae blooms unless the stuff is discharged from Lake Okeechobee.
If the tanks are 5% of the problem, Parsons said, “we don’t want to spend 50% of our resources on them.”
Because it would be impractical and too expensive to study all the state’s septic systems, members agreed efforts should be focused on the most vulnerable areas, particularly around springs and along the state’s coasts.
The Florida Department of Health estimates 40% of the state’s septic tanks are in environmentally sensitive areas.
About 110,000 septic tanks are in use along the Treasure Coast. There are as many as 600,000 septic tanks in the five counties along the Indian River Lagoon.
Charged with making recommendations on regulations and policies that steer water quality in the Sunshine State, the task force will meet for up to seven years and deliver ideas on everything from nutrient management to water storage.
The fifth task force member, Evelyn Gaiser, executive director of the School of Environment, Arts and Society at Florida International University in Miami, was not at the meeting.