It’s summertime in Florida, and just because the kids are going back to school, it doesn’t mean we can’t continue to enjoy our beautiful beaches, backyard barbecues, and time spent with family. Unfortunately, along with these summertime staples, Blue-Green algae has also been rearing its ugly head. From Lake Okeechobee to our coastal estuaries, the disgusting algae suffocate marine life, hinder aquaculture, and damage our blue (water and ocean-based) economy.
While Blue-Green and other algal blooms may be present year-round, they often become worse in the summer. Why is that? First and most importantly, our summer rain storms wash more pollution into our water. This pollution, in the form of nitrogen and phosphorus, “feeds” algae. Second, warmer temperatures are also desirable for the algae. So, more polluted runoff and warmer water create optimal conditions for algae to grow and fester. Thick mats of algae, like guacamole, can block sunlight, causing seagrass to die and suffocate other marine life like manatees.
We know the root causes for these explosions of Blue-Green algae – unchecked pollution. The pollution comes from many sources, including human and animal waste, fertilizer, air pollution, and industrial discharges. And while we know the sources and how to reduce pollution, some of the biggest culprits – industrial agriculture and septic systems – have yet to be adequately addressed. You can help by demanding that Governor DeSantis and incoming legislators address these issues!
If you eat, you’re involved in agriculture. That is the plain truth. It’s the third-largest economy in our state, covers 9.7 million acres of land, and is an important part of our Florida identity. What you shouldn’t stomach, however, are the fertilizers, pesticides, and animal waste that make their way into our water. Without proper protocols and ways to contain the waste, these pollutants end up in the water that we drink, swim, and play in.
Agricultural operations are generally required to follow Best Management Practices (BMPs). They are guidelines specific to their industry that outline ways to conduct business with fewer environmental impacts. If they are following these, they are presumed to be in compliance with water quality standards. However, unlike other polluting industries, agriculture is not required to conduct water quality monitoring if they’re enrolled in the program. This is called a “presumption of compliance.” It means that agriculture plays by a different set of rules, even though we know that agricultural pollution is a leading cause of dirty water in many areas of the state, particularly in rural areas.
The Lake Okeechobee region in the northern Everglades contains roughly 61,131 acres of sugar farms and other agriculture. South of Lake Okeechobee, around 500,000 acres of the nearly 700,000 total acres of agricultural land in the Everglades Agricultural Area, are in sugar production. There is no denying that agricultural runoff helps to feed the algae in Lake Okeechobee, which then is discharged to our coastal estuaries.
The less visible culprit is septic tanks. Most of us do not think about septic tanks because we cannot see them. There are an estimated 2.7 million in our state. Septic systems, especially older units, are not designed to reduce pollutants, like nitrogen and phosphorus. If they are not properly maintained, they can leak into groundwater. So septic tanks in the areas surrounding Lake Okeechobee are feeding nutrients to the groundwater, and that polluted groundwater seeps into the lake, further fueling the Blue-Green algae.
It must be noted that once a septic tank is built in Florida, there is absolutely no requirement to maintain it, and it is not incumbent upon the state to inspect that tank. Any inspections of septic tanks in Florida are done on a voluntary basis. Lawmakers know that the problem exists. This is why a bill was filed in 2019 to impose stringent standards upon the construction, maintenance, and construction of septic tanks. The bill died in the Senate Health Policy Committee.
But that wasn’t the only time we heard about septic tank inspections.
Once the Blue-Green Algae Task Force did its job by submitting reports to the Legislature, Senator Linda Stewart (D-Orlando) and Representative Joy Goff-Marcil (D-Maitland) submitted legislation to implement the recommendations of the task force in 2021 for the 2022 Session. One of those recommendations included (you guessed it) septic tank inspections! The bill also included a recommendation to place a requirement on every person who owns a septic tank to get a permit for that tank AND to have the tank inspected every five years. The bill died before the Senate Appropriations Committee.
As with many issues affecting our environment and the health of our community members, our leaders know the problem exists, but they refuse to act on it. Pollution prevention, from all sources, is the only action that will lead to clean water and a stronger economy. We can’t ignore the sources, whether we drive past them or they’re hidden from view. That’s why we will continue to push for more accountability for agriculture and a statewide septic inspection program. Floridians deserve to know what is polluting their water. More importantly, they need leaders that will work to curb pollution and protect the beauty of our state.