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Florida’s Red Tides Are Getting Worse and May Be Hard to Control Because of Climate Change

Florida’s Red Tides Are Getting Worse and May Be Hard to Control Because of Climate Change

Aman Azhar

Florida Governor has appointed a task force. Ron DeSantis to address the state’s algal bloom crisis concluded in a recent report that “without hard work and careful planning” adverse human health impacts and widespread wildlife mortality would most likely “worsen” because of climate change and the state’s growing population. 

The blooms are caused in large quantities by a plant-like microscopic organism called Karenia brevis. It is fed by nutrients from runoff from stormwater, agricultural land and wastewater treatment plants. Phosphorus from fertilizer used on farms in the Kissimmee River Basin is a key stimulant. This water forms the Everglades’ headwaters, and flows into Lake Okeechobee. Thence, it reaches the coasts by rivers and man-made channels.

The algal blooms, which at one point in 2018 covered 90 percent of the lake’s surface, can have devastating impacts on ecological resources and communities, causing respiratory and eye irritation in humans and “widespread Reports of fish, sea turtle, marine mammal, and other wildlife mortalities,” according to the Florida Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force.

Released on Jan. 10, the task force’s reportRecommends more research to identify the causes of red tides, increased investment in mitigation technologies, and continued work under Clean Waterways Act of 2020. 

What the task force described as a “prolonged 2017-2019 red tide event” began with an algal bloom on Lake Okeechobee and resulted in “estimated total losses of nearly $1 billion in revenue and an additional loss of $178 million in tax revenue in 23 Gulf coast counties.”

The impacts of climate change, which the task force said “may be impossible to change,” contribute to the algal blooms “through a complex variety of mechanisms including warmer water temperatures, changes in salinity, changes in rainfall patterns… changes in coastal upwelling, and sea level rise.”

But environmental advocates criticized the task force’s latest recommendations, arguing that the panel failed to hold the polluters accountable and ignored the most obvious solutions, which involve better enforcement of existing laws by the state regulators. The Clean Waterways Act of 2020, they have noted, doesn’t require agricultural interests to reduce phosphorus runoff and continues to rely on what is effectively a system of voluntary compliance.

“The task force recommends throwing taxpayer money at unproven mitigation technologies,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity, adding: “If the state regulators instead just stopped pollution at the source by holding polluters accountable, Florida would have a much better chance at turning the corner on its water quality crisis.”

Lopez said untreated sewage discharge, nutrient runoffs from various sources, and toxic waste from phosphorus mining leaking into Florida’s open waters act as a booster for red tide, which thrives in nutrient rich conditions. “The task force has ignored the elephant in the room because state regulators are not holding the polluting industries accountable through enforcement action,” she added. 

Florida Gov. DeSantis had activated the task force in August 2021, and appointed 11 experts to help it fulfill its mandate. The task force was originally established in 1999 and had been dormant over 15 years. During his recent State of the State address to the opening day of the 2022 legislature session, DeSantis also mentioned red tide as one of his priorities. 

Rapidly Growing Threat

Occurring almost every year in late summer or early fall, red tide algae is most prevalent along Florida’s southwest coastal areas. Red tide has been a problem for the state, city authorities, fisheries, tourism industries, and residents living near shoreline for the past three years.  

Alicia Norris (52), a mother of three children, has first-hand experience. She cannot shake off that sickening, nauseous feeling in the summer of 2018 from the stench of dead fish, turtles and manatees rotting in reddish-brown coastal waters along the shorelines of St. Petersburg in the state’s Tampa Bay area. 

She was at the beach, delivering Amazon orders to the wealthy people on the St. Pete coast. It was a side job. “I rushed back to my van, rolled up the windows and blasted the air conditioners because I could not breathe,” she said. 

Norris, whose father was a member the Oneida Tribe members, recalls feeling unwell for days and her chest tightening up. “I said to myself how are people even living out here,” she said. She found out that some residents were temporarily moving. “That’s when I realized how awful it was,” she said.

Norris, a Pinellas County real estate agent, said that red tide has been a part of her life since she was a child in Florida. “But I will tell you the red tide in recent years is not like it used to be,” she said. “It is like red tide on steroids.” Back in the 1970s, she recalled, red tide would subside in a week or two. “I remember it being a little stinky down at the beach,” she said. “And the fish kill was very small.”

This has changed over the years. Pinellas County officials collected 600 tons of dead fish last July when the red tide reached its peak. St. Petersburg authorities called for an emergency to remove dead sea creatures from the beaches. The beaches were cleared of dead manatees, dolphins, and other marine mammals.  

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the number killed manatees reached 1,003 between July and November 2013. The previous record was 830 set in 2013. Red tide caused at least 44 manatee deaths, the highest number ever.   

The clean-up frenzy caused cities to be stricken with stench, airborne toxic chemicals, and a flood of health-related complaints. The last red tide lasted for a year and began in December 2020. According to logs kept by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the 2017-2019 red tide was sustained for 15 months. In 2012 and 2013, hundreds of manatees were killed by the blooms that affected marine life.

