Hold the Guacamole: Florida Making Important Steps in Combating Harmful Algal Blooms

The Blue-Green Algae Task Force recommends strategies for reducing nutrient flow into Florida waters

Over the past few years, Floridians have become unpleasantly familiar with repeated noxious harmful blue-green algal blooms that have plagued rivers and estuaries, killing fish and shellfish, fouling boats and undermining the tourism economy. We’ve become so familiar with these thick, fluffy green plumes of blooming cyanobacteria that we’ve embraced a more descriptive nickname: Guacamole Algae.

But in recent days, Florida has taken some critically important steps in alleviating the impacts of Guacamole Algae. The Blue-Green Algae Task Force, created by Governor DeSantis and funded by the state Legislature in early 2019, issued its first consensus report on October 11. It recommends strategies for reducing nutrients flowing into Florida’s lakes, canals and estuaries that fuel harmful blue-green algae blooms.

The Task Force commendably focuses on the most critical issues, providing a road map of how to reduce nutrients that fuel toxic blooms through changes to regulations and management actions. And Ocean Conservancy provided a list of recommendations to the task force that focused on reducing impacts to the marine and coastal environment of Florida, all of which were thankfully included in the consensus report.

And these recommendations could not have come sooner. As of last week, the Department of Environmental Protection reported 49 blooms of blue-green algae in the state, including several in Lake Okeechobee. Some scientists speculate that blue-green algae might even be a source of food for the organism responsible for red tide, which has recently re-appeared this month off Southwest Florida.

While blue-green algae occur naturally in aquatic ecosystems, some species can grow into toxic mats when excess nutrients from agriculture, failing septic tanks and sewer and stormwater treatment systems leach into waterbodies. Increasing temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns driven by climate change also create conditions favoring blooms. The Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie River estuaries and their waterfront-based economies have been hit especially hard when freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee or runoff from local coastal basins, combined with low tidal flushing and climate change effects, trigger estuary blooms. The algal mats are not only unsightly, but they create a neurotoxin, Microcystin, harmful to people, pets, livestock and wildlife.

A common theme in the Task Force recommendations is strengthening the effectiveness of restoration activities and best management practices for reducing nutrient loads. For instance, the Task Force recommends improvements to Basin Management Action Plans—blueprints for restoring impaired waters—aimed at maximizing pollutant reductions in strategic focal areas. For agricultural producers, the Task Force recommends increasing their enrollment in the Best Management Practices program and collecting data to verify ‘presumed’ BMP compliance with water quality standards. Importantly, the Task Force tackled septic tanks, which are currently not regulated for nutrient discharges. A new inspection and monitoring program to detect leaky tanks and stem the flow of nutrient pollution is recommended.

The Task Force also recognizes the importance of water storage and treatment infrastructure for managing freshwater flows and achieving water quality goals. This recommendation reinforces Everglades restoration priorities intended to limit harmful freshwater discharges to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries while making more of that water available for the Everglades and Florida Bay.

Now, armed with the Task Force’s initial recommendations, the ball is in the Legislature’s court where the recommendations must be passed into law. And just this week, Governor DeSantis has promised to unveil a barrage of water quality legislation that will do just that.

It’s an all hands on deck moment for Florida’s water resources. If you’re a Floridian, a visitor to Florida or simply love clean water and healthy oceans, you should care about fixing the conditions that have created the Guacamole Algae problem. That’s why Ocean Conservancy is committed to continuing to work with the Task Force, state agencies, the Legislature and Governor DeSantis to usher forward meaningful policy and regulatory changes that will protect the precious water that makes Florida such a unique and special place.

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