Energy & Environment

Toxic algal blooms in Florida: Ag leaders need to act now

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At the height of summer, beachgoers to Florida’s Treasure Coast have had to stay out of the water due to a plague of harmful algae. As this toxic algae spreads so does the risk to public health, the health of creatures on sea and land — not to mention it will cost millions of dollars in terms of lost revenue for tourism.

The algal blooms in Florida are a recurring problem that has reached a full-blown crisis, and they are a growing problem around the country where the actions of one industry impact the rest of society. To say the —guacamole-thick algal bloom that hit both coasts and triggered a state of emergency is bad for the economy and the environment— is an understatement.  

{mosads}The cause of the blue-green algae is water loaded with nutrient pollution, in the form of nitrogen and phosphorus, largely from agricultural runoff. This water is discharged from Lake Okeechobee, channeled into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers, and then mixes with salty water to spawn these horrific blooms.

Even if a perfect storm of heavy spring rains, high temperatures and an overflowing lake created the immense size and scope of the algae outbreak, the problem of contaminated water can’t be blamed solely on these unusual events. Plus, these events are becoming increasingly common as pollutants pour into waters and climate change intensifies heat waves and the water cycle of drought and deluge.

The poor water quality of Lake Okeechobee is nothing new. Water quality there depends largely on how land around the Greater Everglades ecosystem is used. Around Lake Okeechobee that means farming.

These algal blooms signal that the way conventional agriculture operates in Florida, and in the rest of the United States, needs to change. Other activities contribute to algal blooms too – like fertilizer-doused lawns and leaky septic systems in urban areas – but by far it is agriculture that has the biggest land use footprint.

The interior region of Florida continues its agricultural history with a mix of sugarcane fields, citrus groves, vegetable farms, beef cattle pastures and dairy factory farms. How these fields and groves are managed is incredibly important to the lake’s water quality, as well as to the water that flows to the east and west coasts of the state, not to mention the precious Everglades ecosystem.

Pollution from the large amounts of synthetic fertilizers applied to crops, like sugarcane and citrus, along with manure from factory farms is a major contributor as runoff carries the excess nutrients to the lake. The pumping of flood waters from fields back into the lake can also spike nutrient pollution, as happened during the big winter rains of 2016.

There are many sustainable best management practices for agriculture that are recognized as good for the land and that help to clean up water supplies, such as restoring wetlands, creating buffer strips around waterways, applying fertilizers more efficiently and managing pastureland to avoid soil erosion and runoff, to name just a few.

Creating more wetlands that can naturally purify runoff and floodwaters from agriculture is essential, and the state can look to the success of reduced water pollution from sugarcane by restoring wetlands for the Everglades Construction Project (ECP) to the south of the lake.

Even the hard-won gains of the ECP are hard to come by if there is no will to change to more sustainable practices that work with the environment and not against it.

For instance, the Everglades Foundation determined in a 2012 report that although 76 percent of the of the phosphorus deposited into Lake Okeechobee from the southern agricultural section were derived from agricultural sources, agricultural interests only paid for 24 percent of the clean-up costs.

Political will from our leaders is required to hold accountable those that pollute, in the past and today, so that they pitch in their fair share. That means not just kicking the can down the road, but raising the standards to make sustainable agricultural practices part of doing business.

Leaders need to promote sustainable agriculture and support farmers who seek to lessen their impact on the nation’s water, soil and air. It will take a mix of incentives, including the adoption of newer technologies and sustainable farming practices, plus changes to governmental policy, regulation and investment.

One model to consider for the lake is the pollution diet program for the Chesapeake Bay that establishes hard numeric limits on nutrients that producers throughout the watershed can release. Even if upgrading agriculture is not always easy, it is necessary, and can go a long way toward minimizing the ill effects of pollution while leading to a more productive food system. Negative impacts from one sector should not be allowed to flow unimpeded into another.

But political and agricultural leaders won’t act unless pushed. There’s no free lunch when it comes to food production and its impact on the surrounding environment on which public health, local economies, tourism and clean water depend. Want to avoid the dreaded green slime in your water?

It’s time to think about how the decisions we make – like buying sustainable food or choosing forward-thinking leaders – can have a positive impact on our current food system.

Kai Olson-Sawyer is Senior Research and Policy Analyst at GRACE Communications Foundation, which provides consumer resources and tools on sustainable alternatives to industrial agriculture.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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