Blue-green algae task force wants more data on health impacts of harmful blooms

Florida’s Blue-Green Task Force, a group of scientists tasked with figuring out what’s causing the harmful slime that kills fish and makes people sick, issued its first set of recommendations to guide efforts to improve water quality in the state.

One top priority: Assessing the risks that blue-green algae pose to public health. Scientists know that microcystin, a toxin produced by algae that’s able to survive in the water for months, can lead to liver damage, as well as respiratory and gastrointestinal problems. But in what quantities? How much exposure to this toxin is too much? When is an algae bloom considered a public health hazard? What are the long-term effects of chronic exposure to the slime?

“While there is plenty of research on the toxin itself — and on many other toxins produced by algae — we need a lot more data and research on acute and chronic effects of exposure to algal toxins,” said Michael Parsons, a task force member and professor of marine science at Florida Gulf Coast University.

The list was discussed on Wednesday at the panel’s fifth meeting and is designed to provide a road map to tackle the blooms and their toxic effects on people and wildlife. The task force was created in January through an executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis in response to massive outbreaks of toxic algae and red tide that fouled Florida’s waterways last year. As a centerpiece of the administration’s environmental restoration push, the task force is working to provide ideas for possible legislative action..

Complicating things is the fact that toxins may be present in the water even when there are no obvious signs of blooms on the surface. The task force is proposing more systematic testing and monitoring to get a better handle on contamination patterns after the state dramatically cut water quality monitoring systems over the last decade.

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Algae blooms in an Everglades reservoir intended to help stop polluted discharges from Lake Okeechobee that foul the Treasure Coast Richard Graulich The Palm Beach Post

And there is also a need to better inform the public about the health risks of swimming in algae-laced water, the experts said. Improving advisories and overall communication with the public about the threat of harmful blooms is also on the list. One proposal would be to design clear standards for no-swim advisories.. The warnings would be issued by the Florida Department of Health, for example, similar to what currently happens with E. coli and other bacteria found in human waste.

Next: the agriculture sector, which consumed a good deal of the task force’s time since its first meeting in June. It’s a consensus among scientists that agriculture runoff is a key contributor to excess nutrients that feed the blooms. Farms use fertilizers that include nitrogen and phosphorus, which make their way into Florida’s many canals and water bodies.

Farmers are supposed to adhere to so-called Best Management Practices — industry-set standards using water, fertilizers and pesticides. The goal is to minimize the sector’s impact on the state’s natural resources. But compliance with these standards is voluntary, and it’s unclear what percentage of farms actually participate and keep records of their nutrient-reduction and resource-management efforts.

“Are the agriculture best management practices working? Is there compliance? Are they reducing nutrient load?” asked Wendy Graham, a task force member and director of the Water Institute at the University of Florida. “We need to address BMP effectiveness.” In the task force’s document, members included proposals to adapt these practices and revise the manuals that are used by farmers who participate in the BMP program.

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A tank holds blue-green algae in a filtration system the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is testing at Alvin Ward Park in Moore Haven, Florida. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

But environmentalists said the scientists didn’t go far enough, and called for mandatory limits on nutrient use in agriculture.

“Though the weaknesses and failures of current agricultural BMPs were addressed in the proposals, the obvious need for mandatory BMPs is most glaringly missing,” Diana Umpierre of Sierra Club said during public comments at the meeting on Wednesday. While the “broad strokes” presented by the task force is a good first step, they don’t include specific regulatory actions that are necessary to ensure success in water quality improvements, she added.

Septic tanks were also high on the list of priority issues as the more than 2.5 million units in Florida represent a significant source of nutrients found in groundwater. The scientists proposed broader regulatory oversight that would be developed by the Department of Environmental Protection, and more research on the potential benefits of converting to a sewer system or upgrading septic tanks to more modern systems. Septic tanks would also be inspected regularly. Currently there is no requirement for inspections after a septic tank receives a permit.

Going forward, the task force proposed a statewide water quality monitoring system that allows for environmental authorities to effectively measure if their efforts are working. And that system must take into account sea level rise and Florida’s explosive population growth, with 1,000 people moving to the state every day, the group said.

“Issues like corrosion and saltwater intrusion on infrastructure need attention and will only get worse with sea level rise,” said Jim Sullivan, executive director of Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch.

The group also included stormwater treatments systems on the list, recommending the creation of an inspection and monitoring system to spot failing infrastructure. Data analyzed by the scientists showed a large percentage of stormwater systems don’t work properly and contribute to dumping nutrients into the state’s waterways.

“Our work isn’t done, this is not our last task-force meeting,” said Thomas Frazer, Florida’s chief science officer. “We will move forward with more focused actions.”