Allen's Blog    

March 4, 2020

Florida's Blue-Green Algae Task Force

Can Science Regain Relevance in the Realm of Environmental Regulation and Management?

During his 2018 campaign for Governor, Ron DeSantis showed a genuine concern for the water quality crisis which plagued South Florida related to extensive Blue-Green Algae Blooms . Not only were these blooms debilitating to the local tourism and real estate industry, but evidence was gathering that many of these  Blue-Green Algae produced toxins which threatened not only the health of wildlife, but also had serious human health implications, including possible connections to Alzheimer's disease and ALS, as well as liver toxicity. The ubiquity of these blooms in South Florida, as well as other regions of the State, imposed upon the economy, ecological integrity, and overall quality of life, and there still remains some uncertainty regarding influence of these blooms upon the serious red tide outbreaks of 2018-2019.

As promised, when elected Governor, DeSantis quickly appointed  Thomas Frazer as Chief Science Officer , whose responsibilities included coordinating and prioritizing scientific data, research, monitoring and analysis as needed to ensure alignment with current and emerging environmental concerns most pressing to Floridians. Shortly thereafter, the Governor created the Blue-Green Algae Task Force,  and assigned Dr. Frazer oversight of the Task Force. Members of the Task Force include five well respected scientists from around the State, in addition to Dr. Frazer. The intent of  the Blue-Green Algae Task Force is, through a deliberative and transparent process, to ensure that objective and sound science informs Florida’s environmental decision-making process. Input from the Task Force will be used, for example, to support key funding and restoration initiatives and guide regulatory changes that are needed to improve water quality for the benefit of all Floridians.

The next Blue-Green Algae Task Force meeting is March 16, 2020 at  FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Ft. Pierce.  I have tried to keep up with the workings of the Task Force, and have offered  what I hope were helpful comments. I intend to present the following statement at this upcoming session.

As a longtime advocate for a science-based strategy for water resource management, I have become skeptical of technical advisory groups. Many of these groups either succumb to the pressures of short-term economic interests; are created simply to serve as a rubber stamp for these interests; or when legitimate, find their recommendations are given a place on a dusty shelf to be forgotten forever. When I first heard about the Blue-Green Algae Task Force, I was again skeptical. I am pleased that I have found this skepticism to be unwarranted.

The Blue-Green Algae Task Force, in their Consensus report of October 2019, as was their charge, remained true to science in their initial evaluations into what elicited the extensive Cyanobacterial blooms of 2015-2019 in South Florida, and in so doing, challenged several existing environmental regulatory strategies—including the “presumption of compliance” applied to stormwater designs as noted in Fl. Stat 373.4131(3)(b) (2013). We should all appreciate the efforts of the Task Force, for they offer suggestions which, if implemented, would result in extensive and helpful adjustments to how society confronts issues of environmental degradation.

While the implication is subtle, the Consensus Report serves as a reminder that science is persistent. While it may be convenient to reject, ignore or deny science in order to accommodate short-term financial returns, science inevitably will prevail and expose miscalculations—whether accidental or intentional. And this exposure can be and often is dramatic, disruptive and damaging to economic interests, and more importantly, to our posterity.  Such is the nature of the recent Cyanobacterial blooms in South Florida.

If you need an example of what can happen when we dismiss or obscure science, look into the history of the 1983 Water Quality Assurance Act (Ch. 83-310 Florida Law)—which more accurately could be called the Septic Tank Proliferation Act. This Act included a mandate to transfer septic tank regulation from the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation (now FDEP) to the Department of Health and Human Services (now FDOH). This transfer resulted in an almost exclusive emphasis upon the human health concerns while ignoring the issue regarding nutrient pollution. Consequently, this provided justification for an increase in allowable septic tank densities to 1,500-2,500 gallons per day per acre or about 5-8 septic tanks per acre. This was in direct conflict with scientific evidence that densities of over one septic tank per acre could generate substantial nutrient pollution to downstream waters[1]. The 1983 Act of course was a political instrument intended to open up development in large expansive areas which were not connected to regional wastewater facilities. We are now paying a price for allowing this Act to be implemented with the deterioration of our Springs and other surface water resources. This 1983 Act, which many of us opposed, is but one scenario in which discounting science diminished our quality of life.

The Task Force, in a polite way, has assumed the role of the young child pointing out that the Emperor is naked.  They did this without being accusatory or assigning blame to specific interests or individuals. If they had decided to be less polite, they could have noted that many of the environmental regulatory tools which have been established in Florida have been carefully crafted to not impose upon short-term economic interests and that ignoring or misinterpreting science was an important component of this crafting.  Unfortunately, and as was predicted by more than one voice in the wilderness, what has resulted is the degradation of some of Florida’s most cherished and valuable water resources as well as loss of biodiversity and critical habitat.

