For its first three meetings, Florida’s new blue-green algae task force — a team of scientists with a big mission to figure out how to fix the state’s slimy waters — focused on one question:
What’s feeding the green, stinky stuff that has repeatedly tainted Lake Okeechobee and rivers on both sides of the state?
The experts were concerned that there wasn’t enough water quality data available to tell. Is it fertilizer runoff from the agriculture industry? Leaky septic tanks? A bit of both? How much pollution are we talking about, anyway?
On Thursday, state water managers took a major step toward answering those questions, agreeing to significantly expand water quality monitoring and testing in Lake Okeechobee and in the Northern Everglades and its coastal estuaries, including a new network in the Caloosahatchee River, which flows to the Southwest coast. The South Florida Water Management District said it will spend $2 million this year to add testing stations and boost water sampling to provide the task force with better quality data and support the state’s algae-fighting battle.
The district said it will increase the number of monitoring stations to 243 from 161 sites, to test water quality across nearly 5.5 million acres, or approximately 8,600 square miles, of Lake Okeechobee and the three watersheds in the northern Everglades. Managers will also sample water twice a month, from just once a month previously, and will test the water for more elements than they did before, including tracking nitrogen at sites where that type of analysis was never conducted.
“If we can identify the specifics of what causes our algae problem we can better focus the available funds we have,” Susan Gray, the water management district’s bureau chief of applied sciences, said while presenting the proposal to the district’s governing board at its monthly meeting on Thursday.
The 3.5 million-acre watershed that drains into Lake Okeechobee will get 37 new monitoring sites, adding to 113 existing spots. The number of substances and parameters monitored will also grow to provide a better picture of nutrient loads going into the lake.
The St. Lucie watershed on the east coast will get 15 new monitoring sites, adding to 31 currently, while the Caloosahatchee estuary on the west is getting 15 monitoring sites for the first time, the district said. Water managers will sample water twice a month for several indicators including nitrogen levels, water temperature and oxygen.
Identifying pollution hot spots and measuring that pollution, especially the source of nutrients, is important but it’s also key to test the efficiency and improve systems already in place to help cleanse water from flowing to Lake O estuaries and the Everglades, said Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, a board member at the South Florida Water Management District.
“It feels good to see everyone on the same page and moving forward on this effort,” she said. The proposal to expand the district’s monitoring network was approved unanimously.
Measuring nitrogen levels is especially important. For the past three decades the state has focused on phosphorus in its efforts to clean up water before letting it flow south to the Everglades and estuaries. Nitrogen didn’t become a concern until recently, when research showed that blue-green algae, which is a cyanobacteria, grows faster when there is nitrogen dissolved in the water.
The task force has insisted on the need to address both nutrients and to better understand how agriculture and human pollution fuels the blooms that can produce harmful toxins. This type of bacteria produces microcystin, a toxin that can stay in the water for months and can lead to liver damage, gastrointestinal and respiratory illnesses in humans. Another toxin known as BMAA has been associated with brain diseases in marine animals, according to a study that found the substance in the brains of dead dolphins from Florida.
Environmentalists applauded the district’s move. Celeste De Palma, director of Everglades policy at Audubon Florida, said there is no time to waste when working find solutions to tackle algae blooms.
“Water quality is like a GPS system and data gaps can lead us to wrong turns,” she said at the meeting.