Harmful Algal Blooms in Southwest Florida: What’s Next?

by Dr. Michael L. Parsons, The Water School, Florida Gulf Coast University

Ever since I was appointed to the Blue-Green Algae Task Force (BGATF) by Governor Ron DeSantis in May 2019, I have been asked two questions: “What is Florida doing about our harmful algal bloom  problem?”; and “What can I do about it?”. To answer the first question, the state is doing a great deal. Last year, Governor DeSantis asked for $625 million to improve water quality and move Everglades restoration projects forward; the Legislature responded with $682 million.

On October 11, 2019, the BGATF provided Governor DeSantis with a list of recommendations to improve water quality in our state. He responded by announcing proposed legislation for the 2020 Legislative Session within one week, including a request for an additional $625 million. Senate Bill 712 (“The Clean Waterways Act”) and associated bills in the House incorporate many of our recommendations. Once the dust settles in this Legislative Session and the final budget is passed and signed by the Governor, I believe we will be in a much better place than we were previously in combating poor water quality.

The BGATF will meet in March to assess how our recommendations were incorporated (or not), and plan our next steps: additional measures to reduce nutrients in our waters; better assessments of the health risks posed by blue-green algae blooms; and a review of proven and innovative technologies to reduce nutrients and algal blooms.

While people are generally pleased by this progress (with some earned cynicism in the mix), there is a desire on the “home front”
to take actions into one’s own hands. What can you do to reduce nutrients and harmful algae? The first step is to reduce your
“nutrient footprint”. Blue-green algae blooms proliferate in high nutrient environments. Red tide on the other hand, does not – it
involves a much more complex and natural series of events. How can you reduce your nutrient footprint? The easiest first step is
to reduce fertilizer use. Follow local fertilizer ordinances, which typically restrict or prohibit use of fertilizer during most of the
wet season.

Consider following Florida-Friendly LandscapingTM guidelines, developed by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. They include recommendations for plants that require less fertilizer and water than others. If you have a septic tank, get it inspected. If you need to replace your septic tank, look into options for advanced systems that remove
nutrients, or hook up to a main sewer line. The important thing is to get involved. Not only with your HOAs or gardening clubs,
but with local environmental organizations and universities. Go to seminars and talks (we have many at FGCU!).

Look into Citizen Science programs. Host a student intern (internships are required for many FGCU degrees). Sponsor a scholarship for our future scientists and natural resource managers. Keep reminding our legislators and other politicians that water quality and the environment are important and worth protecting – not only for the environment itself, but for our local economy and our personal well-being.

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