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Florida may adopt limits on amount of toxins from blue-green algae blooms allowed in waterways

Blue-green algae blooms are popping up from Gulfport and Treasure Island to Lake Okeechobee. and now showing up in rivers on both coasts. Charter fishing captain Mike Connor of Stuart took these photos in 2018 showing how widespread the blue-green algae has become in his region. Because of climate change, “this is the new normal,” he said. (Courtesy of Mike Connor of Stuart)
Published Jul. 3

Blue-green algae is popping up all over Florida this summer.

It's in the canals of Gulfport and the Intracoastal Waterway in Treasure Island. In Bradenton, the Manatee River has turned green from the stuff, which the mayor of Holmes Beach calls "gumbo." In Lake Okeechobee, toxins have hit a level three times what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems safe. Meanwhile state officials have convened a Blue-Green Algae Task Force to figure out how to prevent such blooms in the future. So far they have concluded only that the state's current regulations, which rely largely on voluntary anti-pollution measures, don't work very well.

Amid fears of another summer of toxic algae afflicting the state and hurting its economy, officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection say they are considering new regulations on how much of the natural toxins are allowed in the state's waterways.

One of the environmental groups that petitioned the state to take the step says it's a welcome move. But state officials and the environmental activists disagree on how the water pollution regulations ought to be employed to combat the algae blooms.

"The state would be a clear national leader if it set clear numeric limits on these toxins," said Jason Totoiu, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. "These standards could be used to identify which waters are impaired ... and we feel they would provide" specific steps for stopping practices that fuel the blooms.

However, according to Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller, the state would use the new limits to determine when and where to declare a public health emergency — not as a tool to try to prevent such emergencies.

"Typically, the criteria would be used by (the Department of Health) to inform statewide health guidance so they are able to promptly issue protective health advisories to the public related to blue-green algal blooms and any associated cyanotoxins," Miller said in an email.

As for her own agency, she said, "the water quality criteria would be utilized like other surface water quality criteria. It will be used to determine if a waterbody is impaired (i.e. not meeting water quality standards)."

And if it's classified as impaired, she said, "it would be addressed through the Department's water quality restoration process, with restoration projects and strategies identified focused on reducing nutrients."

So far the state's primary tools for reducing the pollution from nutrients — excess fertilizer and leaks from septic tanks and sewer lines — involves voluntary efforts called "Best Management Practices." Although state law requires it, members of the state Blue-Green Algae Task Force recently noted that just 75 percent of agriculture businesses in the state have adopted best management practices to reduce the nutrients in their runoff.

"The toxic algae has been a massive problem," Gov. Ron DeSantis said in announcing members of the task force in April.

Blue-green algae, also known as "cyanobacteria," occur naturally all over the world. They are actually a type of bacteria but, like plants, use sunlight to grow. Under the right conditions their population explodes into a massive bloom. Once the bloom begins, nutrient pollution in the water can fuel continued growth and expansion.

Blue-green algae blooms are most common in Florida in the summer and early fall thanks to consistently high temperatures and abundant sunlight. A bloom produces toxins that can aggravate respiratory problems and cause skin rashes to anyone who comes into contact with them. Pets can also suffer from the toxins

The bloom also stinks. During a record-size bloom in Martin County three years ago, one resident described the smell as "death on a cracker." That 2016 bloom was so bad it closed the beaches on the Fourth of July, and so thick that observers compared its appearance to guacamole.

Florida isn't the only place suffering from blue-green algae outbreaks. Lake Erie suffered a major bloom last year and scientists are predicting another this summer.

As a result, in May the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently released some recommended limits for the toxins produced by the algae. That was around the same time the Center for Biological Diversity, Calusa Waterkeeper and Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation petitioned the Florida environmental agency to impose similar limits.

"The department is evaluating EPA's brand-new recommendations as well as the underlying science," state Department of Environmental Protection secretary Noah Valenstein wrote in response to the petition. He said the agency would take public comment as well as consider the task force's recommendations before deciding on new criteria. If it does choose to create new regulations, they will have to be approved by the state's Environmental Regulatory Commission.

"The department is committed to openly and transparently developing sound, scientific criteria to ensure protection of water quality and public health," Valenstein wrote in the June 24 reply.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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