And so, we have learned that accomplishing meaningful long-term environmental protection through regulatory compromises between development interests and scientific truths is non-sequitur. It is incongruous. This is true because scientific principles are not negotiable or available for such compromises—whether it is the law of gravity, conservation of mass within the context of Newtonian Physics, or the second law of thermodynamics-- these truths will prevail. For example making a presumption that pollutants associated with stormwater which enter the ground from a retention pond are 100% removed, and hence will never enter downgradient surface waters is scientifically flawed, for water will follow gradients, and these quite often lead to downgradient surface waters[2].

As the Task Force noted in their Consensus Report, these flaws or oversights need to be corrected. And while they did not use the term “scientifically flawed” they did challenge past strategies quite openly. Note the following from the Consensus Report.

The presumption that a stormwater treatment system constructed and permitted in compliance with BMP design criteria will not cause or contribute to violations of surface water quality standards in adjacent and/or connected waterbodies has been evaluated and challenged. Available data suggest that a substantial number of stormwater treatment systems throughout the state fail to achieve their presumed performance.

I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said “all disaster movies begin with a scientist being ignored”. Is Florida that disaster movie? How much longer can we ignore science in the pursuit of economic growth rather than economic balance? I hope the Task Force continues their work, and that their recommendations are incorporated into meaningful regulatory revisions. My greatest fear is that their efforts will be applauded, and then, through special interest lobbying, be quickly relegated to that lonely forgotten dusty shelf.

The other day when I testified at a hearing regarding a zoning change I brought up the statement from the Consensus Report that presumption of compliance regarding stormwater design had been challenged, and that this challenge needed to be seriously considered when contemplating zoning change to high intensity commercial land use 150 feet from Class II, Outstanding Florida Waters. The hearing officer noted that this was interesting, but the code supported the presumption of compliance, and the statement by a group of scientists while noteworthy, had no institutional relevance. Will the Task Force follow-up on their reporting by pursuing changes in these codes and institutionalizing their opinions? Will their recommendations offered in their Consensus Report be incorporated into regulatory revisions?

As a final note, while the Task Force offered comment on BMAP’s, Agricultural BMP’s, Septic Tanks (OSTDS), Stormwater Management, Wastewater Systems, legacy nutrients, and to a limited degree, human health impacts of Cyanotoxins, I would hope in the near future they also address the issue of herbicide application and its potential impact upon aquatic systems, and upon the prevalence of Cyanobacteria. Also needed, is an objective analysis of long-term benefits of mechanical harvesting of aquatic plants not only as an herbicide replacement strategy but also as a means of reducing legacy nutrients while serving as an impediment to Cyanobacterial production. Eventually it would be helpful if such harvesting efforts could be bolstered by a Pay-for-Performance program[3] where the private sector would be rewarded environmental service fees based upon the pounds of phosphorus and perhaps nitrogen removed from the system through mechanical harvesting.   

It would also be helpful if the Task Force could expand upon the health implications associated with Cyanobacteria. I imagine the Task Force has discussed this issue with Dail Laughinghouse, the phycologist for IFAS, and hopefully with Larry Brand of the University of Miami. As was noted, this is a controversial issue. If the Task Force could offer an objective, more detailed scientific assessment it would go a long way to establishing public awareness and providing a science based risk assessment.

[1] In January 1977, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Water Supply issued a report to Congress on waste disposal practices and their effects on Groundwater. Their assessment of the influence of septic tanks was clearly stated on page 194:

“ it should be noted that septic tank density of greater than 40/sq. mi designates a region of potential contamination problems.”

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water Supply January , 1977 The Report to Congress Waste Disposal Practices and the effect on Groundwater. Pg. 194  EPA-570/9-77-001

[2] Note the statement from Evaluation of Current Stormwater Design Criteria within the State of Florida (2007) Harvey H. Harper, Ph.D., P.E. David M. Baker, FDEP Contract No. SO108

Of the three basic stormwater treatment systems, retention provides the highest level of treatment possible. All stormwater runoff retained or infiltrated into the ground is assumed to have a 100% mass pollutant removal efficiency for the retained volume.

[3] See the blog entitled Harvesting Hydrilla in Florida Lakes A Long-Term Strategy for Large-Scale Removal of Legacy Phosphorus and Maintenance of Viable Habitat

 https://www.pasop.org/harvesting-hydrilla-to-recover-lega

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