Florida is home to more than 60 species of algae that can have toxic effects on aquatic ecosystems. The algae are there to help break down organic matter in rivers, lakes, and coastal waters. Artificially high levels of certain nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, cause algae to “bloom” in large volumes to produce “dead zones” from low levels of oxygen, toxins, and water clouding. The problem is that the high levels of nutrients responsible for most algae blooms come from human activities, including agricultural runoff, poor sewage treatment, and simply pointless fertilizer applications to maintain turf on suburban lawns and golf courses.

Florida’s population has tripled since 1950 and agricultural practices have changed to favor synthetic fertilizers for crops and large manure ponds associated with concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). With these changes has come a losing battle with algae blooms, which are degrading aquatic ecosystems and water resources for human consumption and recreation.

Perhaps the best known algae bloom plaguing Florida coastal waters is the “red tide,” courtesy of dinoflagellate Karenia Brevis found in sediments. Nutrient pollution can trigger red, orange, or brown “tides” that kill fish, produce neurotoxins that accumulate in the flesh of shellfish, and cause skin and respiratory problems for people. Nothing enhances a trip to the beach like gunk in the water that kills fish, poisons shellfish, and makes you wheeze and itch. While Karenia Brevis has been around for millions of years, nutrient pollution is increasing the frequency, intensity, and size of red tide outbreaks. In fact, red tides are even large enough to be detectible from NASA satellites. The images below document a red tide bloom off the western coast of Florida in 2004 from NASA’s Terra satellite. Note also the high levels of chlorophyll (orange and red areas) in the outflows from major river basins and estuaries around the Florida coast.

In mid-November 2004, scientists began to notice an algae bloom developing in the Gulf of Mexico, and ground tests confirmed the presence of red tide. By December 8, the bloom had spread to cover 400 square miles. The images above show chlorophyll concentrations in the Gulf of Mexico off southwestern Florida on October 30 (bottom right corner) and November 21, 2004 (left), as well as chlorophyll fluorescence (upper right) on November 21. Highest concentrations of chlorophyll and highest levels of fluorescence are red; lower values are green and blue.

Florida’s rivers, lakes, and estuaries are plagued by blue-green algae blooms from a wide variety of cyanobacteria species. Pictured on the left is a 2009 algae bloom in the St. John’s River basin. These blooms have become common in many areas due to nutrient pollution.

Clouds of aquatic midges (“blind mosquitoes“) frequently accompany these freshwater algae blooms, adding an additional nuisance factor to people living nearby. The midges thrive in the algae blooms because natural predators cannot survive in the low oxygen water.

Residents close to blind mosquito breeding areas experience severe nuisance and economic problems. Blind mosquitoes can emerge in phenomenal numbers between April and November. Often humans have to cease outdoor activity since the adult midges can be inhaled or fly into the mouth, eyes, or ears.During hot, summer days, midges fly to cool shady places. At night they are attracted to lights around houses and businesses. When large numbers are present, they stain paint, stucco and other wall finishes. Automobiles become soiled, and headlights and windshields get covered with dead midges. The bodies which are mashed to painted surfaces cause permanent staining. Also, blind mosquitoes will fly indoors as doors are opened and closed. Problems indoors such as ruining laundry and staining indoor walls, ceilings, draperies and other furnishings cause severe annoyance for residents.

Florida has been fighting a losing battle with nutrient pollution and algae blooms since the 1970s. The level of phosphorus in Florida waters has fallen dramatically thanks to tighter regulations on phosphate mining operations. However, nitrogen levels have increased dramatically from agricultural and urban sources. The 2008 Integrated Water Quality Assessment for Florida (pdf) found severely degraded aquatic environments due to nutrient pollution and algae blooms in 28% of river, 25% of lake, and 59% of estuary surface waters. In fact, over 90% of the freshwater resources in the state are eutrophic or hypereutrophic, putting them at high risk for algae blooms due to high nutrient levels. As noted in the report:

Freshwater harmful algal blooms (HABs) are increasing in frequency, duration, and magnitude and therefore may be a significant threat to surface drinking water resources and recreational areas. Abundant populations of blue-green algae, some of them potentially toxigenic, have been found statewide in numerous lakes and rivers. In addition, measured concentrations of cyanotoxins—a few of them of above the suggested guideline levels—have been reported in finished water from some drinking water facilities.

The 2008 report also documented that Florida has a large economic stake in the health of its aquatic ecosystems. An estimated $587 billion of Florida’s Gross State Product in 2006 was derived from water resources, including tourism, recreation, and commercial fishing.

Protecting the state’s water resources from nutrient pollution is not complicated. It means covering and treating wastes from CAFOs. It means creating runoff barriers and reducing the intensity of fertilizer application in crop applications. It means severely limiting fertilizer applications to lawns and golf courses. It means requiring adequate wastewater treatment facilities prior to expanding development. It means protecting wetlands that serve to “denitrify” surface waters. Trudi Williams has been a tireless advocate for wetlands destruction in Florida.

Williams, an engineer who has worked for some of Florida’s biggest developers, chairs the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Committee, which has a scheduled workshop today. The agenda lists one item for the two-hour meeting: “Workshop on streamlined permitting issues.”Williams said she wants to hear other people’s ideas for speeding up permits, but she has a few of her own. For one thing, she said, she’d like to see the state water managers make it easier to get permits to take large quantities of water for new development.

