by SC Contributors Jerry Smith and Jim Metzler
The environmental attack this area experienced last summer had two primary components: blue-green algae and red tide. For more information on the relationship between blue-green algae and red tide, see here.
The growth of blue-green algae requires conditions that we experience every year. That includes warm fresh water, sunlight, and a high concentration of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Both the business and quality of life impact of last year’s attack was clearly visible to all. More recently, blue green-algae has been linked to a wide range of serious public health issues. See here.
In January, Governor DeSantis issued executive order 19-12. That executive order called for the establishment of a Bluegreen Algae Task Force. As part of his executive order, DeSantis charted the Task Force to focus on expediting progress towards reducing the adverse impacts of blue-green algae blooms now and over the next five years. The members of the task force are: Dr. Evelyn Gaiser, Florida International University; Dr. Wendy Graham, University of Florida; Dr. Michael Parsons, Florida Gulf Coast University; Dr. Valerie Paul, Smithsonian; and Dr. James Sullivan, Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch. The task force is chaired by Florida’s Chief Science Officer, Dr. Tom Frazer.
The Task Force’s first meeting, which was held on Wednesday, June the 12th, was comprised of a morning and an afternoon session. Part of Wednesday’s morning session was devoted to the introduction of members, general housekeeping and an introduction and overview of the roles of state and federal agencies in addressing algal-related issues. This included high level regulatory framework presentations by Agencies of state water management and water quality.
Some of the key take-aways from the morning session include:
- The Task Force expects to meet every 3 to 4 weeks throughout the summer.
- The Task Force intends to focus on data collection and analysis of freshwater algae with an emphasis on “monitoring at the right place, right time and right frequency.”
- There are 65 entities proving data to Florida Department of Environmental Protection Watershed Information Network (FDEP WIN) environmental database. There are currently over 35 million water quality records in that database. It is interesting to note that Florida alone contributes about 25 percent of the water quality data that is uploaded to the national database.
- The Task Force recognizes the Red Tide issue and the possible link to blue-green algal blooms and it intends to work collaboratively with those working on that issue.
- The Task Force expressed strong interest in bio-solids and septic systems. These topics received some attention during the 2019 Florida Legislative session but no legislative action was taken.
- The task force expressed their interest to fine tune not replace regulations.
The short-term goals that were identified in the morning session include increasing both monitoring and staffing, as well as holding people accountable for meeting existing regulatory requirements. The longer-term goals that were identified include looking at the different scientific approaches to the blue-green algae issue and determining if there are any gaps. Those long-term goals also include pinpointing projects that the task force could sponsor and identifying possible regulator changes that are necessary.
The afternoon session was a facilitated discussion led by Dr. Tom Frazer that focused on future activities for the Task Force. One of the areas that this session focused on was Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs). These are plans for restoring impaired water bodies.
Some of the afternoon discussion topics included:
- The role of the Task Force in Florida’s BMAP process. For example, the Task Force discussed how the FDEP uses data and deliberated about there being a better use of data to establish monitoring and evaluation of projects. The Task Force also discussed providing advice to FDEP on the prioritization of BMAP projects.
- An in-depth discussion of bio-solids and septic systems. The Task Force expressed surprise that septic systems are regulated by the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) and not the FDEP.
- The viability of looking at a looking at creating a case study that focuses on a small, well defined piece of land that is drained by a river and its tributaries. The discussion focused on how to use a case study such as this to answer questions that include: Where have we seen success? What is the general applicability of this case study? What is the scalability of the study?
The overall goal that the Task Force expressed in the afternoon session was to “Integrate science to make better decisions on how we use resources, so that we can get the most bang for the buck.” The Task Force also expressed their expectation that there would be ample public engagement in the work of the Task Force.
At this point in time there are several reasons for cautious optimism. This includes the fact that Governor DeSantis created the Task Force and populated it with respected scientists. It also includes what appears to be an aggressive, open process to reduce the adverse impacts of blue-green algae blooms. There are also several open questions. One key question is how the Task Force will interact with other groups, such as the South Florida Water Management District.
For further information, a dashboard created by the FDEP that highlights the current status of algal blooms. In addition, the Blue-green Algae Task Force’s web page contains further details on the Task Force as well as pointers to the presentations that were used at the kickoff meeting. It also provides a mechanism for interested parties to subscribe to weekly updates.