Aug. 31, 2017
Algae Blooms Need State's Complete Attention
By John Cassani
Harmful algal blooms that sometimes look like guacamole have returned once again. Some species of harmful algae and cyanobacteria can produce potent toxins than can sicken and kill people, wildlife and domestic animals.
The problem requires immediate and continuous attention; not the sporadic reactionary or discretionary attention it now receives. In 1999, the state wisely convened an advisory panel of scientists, engineers, economists, and representatives from citizen groups. Known as the Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force, its existence was codified in a Florida Statute still in existence. The state, however, defunded the task force two years later and it faded into obscurity.
The algae blooms have grown worse over the last 16 years and have become a regular occurrence in Florida waters due largely to excessive nutrient enrichment delivered mostly by storm water runoff. When bloom occurred in south Florida during the 2016 tourist season, Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in Martin, St. Lucie and eventually Lee County. But, he was widely criticized for not providing timely notice of the public health risks and blamed the problem on the Federal Government, side-stepping the issue of nutrient pollution within the state.
Again this year another significant bloom of the cyano variety has occurred on Lake Okeechobee producing high levels of the toxin microcystin. Ominously, the “bloom season” is not over with reports of blooms coming in from the Caloosahatchee and other areas of the state. The problem has even shut down Lee County’s Olga Water Treatment plant on the Caloosahatchee this year as it has many times in the past.
The World Health Organization has studied the problem of blooms for many years and developed guidelines for risk-based exposure to cyanotoxins.
The Environmental Protection Agency has adopted and recommended actionable, peer reviewed guidelines for recreational exposure under the direction of the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 2014. EPA lists 22 states that have developed policies that dictate actionable outcomes. These policies improve bloom prediction and include science based notification of the risks associated with recreational exposure to HAB cyanotoxins. Despite serving as the national HAB poster child, Florida has failed to adopt such guidelines.
The Calusa Waterkeeper and a team of Rangers monitor the Caloosahatchee for HABs. Furthermore, waterkeepers around the state have come together and now call for the Florida Legislature to reactivate and adequately fund the Florida HAB Task Force. The development policies for science based monitoring and effective notification of the risks from recreational exposure to HABs and their toxins are badly needed.
Legislators cannot ignore the problem out of fear of frightening tourists from coming to Florida. Please contact Gov. Scott and your state legislators and tell them to reinstate the HAB Task Force. Your health and your children’s health may depend on it.