All of these measures are far less costly than the economic impact of degrading water resources in Florida, but are opposed by real estate developers, agricultural industries, and fertilizer manufacturers. These groups and other business groups contributed over $200,000 to Trudi Williams’ re-election campaigns in 2008 and 2010, a tidy sum for a state representative particularly given that she was running unopposed apart from token opposition from other Republicans.

In 1998, the EPA began working with the Florida DEP and other agencies to develop a comprehensive management plan to reduce nutrient pollution in the state. Those efforts stalled for a decade thanks to prominent members of the Bush family. EarthJustice filed suit (on behalf of a coalition of Florida conservation groups) against the EPA in 2008 for failure to enforce the Clean Water Act in managing nutrient pollution in Florida. (The complaint can be found here.) The EPA entered into a consent decree in 2009, agreeing to develop numeric criteria and guidelines, which were finalized on November 14, 2010.

You can probably guess what happened next. Agribusiness organizations and fertilizer manufacturers banded together to form an astroturf organization calling itself the Agricultural Nutrient Policy Council. Before long, other corporate groups were joining in as part of well-financed propaganda campaign aimed at the EPA.

Industries sounded the alarm in a letter yesterday to all members of House and Senate. It was the latest and most widely distributed entreaty yet from agriculture, fertilizer, chemical, homebuilder and manufacturing interests — 67 groups altogether — that have been urging members of Congress to stop EPA from implementing and enforcing the new water pollution rules in Florida.”Even though we represent national organizations that are not based in Florida, we are profoundly concerned with EPA’s actions in Florida,” the letter states. “It is apparent that EPA’s development of NNC (numeric nutrient criteria) in Florida establishes a template for how EPA will structure and impose similar nutrient requirements nationwide.”

The real fear in the agribusiness world is not really what happens in Florida. Nutrient pollution creates a algal dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River from April through August. Last year, this hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf covered an area the size of Massachusetts. Nutrient pollution also turns 80-90% of the Chesapeake Bay into a dead zone during the warmer months of the year. The real fear is that the numeric total discharge limits will work too well in Florida and be cost-effective. Success in Florida would mean increased pressure to adopt similar practices in the Mississippi River and Chesapeake Bay watersheds, impacting fertilizer use and CAFO manure ponds throughout 16 states.

David Guest, the Earthjustice attorney in Florida who sued EPA to force the water pollution mandate in question, noted that while other states are taking voluntary steps to implement numeric pollution limits, only in Florida has the agency encountered such fierce and vocal opposition.”What’s really going on here in Florida is kind of a road test of two things: Is the science really going to work and are the costs really affordable? I think the clear answer is yes to both,” Guest said. “The third issues is, when you pit agribusiness and a handful of polluting industries up against clean water, how do you make out? And this is an environment where there seems to be a view that there is a constitutionally protected right to destroy somebody else’s property with your pollution.”

NY Times, Feb 16, 2011, article by Paul Quinlan

In this context, it is pretty apparent why real estate development and agribusiness interests have pushed legislation like HB 239 in Florida. The hope is to prevent the state from adopting the EPA numeric standards, but the bill goes well beyond stalling. Trudi Williams and her fellow Republicans have tried to weaken existing standards. For example, the current Florida statutes with respect to nutrients specify:

“In no case shall nutrient concentrations of a body of water be altered so as to cause an imbalance in natural populations of aquatic flora and fauna.” Rule 62-302.530(47)(b), Fla.Admin. Code.

This has been cleverly amended in HB 239:

“May have minimal changes in the biological structure as evidenced by the replacement of sensitive taxa by more tolerant taxa.”

Very few species are tolerant of low-oxygen, low-light aquatic environments and none enhance the quality of aquatic ecosystems in Florida. There is an enormous difference between maintaining natural flora and fauna to allowing replacement by marine life tolerant to algal blooms. In fact, it is language that guarantees the continued slow death of the Everglades due to invasive species.

The River of Grass got that name because of its abundant saw grass marshes. But phosphorous pollution flowing off farms and suburban lawns has wiped out saw grass and instead stimulated the growth of cattails. The cattails are choking the life out of parts of the state’s most famous swamp, blocking wading birds and altering the flow of water.

Another bit of cleverness in the bill are the references to site-specific numeric criteria for nutrient levels. The focus on site-specific criteria would limit the regulations to point sources of nutrient pollution, of which there are few. In fact, the most common point source of nutrient pollution is the outflow from sewage treatment plants. However, nutrient pollution predominantly comes from sources that are difficult to trace and isolate (e.g., agricultural runoff from multiple sites along a river watershed).

It is unclear whether the arbitrary limitation of water quality regulatory authority to the DEP in HB 239 can survive legal challenge. However, Republicans in Congress have passed amendments aimed at limiting EPA regulation of nutrient pollution at the federal level as added insurance.

Sadly, HB 239 is just the tip of the iceberg. A host of bills are moving through the state legislature that would roll back the environmental protections developed over the past 25 years. Nathaniel Reed, former assistant Secretary of the Interior under Nixon and Ford, laments:

Current efforts will do nothing less than open Florida back up to the ravages of unchecked development experienced in our state in the 1960s and 1970s. The resulting damage to the Everglades, drinking water supplies and public infrastructure is still being felt to this day. Floridians simply cannot afford to make these mistakes again.Citizens throughout this state must continue to fight the false premise that Florida can build its way out of the recession by reducing or even eliminating a state oversight role in local development decisions. Such an approach will do untold damage to our environment and create costly future burdens for our children and grandchildren.