State of Florida encouraged to ‘go to war on algae’

OKEECHOBEE — “We have to protect Lake Okeechobee. The water and the nutrients are coming from the north. It doesn’t make any sense to clean it going south. We have to focus on the source of the water, clean it there and store it there to reduce the flow to the lake. That is just common sense,” Dr. Brian Lapointe of Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute told the Florida Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Environment and General Government on Jan. 9.

Dr. Lapointe urged the senators to use science, not politics, to guide decisions on water quality issues.

The research professor explained some of the misconceptions about the watershed issues.

The “send it south” slogan is a distraction, he told the senators. Dirty water is coming from north of the lake and should be cleaned before it goes into the lake, Dr. Lapointe said.

“Send it south” is promoted by some environmental groups who claim excess water from Lake Okeechobee should go south into the Everglades instead of east and west to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. He said sending water from Lake Okeechobee south into the Everglades is not possible during the wet season.

“When it’s wet north of the Everglades and there are high water levels in Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades has high water levels, too, so the whole idea of moving water south is complicated. How can you move it south when there is already too much water?” he asked.

Two years ago, they had to move water uphill into the lake from the south, he explained. In 2016, heavy rainfall south of the lake resulted in flooding in the Everglades, threatening native wildlife. Millions of gallons of clean freshwater were pumped north into Lake Okeechobee to reduce flooding in the Everglades.

Dr. Lapointe said theories that Florida Bay needs more freshwater are unproven.

“There is still no published peer-reviewed paper showing that high salinity kills those sea grasses,” he said.

“That was the perception in the 1990s, which George Barley believed, which led to the flooding of the bay and all of the damage that occurred in the Florida Keys,” he said. “There was no published science to support that. That was politics.”

Even if Florida Bay needed more freshwater, if the natural flow from the lake were restored to the south, the water wouldn’t go to Florida Bay, he said.

“You hear we should send the lake releases to Florida Bay. The reality is flow from Central Everglades does not go to Florida Bay,” Dr. Lapointe explained.

“You hear this today: ‘The Corps of Engineers drained the Everglades, and the national park is starved for water.’ You hear that a lot, but just the opposite is true. The flow of water to the park has been measured every day by United States Geological Survey since Oct. 1, 1931. The flow has increased incrementally over time,” he said.

“The environmental groups have pointed the finger at fertilizers and farmers,” Dr. Lapointe continued. However, in the Treasure Coast area, “since the year 2000, we have seen acreage of citrus go down by 70 percent.”

While the acreage in agriculture has shrunk, the human population has grown, and in a lot of the urbanized areas 50 percent of the residents use septic tanks, he continued.

“The problems in the lagoon are population growth and inadequate infrastructure,” he said.

Dr. Lapointe said the political and media attention on plans for a reservoir south of the lake is a distraction from the larger problem.

“Building a reservoir to the south is not going to protect Lake Okeechobee,” he said, adding that at best, the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir will reduce flow to the coastal estuaries by about 15 percent.

“The water causing the problem is coming from north of the lake,” he said.

Dr. Lapointe said those who propose solutions that are not based on sound science confuse the public and make it harder to solve the water quality problems.

“We all have to sing out of the same hymn book. We need a master plan based on sound science, not politics,” he said.

He said his own research points to septic tanks as a major source of nutrient overload in the sensitive watershed. Dr. Lapointe has used stable nitrogen isotopes to “fingerprint” nitrogen sources.

“Septic tanks are a major source of nitrogen feeding algae blooms in Florida,” he explained.

According to the Florida Department of Health, Florida has 2.6 million septic tanks. About 39 percent of Floridians rely on septic systems, he said. Compounding the problem, while in most states septic tanks are used in rural areas, in Florida they are found in heavily populated coastal areas.

“Septic systems provide only primary treatment and are not designed to remove nutrients, bacteria, viruses, pharmaceutical or organic wastewater compounds,” he said.

“There is a lot of poor understanding about septic tanks. People say septic tanks are leaking and we need to check them. Septic tanks are designed to leak.”

Even a properly functioning septic tank that has been pumped out regularly in accordance with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommendations releases effluent rich in nitrogen and phosphorus back into the watershed.

He said septic tanks have two basic components: A tank that holds the solids and the drain field. Liquid effluent from the tank flows to the drain field.

