Florida’s Chief Science Officer can help defend our paradise | Opinion

Massive algae bloom seen over Lake Okeechobee

Jeff Greene, candidate for governor of Florida, flies over Lake Okeechobee to inspect the algae bloom on the east shore on July 11, 2018. The algae bloom has triggered concern after the 2016 algae bloom crisis.
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Jeff Greene, candidate for governor of Florida, flies over Lake Okeechobee to inspect the algae bloom on the east shore on July 11, 2018. The algae bloom has triggered concern after the 2016 algae bloom crisis.

As a scientist with more than five decades of experience, I am heartened by the announcement of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ appointment of Dr. Tom Frazer to serve as Florida’s Chief Science Officer.

This is good news for Florida — first that there is a chief science officer — in contrast to the recent past. That science is now recognized as a critical tool in understanding how to manage complex issues facing the state is vital.

Frazer is well qualified. He is a professor and the Director of the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Florida. He is a well-published biologist who has done practical work on water and algae issues.

Plus, Frazer has worked with the Florida Climate Institute – a consortium of universities working on climate issues.

The Institute was established to encourage cooperation on issues of critical importance to the state of Florida. Algae infestation is one of them.

Unfortunately, Florida’s algae crisis has no easy solution. Red tide is a complex problem.

We know that red tide events have occurred throughout history, which suggests natural causes, and that’s a factor — just not the only one.

We also know that red tide events are more frequent, longer lasting and increasingly damaging today.

Over the past 15 months, harmful algal blooms have taken a devastating toll on our marine life, coastal livelihood systems, and the economic well being of communities across Florida.

This suggests that other factors play a role. Think of them as puzzle pieces.

Discharges of waters laden with nutrient pollution to the Indian River and Caloosahatchee estuaries from Lake Okeechobee, a lake long polluted by farming activities up stream, are likely feeding the algal blooms.

Population growth is an underlying driving force. Septic tanks add to the problem as well, and it can’t be ignored that climate change — in the form of warmer, wetter weather — is making the problem worse.

Sea-level rise is causing higher ground water levels, which affects the functionality of septic tanks, a local point source of pollution. Additionally, warmer water in the lake, rivers and estuaries increases the rate of biochemical activity and nurtures the algal blooms. And finally, increased rainfall, also a result of a warmer atmosphere — washes more nutrient runoff into waterways, which feeds the blooms.

Dr. Vince Lovko talks about how Mote tests water for Karenia brevis, or the red tide phytoplankton.

To effectively address the toxic algae bloom problem, we need a multi-pronged approach to put the puzzle together. DeSantis deserves credit for committing to create a Blue-Green Algae Task Force. It was also wise to direct the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health to participate in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force.

The work of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force must be informed and driven by the latest scientific information available. We need a short-term remedial response and a long-term rethinking of the whole system, including our policy of addressing climate change issues, which are so critical to the state’s future.

DeSantis acted swiftly to address the epic impact that harmful algal blooms took on our state last year. But if we are to truly solve the problem, we must follow where the science leads and tackle all of the puzzle pieces.

Fingers crossed that this is just the beginning of science-based, well-informed policy decisions with statewide funding to address the impacts of climate change.

Leonard Berry, Ph. D. is Emeritus Professor of Geosciences at Florida Atlantic University and is Vice President of Government Programs at Coastal Risk Consulting, LLC.

“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations — the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.