State Politics

Proposed algae bloom law falls short of tougher septic, agriculture oversight

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday proposed legislation to improve water quality and prevent algae blooms and their toxic effects on people and wildlife, but he fell short of mandating tougher regulations on septic tanks and agriculture runoff, major sources of the harmful blooms.

DeSantis promised to champion “a comprehensive piece of water quality legislation” in the 2020 legislative session, taking into account recommendations made by a Blue-Green Algae Task Force he created in January after massive outbreaks of algae and red tide fouled Florida’s waterways last year.

The group of scientists studied the main causes of the blooms to try to figure out how to improve Florida’s slimy waters.

The proposed bill targets runoff from agricultural lands, failing septic systems, wastewater overflows and malfunctioning stormwater infrastructure as they were identified by the task force as the main sources of nutrient pollution that lead to blooms. DeSantis has made it a priority in his government’s environmental strategy to assess 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 more research is needed to determine the quantities and exposure that make blue-green algae a public health hazard.

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Blue-green algae was found in some water samples tested by the Department of Environmental Protection in June, though no toxins were present in samples. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

DeSantis is proposing to give Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection the authority to inspect septic tanks, so that damage to the environment is also taken into account in case of failing systems.

Currently, the Department of Health oversees inspections and only considers the human impact when septic tanks leak and nutrients make their way into water bodies. Although environmentalists have called for mandatory septic inspections to prevent contaminants from reaching Florida’s groundwater and waterways, the proposed legislation didn’t go that far.

“A proposal to address the environmental impacts of septic tanks without mandatory septic tank inspections is unquestionably a half-measure,” said Alex Gillen, executive director of Friends of the Everglades.

Florida has more than 2.6 million septic tanks — 10% of all systems in the country — and they were high on the task force’s priority list of issues.

During five meetings between June and September, the scientists defended broader regulatory oversight and more research on the potential benefits of converting to a sewer system or upgrading septic tanks to more modern systems. They also said septic tanks should be inspected regularly. There isn’t any requirement for inspections after a septic tank receives a permit.

Agriculture runoff, which the task force identified as a key source of nutrients, is also addressed in the governor’s bill, which proposes verification of the Best Management Practices adopted by producers at least every two years. These practices are a group of industry-set standards for the use of water, fertilizers and pesticides.

Farmers are expected to enroll in this program and adhere to self-imposed rules to minimize the sector’s impact on the state’s natural resources. But compliance with these standards is voluntary, and the proposed bill doesn’t change that structure or seek the adoption of enforceable standards.

Environmental activists have called for tougher controls of nutrients used in agriculture, especially phosphorus, which flows into Lake Okeechobee from surrounding farms.

“To effectively protect our health and wildlife ... we must expedite efforts to get harmful phosphorous pollution under control in Lake Okeechobee, now not later,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Better oversight and maintenance of wastewater systems is another item on the bill, which requires utilities to develop inspection, maintenance and replacement plans for their systems.

“We’ve seen the consequences of sewage being thrown into the water in places like Miami and the Tampa Bay area,” DeSantis said Wednesday at a press conference in Jupiter. “This is not something that is acceptable,” he said.

The proposal also gives the DEP the authority to act with interventions and inspections of the systems before discharges and spills occur at facilities.

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