Blue Green Algae Task Force Comes to Ft. Myers

by SC Contributors Jim Metzler and Jerry Smith

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In a recent article we discussed the first meeting of the Blue Green Algae Task Force. As a reminder, in January, Governor DeSantis issued executive order 19-12. That executive order called for the establishment of a Bluegreen Algae Task Force. The Governor charged the Task Force to focus on expediting progress towards reducing the adverse impacts of blue-green algae blooms. The first meeting of the Task Force was held in Tallahassee. The second meeting of the Task Force was held July the 1st in Ft. Myers. This article contains a detailed summary of that meeting.

The second meeting of the task force focused primarily on the Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) for Lake Okeechobee. A BMAP is a broad-based plan that is developed with the input of local stakeholders and is the guide for restoring an impaired water body by reducing pollutant loadings to meet mandated targets. A comprehensive set of projects and strategies are identified within the BMAP to restore impaired water quality by reducing pollutant loadings to meet specific targets for those pollutants. In total there are 38 BMAPs statewide, including the one for Lake O.

The Task Force is chaired by Florida’s Chief Science Officer, Dr. Tom Frazer. Dr. Frazer started the meeting by saying that he is not trying to hide from the environmental challenges that we are facing, but he thought it was helpful to take a step back and look at all that has been recently accomplished. The accomplishments he mentioned included moving forward with three reservoirs, receiving matching funds to complete the raising of the Tamiami Trail to let water flow south into Florida Bay, and the project that the Army Corps of Engineers has kicked off to reexamine the operations schedule that is used to determine how much water should be released out of Lake O and down the Caloosahatchee River. He stated that going forward, the focus of the Task Force is not on “What we can do”, but “What we should do” and that “We need to think outside the box.”

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has regulatory responsibility for BMAPs in Florida. It has been tasked by Governor DeSantis to submit an updated BMAP for Lake O by January 17, 2020. The current BMAP for Lake O focuses on just one pollutant – phosphorus. There was a general understanding by the Task Force that the updated BMAP will also include nitrogen. However, as discussed below, the Task Force also expressed their belief that it may be necessary to measure specific forms of nitrogen and that it is important to understand what specific types of blue green algae are forming in the Lake.

The Task Force briefly reviewed some of the projects that were in the current BMAP. Given that the Task Force is just getting started and hence were not that familiar with the projects, that discussion stayed at a high level. For example, the Task Force discussed the need to measure the impact of the BMAP projects. There was also a discussion of the viability of accelerating the projects that have the biggest impact. While not negating the importance of big impact projects. Thomas Frick, the Director of the Division of Environmental Assessment & Restoration in Florida’s DEP pointed out that in addition to big impact projects that they also look at several smaller projects which when taken together have a big impact.

There was a discussion by the Task Force about what specific water quality factors should be monitored. A few members of the task force suggested that there is a need to look at algae at the species level, as well as at the chemical composition of the nutrient, and to look at other environmental conditions, such as the temperature of the water. There appeared to be agreement amongst the members of the Task Force that it is important to measure ammonia, a specific form of nitrogen. The reason for that being that depending on factors such as the species of algae and the growth stage of the algae, the form of the nutrient present is an important determinant in the ability of the algae to assimilate the nutrient. The Task Force also noted that the dominant blue green algae species present in the Lake Okeechobee algal blooms has changed from Anabaena to Microcystis. Unfortunately, both Anabaena and Microcystis can produce toxins which can cause health issues to those exposed either by inhalation or ingestion.

The goal of the current Lake O BMAP is to limit the amount of phosphorus loading that enters the Lake to no more than 140 metric tons a year. Two years ago, roughly 370 metric tons of phosphorous entered the Lake and a year ago, driven in part by Hurricane Irma over 1,000 metric tons of phosphorus entered the Lake. The large gap between the goal of the BMAP and the current reality drove a lengthy conversation. Dr. Frazer said that the phosphorous load was trending in the wrong direction and he stated his belief that the Task Force should make recommendations for projects to be added to Lake Okeechobee’s BMAP to reverse that trend. Relative to reducing the nutrients coming into the Lake, Dr. Wendy Graham of the University of Florida was a strong advocate of adding more Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs). For more on STAs, see here.

It is widely agreed that monitoring water quality is essential to the ability to measure the impact of BMAP projects, both individually and in total. A document provided to the Task Force shows there are nearly 600 Water Information Network (WIN) Stations in the Lake O BMAP and that many of the stations are located within Lake O. The Task Force spent considerable time discussing the water quality monitoring that is currently being done in the Lake and the monitoring that needs to be done. The consensus was that more data was needed to enable better decisions to be made about the types and priority of projects that should be implemented. The Task Force stated that they saw a role for themselves in trying to harmonize the monitoring that was being done by the Florida DEP and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). The goal being to identify and eliminate redundant or unnecessary monitoring and to identify monitoring that needs to be done. It is very likely that the monitoring of water quality will be on the agenda for future Task Force meetings.

There was a lengthy discussion of the sediment that is at the bottom of Lake O. There was wide agreement that even if no new nutrients were to enter Lake O that the Lake would exhibit high level of nutrients for decades just based on the nutrients coming out of the sediment and becoming part of the water in the Lake. The comment was made that there needs to be better monitoring of this sediment. There was also wide agreement that resolving Lake Okeechobee’s water quality issues will require both reducing the level of nutrients coming into the Lake and then removing some or all of the sediment layer. During the public comment period, Rae Ann Wessel of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, said she’d like to see the Task Force focus on nutrient sediments that have built up on the bottom of Lake O and other waterbodies. 

Another element in meeting the pollutant reduction goal of a BMAP are Best Management Practices (BMPs). If an agricultural operation is within the area of the BMAP, then the operation must either monitor for the pollutant(s) of concern or adopt Best Management Practices (BMPs) relative to water quality. BMPs were the subject of considerable conversation, both on the part of the Task Force and during the public comment period. Critics of BMPs point out that there is lax enforcement of the BMPs that are in place north of the Lake. Some critics also state their belief that given that the phosphorous load into the Lake keeps increasing, that these BMPs can’t be working. Advocates for BMPs say that they are based on science and that in general the agricultural concerns adhere to them. The value of BMPs has been and will continue to be an ongoing discussion among conservationists.

The topic of discussion in the afternoon was the introduction of innovative technologies and methods to prevent and/or clean up harmful algal blooms in Florida’s freshwater bodies and estuaries. The Florida DEP issued a Request for Information (RFI) on that topic the same day of the meeting. The Task Force discussed their role in the evaluation of the responses to that RFI that are due by July 15th. They also identified some criteria they might use to make recommendations as to the merits of the various submissions.

The bottom line is that the Task Force is still getting started and that they problems they are addressing are extremely complex. It is both exciting and promising that they are working in such an open and inclusive fashion. One key metric of their success in the short term is the influence that they have on the upcoming revised Lake O BMAP and on key issues that the Florida legislature will begin debating in a few months. With that latter goal in mind, the next meeting of the task force will focus on septic systems and will also look at algal toxins and their impact on human health.

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