Red Tide could be supercharged by toxic phosphate lakes

Experts wondered if a phosphate wastewater leak at Piney Point, Manatee County could have contributed to the extreme toxicity of algal blooms.  

In March 2021, the leak was discovered in the reservoir pond—or Phosphogypsum stack—holding 480 million gallons of toxic wastewater produced from phosphate. Phosphogypsum stackeds are made to keep radioactive waste from fertilizer production and phosphate miner’s activities. Five tons of phosphogypsum is created for every ton of phosphoric acids produced. These wastes are stored in 200-foot-deep lakes or retention ponds.

Piney Point was closed for mining 20 years ago. The company went bankrupt. These radioactive ponds still contain radioactive and toxic contaminants. 

There are approximately 70 such phosphogypsum stacks in the United States, and 25 of these toxic wastewater ponds are located in Florida. The EPA found that phosphogypsum poses a substantial threat to the environment, being radioactive, extremely corrosive and acidic. It also contains carcinogenic heavy Metals such as lead, chromium, and cadmium. 

“We had very bad red tide blooms in Tampa Bay over last summer because of the Piney Point incident,” said Lopez, director of Center for Biological Diversity. Red tide thrives in water rich in nitrogen and/or phosphorus so the Piney Point wastewater discharge was like a boost for red tide blooms. 

“This in addition to corporations and municipalities authorized to release wastewater into Florida waters,” Lopez continued. “Then there is nonpoint source discharge, which is, when it rains, all that water takes with it anything that’s sitting on the surface—fertilizer, pesticide, oil, dog poop—all of which eventually enters the waterway.”

Lopez concluded that the wastewater is rich in phosphorus as well as nitrogen and becomes fuel for algae, such red tides and blue green algae in Florida. “Most of these phosphogypsum stacks like Piney Point are located next to communities of color, including Indigenous communities. 

Angered by state authorities’ decision to release hundreds of tons of toxic pollutants in Tampa Bay, five environmental groups filed a lawsuit in federal court last year against state environmental officials, DeSantis and operators of the defunct Piney Point phosphate fertilizer plant. The groups claimed that the wastewater discharge violated the Clean Water Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Tracy Penokie, 44, lives in Pinellas County’s Clearwater area, 20 minutes from Norris. Penokie, a mother of two daughters, was born in Michigan. She settled in Florida thirty years ago. She works in a health food shop and also owns an online business that sells herbal oils and skin care products.    

Penokie, whose ancestors are from the Odawa tribe in the Navajo Nation said that the red tide has gotten worse over the past three years. “If I’m exposed to red tide for long, I get flu-like symptoms that linger for days. And it becomes really hard for me to work, which is really hard on me, especially right now with Covid,” she said. 

Penokie said that polluted waters disrupt her connection to nature and affect her spiritually. “We don’t really have rivers to cleanse ourselves in. For me personally, and many Indigenous people, it is the ocean that is best to pray. It is a place where you can offer tobacco to the waters and pray there. In the last three years, since we’ve been dealing with red tide, I have felt extremely disconnected from that connection.” 

She stated that excessive nutrients from agricultural lands can lead to runoff, which makes algal blooms stronger. “The entire Tampa Bay area was affected during last year’s red tide. It was so bad,” she added. 

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Sam Johnston, an engineer who has over 40 years of public service, claimed that stormwater treatment facilities are partly to blame. They are allowed without any monitoring of their discharge. He said many major outfalls, such as the City of Sarasota’s downtown watershed, discharge unmonitored substances directly to area bays and Florida waters. 

“Without compliance monitoring, who’s to know what they’re dumping into open waters,” he said. Such facilities, often receiving “presumptive criteria” permits, which assume permit holders will comply with sewage treatment laws, he said, can discharge wastewater without monitoring “and then kind of walk away.”

He stated that it is impossible to know if the treatment facilities are complying with the rules. They must not discharge excess nutrients into water bodies or feed harmful algal blooms.    

Johnston stated that it is impossible to pinpoint the exact causes or sources of red tide or algal blooms, until stormwater discharge monitoring is done and tested for compliance.

He added that it’s more than a coincidence that the red tide blooms occur in populated coastal areas that contribute stormwater discharges. “The best course of action would be to develop a robust set of data for potential sources that feed and generate red tide in order to effectively address solutions and mitigation for these and other harmful algal blooms,” he said. 

Norris formed Florida Indigenous Rights and Environmental Equality (FIREE) in St. Petersburg with community members. She’s been organizing events and educational seminars with other rights groups and hopes to build pressure on local authorities to address the menacing red tide blooms.  

“As an Indigenous person, we see all of the living entities as our relatives—the water, the air and the trees and all life,” she said. “Just like us humans, they have rights and they’re equal to us. And if we are hurting water, we are hurting ourselves.”

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