The Blue Green Algae Task Force Focuses on the Safety of Our Air and Water

by SC Contributing Writers Jerry Smith and Jim Metzler

On September 24th and 25th, the Blue Green Algae Task Force held their fourth and fifth meetings. The meeting on the 25th is discussed in a companion article. This article will focus on the September 24th meeting, the agenda for which included updates on public health from the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) as well as a discussion of storm water management.

Public Health

Some Progress has Happened
The morning session of the meeting was dedicated to a discussion of the public health issues associated with harmful algal blooms that have become a significant concern to Floridians. The role of the FDOH is “To protect, promote and improve the health of all people in Florida”. This responsibility incudes evaluation of human health effects and outreach to the public. Clear communication and consistent messaging are essential to inform individuals if a recreational waterbody poses a threat to their health and what actions they should take if it does.

Over the past year FDOH and FDEP have taken actions to advance communication with the general public regarding harmful algal blooms. For example, the FDOH website has been updated and includes a link to the FDEP website. The FDEP has a weekly blue-green algal update report and a dashboard to which you can subscribe. The FDEP website includes information on what the algal blooms mean and their possible health impact. To report an algal bloom, you can use the FDEP website or call FDEP at 1-855-305-3909.

Some Important Details
However, knowing when an algal bloom is harmful is challenging. “In the short term we have some real short comings” said Task Force Chair Dr. Tom Frazer. “We are limited by technology to quickly assess the toxins”. Dr. Kendra Goff with FDOH noted that “Florida is home to many different types of cyanobacteria and they do not always produce cyanotoxins, so sometimes it is difficult to say there’s a bloom out there and it is producing toxins, because you cannot tell that by looking at a cyanobacteria bloom. So, our public health message has been and continues to be if you see a cyanobacteria bloom, then stay out of the water because you really cannot determine just by looking at it that cyanotoxins are present.”

It is important to realize that most algae blooms are harmless and are an important part of the food web and that algae can grow quickly and form blooms. Unfortunately, the environmental conditions that trigger an algal bloom to become a harmful algal bloom are not understood. These conditions may include excess nutrients (e.g., phosphorus and nitrogen), sunlight, calm water, and warm water temperatures. The duration of the bloom depends on the lake and weather conditions.

Task Force Recommendations
The Task Force is encouraging FDOH and FDEP to develop a more robust education and communication plan with easy to consume information, consistent messaging and consistent implementation of advisories when harmful algal blooms are present. The Task Force is also recommending that research be done to:

  • Identify the short-term and long-term health effects of cyanotoxins;
  • Identify the environmental conditions that triggers harmful blooms;
  • Possibly develop a tool to predict the development of an algal bloom before it happens.

Steps You Can Take Now
Three important steps to remember when confronted with an algal bloom are to:

  • Recognize it;
  • Avoid it;
  • Report it.

While it was not part of the Task Force meeting, the State of California has a very informative reference guide comparing non-toxic algae and plants and Cyanobacteria and Harmful Algal Blooms (See link here).

Storm Water Management

Organizational Responsibility
The afternoon session of the meeting was dedicated to a discussion of storm water management. Storm water management is regulated under the Federal Clean Water Act (CWA). The FDEP has regulatory authority of storm water. The FDEP Division of Water Resource Management is the regulatory authority of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Program and is responsible for the development, administration and compliance of rules and policy to minimize and prevent the release of pollutants due to storm water discharges.

Presumptive Compliance
A permitted storm water treatment system that is designed and constructed to best management practices (BMPs) is presumed to not cause or contribute to degradation of the receiving water. It was noted by the Task Force that agriculture is not a regulated industrial activity under the CWA.

BMPs and presumptive compliance is a regulatory approach used for both storm water treatment systems and for agriculture. For storm water systems there is evidence that suggests a substantial number of storm-water systems throughout the state fail to achieve their presumed performance standards. As mentioned in the companion article, there is also evidence that agricultural BMPs are not effective.

Task Force Recommendations
The Task Force has several recommendations for storm water systems including:

  • Enhancing the current process of storm water treatment system inspections;
  • Implementing a monitoring program with the goal of identifying non-compliant systems and taking the necessary corrective actions to meet expected treatment goals;
  • Revising and updating the current approach to storm water treatment design to incorporate the best currently available engineering practices relative to storm water treatment technologies.

Your Involvement
Agendas and presentation material from previous meetings as well as the September 24th and 25th meetings are posted on the Task Force website. There is also a place on their website for public comments and questions. The Task Force is actively seeking public input. We strongly suggest that if you have any questions or comments, that you send them to the Task Force.

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