What Can We Expect from the Blue Green Algae Task Force?

by SC Contributors Jerry Smith and Jim Metzler

This is part 2 of our analysis of the August 1st meeting of the Blue Green Algae Task Force. Last week we summarized the discussion of septic systems and sanitary sewer overflows. This article will summarize the discussion of the use of innovative technologies to prevent, control and combat harmful algal blooms, as well as our thoughts on what to expect from the Task Force.

Review of a Request for Information (RFI) for Innovative Technologies and Methods

To make this lengthy document more consumable, key concepts are highlighted in bold text.

In a recent article we discussed the second meeting of the Blue Green Algae Task Force. That meeting took place on July the 1st. That is the same day that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) distributed a Request for Information (RFI) regarding innovative technologies and methods to prevent, combat and/or clean up harmful algal blooms in Florida’s freshwater bodies and estuaries. 

At the August 1st meeting, Dr. Frazer, who is Florida’s Chief Science Officer and the chairman of the Task Force, stated the FDEP has received roughly 100 responses to the RFI. Frazer emphasized that it is not a goal of the Task Force to review all the responses and award funding. The goal of the Task Force is to better understand what technologies and methods either currently exist, or are under development, and to use that understanding to better craft grant applications for relevant technologies.

Frazer explained that upon review the technologies that were included in the responses to the RFI were placed into one of three broad categories: biological, chemical and physical. The Task Force discussed each category of solution relative to its ability to either prevent, combat or clean up algal blooms. The Task Force also discussed the need to thoroughly test the applicability of a technology in different aquatic environments. Their point was that a solution that works well in a lab, might not work well in a canal, and a solution that works well in a canal, might not work well in a lake or larger waterbody.

There was general agreement on the part of the Task Force that ideally a significant focus of the Task Force should be on prevention of algal blooms. However, one of the members of the task force, Dr. Mike Parsons, cautioned that finding solution to prevent algal blooms will take time. His point was that there will be algal blooms between now and the time that preventative solutions are found and that the Task Force needs to be able to provide at least some relief to people who are impacted by those blooms.

Dr. James Sullivan also pointed out that there are many challenges to finding meaningful solutions to protect against algal blooms. One challenge is that there are a wide range of harmful algae and little is known about how each type responds, not just to a nutrient like nitrogen, but also to specific forms of nitrogen, such as ammonia. Another challenge is that not all algae are bad. Hence a solution that kills a wide range of algae could end up killing algae that play an important role in the food supply chain. One way that Dr. Sullivan suggests responding to these challenges is by implementing monitoring that provides deep insight into the dynamics of an algal bloom.

The concern expressed over the potential inadvertent killing of helpful algae was similar to a broad concern that the Task Force expressed over the use of any biological or chemical solution. That concern was the potential for unintended negative consequences. The Task Force agreed that one way to reduce the probability of negative consequences was to use solutions that are not only natural but are also native to the ecosystem in which they are used. Another way is to focus very narrowly on a specific type of algae.

The Task Force discussed the importance of not implementing a biological or chemical solution that kills the algae blooms and allows the nutrients to fall to the bottom of the waterbody. In similar fashion, the Task Force discussed that any mechanical solution that is used to remove algal blooms from a waterbody must also include a way to dispose of those blooms in a way that does not further hurt the environment.

What To Expect from the Task Force and Next Steps

It shouldn’t be surprising that a group of scientists constantly seeks more data before making decisions. The desire for more data can be frustrating to people who want solutions immediately and who want to avoid a paralysis by analysis approach to eliminating algal blooms. However, the Task Force has an obligation to the citizens of Florida to not recommend a solution, such as adding a biological agent to a Florida waterbody, without having a high degree of confidence that the agent will be effective and will not cause undo harm. Dr. Frazer has worked to strike a balance between being too hasty and being too caution. For example, at the August 1st meeting he very clearly acknowledged that while there are gaps in what is known about algal blooms, that a lot is unknown.

Dr. Frazer has set out an agenda for the Task Force that includes a discussion of the primary sources of the nutrients that cause harm to Florida waterbodies. He is also very inclusive of the other members of the board in terms of soliciting their input both at a strategic and tactical level. The question is what does he do with all the input that he has gathered?

It is important to remember that the focus of the Task Force is supporting key funding and restoration initiatives, such as prioritizing solutions and making recommendations to expedite nutrient reductions in Lake O and the downstream estuaries. As discussed at the July 1st meeting, the Task Force will play a primary role in providing input and recommendations to the FDEP in the implementation and moving forward the Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs) to meet the associated TMDLs. As a reminder, the BMAP for Lake O is currently under revision and a new BMAP will be presented to the Governor in January 2020.

Our hope for the Task Force is that in their report to the Governor and Legislature that they clearly identify the prevention of nutrients flowing into Lake Okeechobee, the estuaries and the Everglades, as a critical requirement. We also hope that they stress that priority be given to the creation of regulatory and best management practices that will prevent nutrients getting into the ecosystem. Biosolids is an example of a topic that needs additional discussion. We hope the Task Force looks at the continued land application of these waste products to determine if this practice is in Florida’s best interest.

The next meeting of the Task Force is expected to be in early September. Tentative topics for discussion is storm water regulation, and the health impacts of Microcysins. Agendas and presentation material from previous meetings and the August 1 meeting are posted on their website. There is 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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