Task force seeks solutions to blue-green algae issues

On Wednesday, the state’s new blue-green algae task force started the complicated task of finding the most effective way to control harmful algal blooms.

While much of the focus was on the Lake Okeechobee watershed and the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, the panel discussed algae issues in the St. Johns River, the state’s springs and other areas.

“I don’t want people to walk away from this meeting thinking our sole focus is on South Florida,” said Dr. Tom Frazer, the state’s chief science officer.

The algae task force, which met in Tallahassee, was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and includes a panel of scientists:
• Dr. Wendy Graham is the Carl S. Swisher Eminent Scholar in Water Resources in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering and director of the Water Institute at the University of Florida. Dr. Graham holds a B.S. in environmental engineering from the University of Florida, and a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
• Dr. Evelyn Gaiser holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Kent State University, a master’s in animal ecology from Iowa State University and a doctorate in ecology from the University of Georgia. Research in Dr. Gaiser’s lab has informed the progress of Everglades restoration and is integrated into the Florida Coastal Everglades Long-Term Ecological Research program, which she has led since 2007.
• Dr. Michael Parsons is a professor of marine science at Florida Gulf Coast University and director of the Coastal Watershed Institute and Vester Field Station. He was a State of Louisiana Board of Regents Fellow and received his doctorate from Louisiana State University in biological oceanography.
• Dr. James Sullivan, executive director of FAU’s Harbor Branch, is an expert on marine ecosystem health. He earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in biological oceanography with specializations in phytoplankton physiology and ecology, as well as bio-optics and biophysics, from the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography.
• Dr. Valerie Paul has served as director of the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce, Fla., since 2002. She received her B.A. from the University of California San Diego with majors in biology and in chemical ecology and her Ph.D. in marine biology from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

Topics discussed at the task force’s inaugural meeting included nutrient loading from septic tanks, landspreading of biosolids, agriculture best management practices, legacy phosphorus and the need to also address nitrogen levels in the water.

Thomas Frick, director of the Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration (FDEP), said that for over a decade, Florida has had a multi-agency response to harmful algal blooms (HABs). He said they have gathered a lot of data. About 25 percent of the data in the Environmental Protection Agency database is from Florida.

He said FDEP’s role has been mainly a collection and sampling role, primarily in freshwater. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is focused on marine systems and reports of fish kills or sick animals. The Florida Department of Health (FDOH) is in charge of advisories. FDOH also responds to questions about illness and human health. He said county health departments may also be involved.

He said they also work with federal partners such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Dr. Sullivan questioned the oversight of septic tank permits by the Department of Health.

“The Department of Health is interested in pathogens,” he said. “How do they look at nutrient load?”

“The short answer is, they don’t,” said Mr. Frick. “Under the current rules and statutes, they are focused primarily on pathogens. They have talked and look on trying to do rule changes or maybe meeting further statutory direction to consider nutrient impacts as well.”

“In my mind that should belong to the FDEP when it comes to nutrients. They should have regulatory oversight,” said Dr. Sullivan. He noted that 12 percent of all of the septic tanks in the United States are in Florida.

Dr. Graham noted that the legacy phosphorus in the watersheds and nonpoint sources of nutrient load are a problem. When a “point” source of phosphorus is identified and eliminated, the legacy phosphorus can still maintain the high nutrient load in the runoff.

Dr. Graham also noted that while a Total Daily Maximum Load (TMDL) set by FDEP for phosphorus, no TMDL has been set for nitrogen. She said current research indicates that in the Lake Okeechobee watershed, nitrogen should be targeted as the primary nutrient driving algal blooms.

Mr. Frick said that when the TMDL for phosphorus entering Lake Okeechobee was established, phosphorus was identified as the driver. At the time the predominant blue-green algae of concern was a nitrogen “fixer” that could pull nitrogen from the air. But conditions have changed.

“Are we looking at the right nutrient? Are we looking at the right species? Those are scientific questions we need more information on,” he said.

“We are producing a lot of data,” said Dr. Parsons. “Are those data being analyzed effectively or thoroughly enough?”

He said ground water can be a potential nutrient source and that FDEP should consider the nutrient load in ground water.

“It would be really helpful for us to have some input on what it is we should be doing, and when and where,” said Mr. Frick. He asked the task force to provide input on the project selection. This group could help us with that information.

“We can’t afford to do it all,” he said. “Which ones do we fund, which ones do we monitor?

“In the Lake Okeechobee watershed we know we need regional projects in various areas. It may need chemical treatment to knock down some of those concentrations to deal with that legacy issues,” said Mr. Frick.

“Generic algae might respond to phosphorus but a specific species might respond to something else,” said Dr. Sullivan.

Dr. Gaiser added that phosphorus is not the limiting factor in Lake Okeechobee now because there is so much of it already in the lake.

“We are a blue green algae task force,” said Dr. Paul. “They can’t all be treated the same way. Some are nitrogen fixers and can get their nitrogen from the air. Others are not, like microcystis.”

“Now there is a lot of literature coming out showing that blue green algae can feed on organic carbon as well,” added Dr. Paul.

Ernie Barnett, executive director of the Florida Land Council, said that septic tank issues were heavily debated in the past legislature, but none of the bills made it to the finish line. One proposal would have transferred oversight of nutrient management from septic tanks to FDEP. Septic tank remediation plans for any watershed with a Basin Management Action Plan was also in legislation, but did not pass.

“The single most important thing you can do to prevent algal blooms on Lake Okeechobee is to capture, store and treat the water before it goes into the lake,” he said.

Mr. Barnett said even with the implementation of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan projects, more will be needed to prevent algal blooms.

Even with CERP projects, you are only dealing with 30 percent of the nutrient load to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, he explained. The state will still need to deal with the local basin nutrient loads in those watersheds.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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