Report: Florida hasn't addressed 87% of task force recommendations to combat algal blooms

Twelve environment groups from across the state are backing the report.

Max Chesnes
Treasure Coast Newspapers

It's been almost three years since a governor-appointed task force of water quality experts made their recommendations for combatting harmful algal blooms.

Still, 87% of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force's suggestions haven't been fully adopted, either with new laws or any meaningful regulatory action from state government agencies, according to a report from a coalition of twelve Florida environment groups.

"Ecological conditions in Florida have not improved and, in many cases, they have worsened," the coalition wrote in its report released Wednesday. "A lack of meaningful water quality protections have resulted in persistent harmful algal blooms, a record number of manatees deaths, and an overall decline in water quality statewide."

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The coalition identified at least 27 science-based ideas the Blue-Green Algae Task Force presented to Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2019 that have not been fully addressed. The report also lists these major pitfalls: 

  • A failure to improve the state's flagship pollution-reduction program, which a TCPalm data investigation found isn't working
  • Not enough new water storage infrastructure around Lake Okeechobee
  • A lack of political will to pass water quality measures recommended by the five scientists on the task force.

In 2019, for instance, the task force recommended state agencies strategically focus on pollution hotspots for cleanup projects "to accelerate progress toward achieving restoration targets." Yet funding has been used on less cost-effective wastewater projects, even in places where agriculture is the main polluter, the report claims. 

Pollution-reduction projects currently underway reduce 1 pound of nitrogen annually for every $3,781 spent, the coalition reports, citing last year's annual report by the Department of Environmental Protection. 

In a statement, a DEP spokesperson said the progress report is based on information that has been "misinterpreted" and "misrepresented." 

"It reaches an inaccurate conclusion regarding the status of implementation of the task force’s recommendations," said spokesperson Dee Ann Miller, who pointed to the 2020 approval of the Clean Waterways Act as an example of when some of the scientific recommendations became law. 

That legislation, which moved regulation of septic tanks from the Department of Health to the DEP, increased fines for violations of environmental rules and required farmers to provide fertilizer records, among other things, was lauded by Treasure Coast politicians despite clean-water advocates saying it didn't go far enough to stop pollution at its source.

Scroll down to read the coalition's report.

"The point of this exercise was to check (DEP's) progress, and we want this to start a dialogue," said Jen Lomberk, the Matanzas Riverkeeper who helped to lead the report. 

A handful of environment bills introduced over the past two legislative sessions would have adopted some of the task force's recommendations, including requiring periodic inspections of sewage treatment and disposal systems. But the bills have been dismissed or ignored by lawmakers for two years in a row.

"Every summer that passes, there's always a potentially devastating algal bloom that impacts tourism on both sides of the state," said Haley Busch, outreach director of 1,000 Friends of Florida and a lead author on the report. "We don't want to wait for the next one to happen. ... The political process takes leadership and willpower. It's not the time to take our eyes off the ball with water quality and restoration efforts." 

Other groups backing the report include the National Wildlife Federation, Florida Conservation Voters, the Florida Springs Council and the Calusa Waterkeeper. 

The idea for the report came from a TCPalm story that asked task force members to grade the Legislature's response to its recommendations, according to Busch. The scientists with over a century of shared experience gave lawmakers a "C" average. 

"Sometimes I wonder if any of the Legislature listens anymore," said Mike Parsons, a task force member, professor of marine science at Florida Gulf Coast University and director of the Coastal Watershed Institute and Vester Field Station. "We’ve done a couple of virtual meetings. Are they listening in? Or do they just ignore the whole process?"

The task force will convene at 9:30 a.m. Thursday at Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce to discuss prioritizing restoration projects. 

The public may register to view the meeting online at https://register.gotowebinar.com/register/8696309467480541198.

You can read the coalition's report by clicking here. 

Max Chesnes is a TCPalm environment reporter focusing on issues facing the Indian River Lagoon, St. Lucie River and Lake Okeechobee. You can keep up with Max on Twitter @MaxChesnes, email him at max.chesnes@tcpalm.com and give him a call at 772-978-2224.