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Red tide and algae blooms: Florida waters in crisis

Fixing Florida's water crisis
A view of St. Petersburg, Florida from Bishop Harbor.
Posted at 9:59 AM, Sep 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-20 17:51:59-04

TAMPA — Florida's water pollution crisis is reaching a breaking point, and the race to pass comprehensive legislation to fix our statewide problems is moving as slow as the environmental catastrophe unfolding in our bays, rivers, natural springs, and lagoons every day.

The question concerned citizens, charter boat captains, some politicians, and environmentalists are asking? How many tons of dead fish, how many manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, and majestic tarpons do we have to clean up before Florida implements a systemic change from the top down.

Everyone who lives in Florida or visits Florida is part of the problem. No person is less innocent or guilty than the other, and scientists hope that we recognize and fix the problem; before it's too late.

"So, if you live in Florida, if you work in Florida, if you play in Florida, you're part of the problem," Dr. Tom Frazer, Dean of the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida, said. "So, it's not one individual, I don't think you can point the finger at the ag industry, for example, and say, if we get rid of all ag the world is going to be better, I don't think that's the case. We're all in this together. And we have to take appropriate actions to reduce our collective input of nutrients."


With that being said, some industries, people, and local municipalities do pollute more than others. There are leaky and outdated septic tanks that need to be updated or switched over to sewer. Residential fertilizers that keep yards green along our waterways add even more nitrogen into an already stressed system. Take just one home along our canals, shorelines, and sprawling cities multiple it by the hundreds of thousands across the state, and the pollution multiplies exponentially. Raw sewage from local municipalities is also pouring into streams, estuaries, back bays, canals, lagoons, and neighborhoods. A recent law tasked the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to track the worst offenders and issue fines or penalties.

In the Tampa Bay Area, there are several bridges and causeways over water that connect our counties. Some of the most notable are the Sunshine Skyway, Gandy Howard Frankland, and Courtney Campbell Causeway. These bridges make it possible for millions of vehicles each year to cross vast expanses of waterways to reach their final destinations. In doing so, they also have a direct impact on our water quality. Toxic vehicle emissions from NOx or Nitrogen Oxides flow freely from our tailpipes to the atmosphere and into our waterways. The bridges also obstruct natural flows, creating areas more susceptible to the buildup of pollutants impacting ecosystems. And agricultural fertilizers play a role in polluting our waterways. Florida growers are now facing a situation where they need to implement best management practices to keep crops growing and stop their nutrients from flowing into the water system. And when it rains, whatever pollutants are lingering on land end up in our aquifers, rivers, streams, and bays.


Starting on March 31 and lasting ten days, 215 million gallons of polluted water was released from Piney Point, an abandoned phosphate mine and fertilizer plant located north of Palmetto. The release was to keep the ponds on top of the gypsum stack from failing. But, according to Maya Burke, the Assistant Director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, the result was roughly 205 tons of nitrogen going into lower Tampa Bay.

"It's salt in the wound, because yeah, that, you know, private industry, governments, citizens, we've all stepped up and taken responsibility to improve water quality around Tampa Bay," Burke said. "And, so to have that kind of setback where you essentially doubled the nitrogen load to a base segment over the course of 10 days. It's frustrating."

"So typically, in a year, we see just shy of 200 tons of nitrogen go into lower Tampa Bay. And that's actually what we estimate about 205 tons of nitrogen we are loading into lower Tampa Bay as a result of the Piney point spill. So that's why we say it doubled it. It's, you know, ten times worse than what we would see in regular wastewater from our wastewater treatment plants," Burke said.

That nitrogen can fuel a red tide bloom.

"Karenia Brevis is it's pretty opportunistic feeders not picky. And it can it can make use of a variety of different nutrients that are available. But there are other algae species that are blooming In the bay too, and generally, what drives that productivity is nitrogen. So that's why we worry about it."

Scientists at the non-profit are now visiting multiple sites around Piney Point, collecting data about seagrass beds, grass blade length, macroalgae, water quality, and other metrics to try and get a baseline for the impacts on the ecosystem. For example, the area near the spill contains some of the healthiest seagrass beds teams would usually only visit once a year. Now, they got twice a week. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet, and there are many nutrients that cycle through the system, so it's hard to pinpoint the impacts.

The Piney Point spill is now splitting the Tampa Bay Estuary Program's focus from other parts of the bay that are in decline.

"Bay managers are very concerned about Old Tampa Bay because it just hasn't recovered the way that other portions of Tampa Bay has," Burke said.

Old Tampa Bay, near St. Pete Clearwater Airport, the Feather Sound area has lost thousands of acres of seagrass due to pollution.

"And really, for us, a lot of folks in Southwest Florida look to Indian River Lagoon as sort of the thing that we're trying to avoid, and we're trying to learn lessons from what happened over there, "Burke said. "Part of why old Tampa Bay is so troubling is because pyridinium is the algae species that push them over their tipping point. So now, we are seeing, you know, recurrent brown tides and extensive seagrass loss that looks very similar to what we're starting to see in the early stages of here, in old Tampa Bay. We're trying to get the community to rally around those necessary actions and investments so that we can stop old Tampa Bay from becoming the next Indian River Lagoon."

We are not out of the woods yet. Recently, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection ) filed a motion for an emergency hearing due to the possibility of flooding or overtopping at Piney Point.


On the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County, ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska took a boat ride with Dr. Aaron Adams, the Director of Science and Conservation for Bonefish and Tarpon Trust.

"If we can't make protecting and improving the resource a priority, then we are in pretty bad shape," Adams said.