Building codes call for 2 feet of soil between the septic tank and the water table, he said. EPA recommends 3 to 4 feet of separation. In many parts of Florida, the water tables are too high for sufficient separation between the septic tank and the water table. In addition, Florida has seasonal movement of groundwater. During the rainy season, the water table moves up. The type of soil also makes a difference, and in many parts of Florida the soil is not suitable for a septic tank to function properly. If the soil is too coarse, wastewater passes too quickly to receive sufficient treatment.

Contaminants in the effluent travel through the soil. If they are not treated adequately, these contaminants reach the groundwater and ultimately pollute the surface water, he said.

“During major rain events, you get major movement of the septic plumes,” he said. If septic tanks are near the ocean, there is also a problem with tidal pumping. “As the tide goes out, we get enhanced flow of those plumes into the coastal ocean.”

“We see this problem expanding globally over the last five decades,” Dr. Lapointe continued.

He noted a Florida Department of Environment Protection study of Wakulla Springs found that 51 percent of the nitrogen feeding algae blooms came from septic tanks.

In St. Lucie County, he said, a study was conducted in 2005 and 2006, when high bacteria counts caused beaches to be closed. A lot of environmental groups thought the bacteria was coming from Lake Okeechobee, he said, but studies showed it was coming from local runoff.

The highest levels of ammonium were in the North Fork of the St. Lucie, which receives no flow from Lake Okeechobee, he explained. “It was evident the high nutrient loads were near populated areas.”

The northern Indian River Lagoon was “ground zero” for the “brown tide” algae that thrives in ammonium-rich waters, he said. “A lot of that is coming very likely from septic tanks.”

Many septic tanks in that watershed are in low-lying areas, he added.

During the blue-green algae bloom in the summer of 2018, the nitrogen concentrations in the Cape Coral canals were “off the scale” compared to the lake and the Caloosahatchee River, he added.

“We are never going to replace every septic tank in Florida,” he said, but if a septic tank must be used in a sensitive watershed, there are hybrid systems that can remove nutrients and contaminants.

He said the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated Florida needs about $18 billion to upgrade wastewater infrastructure.

“The state needs to step up and take leadership on this problem because the state permitted all of these septic tanks,” he said.

He said Florida must “go to war against algae.”

“We need a focus group within DEP (Florida Department of Environmental Protection) to really build a plan to go to war,” he told the senators.

“We have to build a state master plan. We can’t rely on local government.

“Bad decisions have already cost this state dearly,” he said.

About Dr. Brian Lapointe

Brian Lapointe, Ph.D., is a research professor with Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

Dr. Lapointe’s research interests include algal physiology and biochemistry, sea grass and coral reef ecology, eutrophication, marine bioinvasions and marine conservation.

He has extensive experience in water quality research in South Florida and the Caribbean region. As chief scientist on numerous Caribbean and western North Atlantic Ocean research expeditions, he has amassed valuable field experience in assessing relations between water quality and the health of tropical sea grasses and coral reefs. Dr. Lapointe’s long-term water quality monitoring at Looe Key reef in the Florida Keys represents the longest low-level nutrient record for a coral reef anywhere in the world. His work in the Keys led to a strong phosphate ban and new state regulations for Monroe County requiring greater nutrient removal from sewage effluents.

Dr. Lapointe’s work in Florida Bay and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in the 1990s, which utilized stable nitrogen isotopes to “fingerprint” nitrogen sources, was the first to demonstrate the importance of agricultural nitrogen from mainland sources to development of algal blooms in the Keys. He developed the first “ridge-to-reef” water quality monitoring program for the European Union in Negril, Jamaica, a model that has been adopted by marine protected areas around the Caribbean region. Dr. Lapointe has advised the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, State of Florida and the governments of Monroe County (Florida Keys), Palm Beach County, Lee County, Bahamas, Tobago, Turks & Caicos, Jamaica, Bonaire, Curacao, Martinique and St. Lucia on development of water quality monitoring programs for assessing the impacts of land-based pollution.

Dr. Lapointe’s sargassum research has yielded novel insights into the ecology of this macroalgae, the Sargasso Sea and associated communities, including symbiosis with juvenile fish marked by exchange of habitat and nutrients.

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