The second meeting of the State of Florida’s “Blue-Green Algae Task Force” met Monday, July 1, in Fort Myers at the Lee County School Board Building at 2855 Colonial Boulevard before roughly 150 people.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis created the Blue-Green Algae Task Force on April 29 to focus on expediting water quality improvements within the next five years through key funding and restoration initiatives, prioritizing solutions and making recommendations to expediate nutrient reductions to Lake Okeechobee and downstream estuaries like the Caloosahatchee River, San Carlos Bay and Estero Bay. The Task Force will identify opportunities to fund priority projects with state, local and federal funds to build on the Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) updated Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) data. The panel will review and prioritize projects to provide the largest and most meaningful nutrient reductions in key waterbodies and will examine connections between Blue-Green Algae and Red Tide Algae Blooms that recently affected Florida’s coastlines.
The five member Task Force includes Dr. Evelyn Gaiser of Florida International University; Dr. Wendy Graham of the University of Florida; Dr. Valerie Paul of the Smithsonian Marine Station; Dr. James Sullivan of Florida Atlantic University; and Dr. Michael Parsons of Florida Gulf Coast University and Director of the Coastal Watershed Institute and Vester Marine & Environmental Field Station. Dr. Thomas Frazer, appointed by Governor DeSantis as Florida’s first-ever Chief Science Officer, monitored the session, with Dr. Gaiser participating via conference call. Assisting Dr. Frazer at various points were Dr. Thomas Frick, DEP Director of the Division of Ecosystem Assessment & Restoration; and Chris Pettit, the State’s Agricultural Water Policy Director.
“Governor DeSantis is committed to improving water in Florida,” said Dr. Frazer. “Clean water is vital not only to our environment but our tourism economy, as losses from poor water quality in 2018 were staggering, with Sanibel alone reporting roughly $46 million in lost income from last year. We value public participation, so there will be Public Comment at the end of the meeting, or you can fill out written Comment Cards. This is the Blue-Green Algae Task Force’s second Public Meeting, and today we will examine Lake Okeechobee restoration projects, its BMAP elements, and how to assess potential innovative projects that may provide short and long-term water quality solutions.”
Lake O Restoration Review
Dr. Frazer stated that current models focus on the Phosphorous nutrients coming into Lake Okeechobee, ‘but we must also concentrate on the watershed, its changing hydrology, and Florida’s growing demographic, as we have roughly 1,000 people moving here every day, meaning in ten years, Florida’s population will be 25 million, so to focus on Phosphorous but no other nutrients will affect the decisions we make into the future.”
He called upon Dr. Frick to discuss the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan for Lake Okeechobee; TMDL is a regulatory term through the United States Clean Water Act to restore impaired water by identifying the maximum amounts of a pollutant that a body of water can hold, while still meeting water quality standards.
“We are getting ready to formally update the BMAP that we must do every five years,” said Dr. Frick. “We will be looking for more in-depth ways to monitor and evaluate water quality programs, specifically for Lake Okeechobee, with the goal of completing these by mid-January 2020, through the cooperation of the various Florida Water Management Districts, to fill in the gaps in the plan, so that we can solve all of these issues within the next 20 years, to meet the goal of Governor DeSantis. Right now, we are meeting a little bit less than half of the TMDL reduction level, so the question is, what other new projects will help us to attain that additional 60 percent.”
Dr. Gaiser opined that “the projects that are underway are excellent but we need projects in the upper areas of the Lake Okeechobee basin, in and around the Kissimmee region, to clean the lake itself, to reduce nutrients, to improve the quality of our water, and get a bigger bang for our buck. The cleaner the water that enters Lake Okeechobee from the north will make it easier to release clean water to the south of the lake, rather than having to release polluted water down the estuaries to the east and west.” Dr. Frazer stated that “there are a number of projects to get us additional treatment and storage capacity, but we still fall short in the treatments of the nutrients from north of the lake.”
Dr. Parson felt that too many BMAP projects focus on Phosphorous and not enough on Nitrogen reduction, “and that is the way to get a bigger bang for our buck!” “We have a wealth of data,” added Dr. Paul, “but no one has yet specifically put all that data together. This will produce new knowledge and that is always quite informative.” Dr. Sullivan stated that “we need to understand this data to determine the Nitrogen load, to find the environmental trigger, before the Blue-Green Algae blooms are already in place, so this is a critical thing.” Dr. Paul noted that “blooms are starting to last longer as our weather heats up, so there are a lot of changes that are influencing the dynamic.” “We need to understand exactly what is being measured,” concluded Dr. Parsons, “or we will be comparing apples and oranges.”
“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” related Dr. Sullivan, “as there is a lot of microcystin data from all around the world, though not every lake is the same. It is really important to understand what is going on with the Lake’s sediments, to monitor its legacy loads.” “We do not need to reinvent the wheel,” agreed Dr. Graham, “as the Basin Management Action Plan model for agricultural areas south of Lake Okeechobee work really well, so an effective nutrient reduction model is already out there.”
Lake O BMAP Elements
“South of the lake, all agricultural areas are required by permit to use BMAP, with inspections required by the DEP to ensure they meet their mandated nutrient reductions,” explained Dr. Graham. “North of the lake it is a different story, with the monitoring of daily and legacy nutrient loads not as strict, so we must pinpoint those.” Chris Pettit stated that “over 75% of all agricultural parcels are enrolled in a BMAP program, and we are working diligently to enroll the rest. We have roughly 11,000 statewide, and conduct an annual review each year on about 3,000.” Dr. Gaiser said that “we need to know the change in the application rate before and after the implementation of the BMAP to determine the success through quantitative data.” Dr. Sullivan asked “why are only 75% enrolled; why not the other 25%?” “These are the low-hanging fruit,” replied Pettit. “Of those agricultural sites larger than 50 acres, we are up to over 90%. Most of the unenrolled are ‘ranchettes’ of roughly 5 to 10 acres.”
“If we were to cut off all the water flowing into the watershed today, it would still take decades to clean up the nutrients,” summed up Dr. Graham. “We need a wider plan!” “Especially since Florida is trending away from agriculture,” noted Dr. Paul, “so we must look for answers that do not exclusively involve BMAPs but study nutrients in the context of everything else.” “There is no silver bullet,” stated Dr. Graham. “We just need to keep doing it every day! We must focus more on Nitrogen, as everything we do is Phosphorous-oriented, and that is not comprehensive enough.”
After the lunch break, the Task Force discussed the “Introduction to the Innovative Technology Solicitation Process.” “The State issued the ‘Request For Information’ today,” reported Dr. Frazer, “with those due back July 15.”
Dr. Parsons said that any potential innovation “must be effective, with that judgement made in an independent way, with the proof in the pudding, then we must find a way to integrate a price component so that it can get through the municipal procurement process.” “There must be an industry standard metric,” suggested Dr. Sullivan, “to separate proven from unproven technology. Also, the inventor or company has to agree to proprietary disclosure to satisfy environmental safeguards.” “Scalability is important,” added Dr. Parsons, “as not one size will fit all. Some technologies will work better in smaller bodies of water and some in larger.” “There are two categories here,” offered Dr. Paul. “One is for readiness that is proven effective; the other for technology under development.” Dr. Graham stated that “the projects that offer the best monitoring and assessment should receive a very high priority, for proper evaluation.”
Next came the Public Comment Period, where 26 speakers addressed the Task Force in 3-minute increments. Following this, the Task Force adjourned until their next meeting on Thursday, August 1, at another Florida community, though that location has not been determined yet.
By Gary Mooney