'Are we satisfied with the progress?' Florida's Blue-Green Algae Task Force meets after half-year hiatus

Amy Bennett Williams
Fort Myers News-Press

It was a day of sharp questions and soul-searching as Florida’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force met Thursday for the first time since February.

The official theme was a mouthful (stay with us): “Prioritization of restoration projects within Basin Management Action Plans, Reasonable Assurance Plans, or alternative restoration plans (and) policy and funding program framework for the prioritization of restoration projects.”

Unofficially, it was broader: Why, after three years of task force effort, is Florida’s water still so troubled?

The question was top-of-mind because the day before, a coalition of 12 environmental groups released a stinging progress report. Since the five-member task force issued a set of recommendations in 2019, “Ecological conditions in Florida have not improved and, in many cases, they have worsened. Lack of meaningful water quality protections have resulted in persistent harmful algal blooms, a record number of manatee deaths, and an overall decline in water quality statewide.”

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During the public comment portion of the meeting, Friends of the Everglades executive director Eve Samples noted “Among the 32 metrics we tracked, only four have been implemented.” She heads one of the dozen nonprofits that compiled the report. ”So  there’s a lot of progress to be made.”

Samples went through a list of the task force’s priorities, each followed by “not implemented.”

Neither Samples nor others commenting blamed the group members; rather their frustration was with government, the Legislature and the agencies charged with carrying out the mandates of each.

Before the meeting, task force member Mike Parsons mused about the group’s traction.

Algae is seen in the Pahokee Marina on Thursday, September 9, 2021.

“I think the consensus document was great, but I don’t know if we’ve done a whole lot since then,” he said. “I feel like we’ve given progress reports and provide a little bit of feedback, but I don’t know where that feedback goes. Are they using it?”

Parsons, an FGCU professor, worries that without headline-grabbing algae crises, attention will wane. “The important thing is regardless of when we get the next bloom or when the next red tide happens, we can’t just let it fade away like it’s done in the past. We need to collectively keep the pressure on our elected officials,” he said. “This isn’t a problem that’s going to go away, just because we haven’t had a bloom recently.

“It’s like a heart attack. If you have a heart attack, you don’t go about your normal routine afterwards (and) we need to keep that in mind.”

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For its part, Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials highlighted progress made, programs created and money spent. Lots of money, they emphasized.

“It takes significant financial investment to get those projects funded,” said the DEP’s Adam Blalock, “and in the (first) four years of this administration, we’ve seen over $4 billion dedicated towards water quality and restoration.”

John Cassani, the Calusa Waterkeeper takes a sample of algae from on east side of the Franklin Locks  on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. It will be tested to see if it is Cyanobacteria or blue-green algae.

Though Blalock went on to tout “a record-breaking state investment,” Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani worries the effects of rapid growth are outpacing what restoration spending can buy.

“At some point they have to admit that the record funding isn’t enough, especially outside of Everglades,” he said.

Speaking of growth, maybe water quality isn’t the main problem at all, suggested Florida’s Chief Science Officer Mark Rains. “It’s easy for us to get trapped thinking that water quality degradation is the challenge we’re facing, I don’t think that’s right. (It’s) a symptom of another challenge we’re facing, which is land use.”

Florida had fewer than 100,000 residents when it became a state in 1845, Rains pointed out. “175 years later, we’re 22 million residents … It’s a pretty wet state and we couldn’t fit 22 million folks into it and 130 million annual visitors into it without making it less so. We’ve spent a lot of effort over the years directing water and whatever it’s carrying away from our urban areas … our agricultural areas … directing it to the nearest major waterbodies (but) there was a whole host of unintended consequences.”

He and other officials admitted that for programs like septic conversions and on-site stormwater treatment, they’ve mostly used carrots – not sticks, or incentives and not penalties.

Maybe that strategy should be re-thought, task force members suggested. Parsons, a Florida Gulf Coast professor of marine science at Florida Gulf Coast University who directs the Coastal Watershed Institute acknowledged that “given the political climate – not only in Florida but probably nationwide … I don’t think legislatures are going to endorse bigger sticks, so I’m wondering, if there’s a mechanism in place … because you can’t really force people to do things. You need the buy-in (so) is there something we could recommend – incentives, programs, tax breaks, free coffee?”

Maybe, Rains said.

“I think we’re seeing more landowners willing to help … that’s kind of where we’re going.”

Or maybe it’s time to change the model, suggested task force member Wendy Graham.

“It might not be popular, but it might be time to rethink the whole voluntary aspect,” said Graham, the Carl S. Swisher eminent scholar in water resources in the University of Florida's Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. “We either want this to happen in 20 years or we don’t. If you look back at the 50 years of the Clean Water Act, the pieces that worked were not the voluntary ones.”

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With no enforcement power but high visibility, the task force is in a delicate position when it comes to interacting with agencies, which have challenges of their own, Parsons says.

“Really what it comes down to is are we satisfied with the progress? The DEP is not our enemy. We work with them pretty closely and they’re constrained in many ways,” he said. “(But) we can say, We recommended this, but you’re doing that – why aren’t you following the recommendations? Does something else need to be done that would allow you to follow them more precisely?”

Being combative with the agencies is counterproductive, he says, and knowing their marching orders is key.

“They’re doing what they’re being told to do – either by the Legislature or by their bosses, so it becomes a different kind of question … if they’re not following the recommendations, how much of that is because they haven’t gotten power from the Legislature to do so, vs. administratively they don’t want to take these actions? Part of this is to be educated about what is possible, at least in the current environment.”

Yet without lawmaker backing, it’s all moot, said Florida Waterkeepers chair Jen Lomberk. “There is never enough science if there’s not the political will."