While we were on the water with Adams in late August, we saw recurring brown tides. The water was murky and dark. During better days, the lagoon would be crystal clear. Adams took us to several locations to show where sources of pollution enter the water, from stormwater drains to homes right up against the water on septic tanks.

"Every different spot has their boogeyman, so to speak," Adams said. For the Indian River Lagoon, the boogeyman is residential sprawl and overdevelopment. Nearly a thousand people a day move to Florida, all bringing a footprint that contributes to more pollution.

"Failing septic systems, outdated sewage treatment plants, stormwater runoff way too many fertilizers on lawns those are our biggest issues here," Adams said. "We are still running Florida based on a 1960s version of how we should manage water, and each year at this point each month that we do that, we are putting ourselves farther and farther into the hole. We also have to invest in how we monitor freshwater flows."

For decades Adams has fought to protect Florida's wild places. A fisherman with a love of the water and species that only call Florida home. He's watching it collapse right in front of him.

"If we don't fix it, Florida future, I think is pretty dim," Adams said. "If Tarpon has been around for 60-million years in present form and they are having problems that should really have alarm bells going off for us. I'm a scientist here telling you we don't need more science to tell us what the problem is. It's all a political will problem, and until it becomes a priority, we are not going to fix it."


As seasoned scientists like Adams continue their fight, a new generation of Floridians joins the fight to save our waterways.

"It's such a David and Goliath issue," Haley Busch, the Outreach Director for 1000 Friends of Florida, said.

The non-profit focuses on smart growth instead of uncontrolled urban sprawl, with its primary focus on saving special places.

Busch has been living, working, and breathing her new advocacy role for the past three years. So when red tide hit her backyard in Pinellas County, it strengthened her will and drive to fight for more vital legislation to protect our environment.

"I am a runner and get up in the mornings and the smell of it. I'd have to stop mid-run. It's really awful. And, that's the story all along St. Petersburg, all along the Pinellas peninsula this past summer. And you know, it's awful. It alters the way you live your life."

Every year Busch says politicians at the local, state and federal levels should focus on water quality. But, that's not always the case and the pandemic isn't helping.

"We missed a year last year; we didn't, in our opinion, didn't get anything substantial done for water quality protection," Busch said. "It just requires political willpower. A combination of carrot and stick enforcement and incentives, right. We most often push for incentives and when we make policy recommendations, because it's always better to, you know, assuming that everyone wants to do the right thing, so providing incentives to try and get them there but also enforcement is needed."

Busch said the 2020 Clean Waterways Act signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis was a significant victory for the environment, and policymakers are still working to implement the new legislation. But with all of the problems plaguing the state, from near-record manatee deaths, red tide outbreaks, fish kills, and collapsing ecosystems, politicians need to focus on comprehensive systemic changes.

"It's frustrating cause you to have to be patient, but the reality is, it's like tackling one source of pollution at a time and getting after it. Stop pollution at the source. Identify is it fertilizer runoff? Is it agricultural runoff? And get more nuanced in one bill or policy change at the department level," Busch said. "The momentum and the motion behind it is let's get it done go after it, an omnibus bill. But, the reality of Florida policy and legislation about the whole process is when a bill like that goes to session, all the different interests significantly weaken it, so that's been my biggest shift in thought, I think."

"And I'm sure that each polluter says they are not polluting as much as the other?" Reporter Michael Paluska said.

"Yeah, it's like this; they point fingers," Busch said. "At the beginning of my kind of career in this realm, I would come in with a lot of energy and optimism. But, I've had to moderate that, tone it back a little bit, try to prepare for the marathon and not the sprint in seeing progress, which is hard to admit. But, I want to have kids in this state, and I want them to see the same kind of natural resources I've grown up with."


As red tide blanketed Tampa Bay, charter boat captains were the first ones to smell and see the carcasses of dead fish and marine life.

Captain Tyler Kapela said he would cruise through parts of the bay and canals for miles and miles and not see a single section of water free of dead fish. Kapela, one of the first to sound the alarm, taking to social media and his 15,000-plus Instagram followers to raise awareness. His pictures and videos of dead marine life are difficult to watch. A bloated dead manatee washed ashore, no marks from a boat strike. He filled his boat with dozens of dead fish, holding one up to the camera, saying, "do I have your attention now."

"We have to get the message out there that what's happening is not natural it's caused by man it's being supercharged by man red tide is a natural occurrence, but the nutrients we are putting in the water causing these catastrophes are not, and that's what's supercharging this monster," Kapela said. "Out here as I'm riding around, I mean running through miles of dead fish as far as you can see big ones small ones we found a dead manatee if it's toxic enough to kill that do you really want to bring your family to the beach?

Kapela took us out on his boat in August in Boca Ciega Bay near Jackass Key. An area he said was teaming with wildlife months earlier, now eerily silent.

In July, Governor Ron DeSantis visited St. Petersburg to survey the impacts of the red tide crisis, clean-up, and the state's response. DeSantis said state money was available to continue assisting in the efforts to remove dead fish, and declaring a state of emergency was not necessary.

"I directed all agencies to take an 'all-hands-on deck' approach to respond to the red tide impacting the Tampa Bay area," DeSantis said. "My administration is committed to continue ensuring that local needs are met to address this red tide event."

During that news conference, ABC Action News reporter Wendi Lane. Lane asked the governor if he thought any of the 215 million gallons of polluted water from Piney Point worsened the bloom.

"I think the scientific consensus is clear; it did not cause the red tide; the red tide was here. I think the biggest impact on Tampa Bay was Elsa, unfortunately," DeSantis said.

That response fueled one thing—anger from Kapela, who couldn't believe the governor's response.

"He said, well, you know red tide has been around for a long time. It's clearly red tide is natural and hurricane Elsa just, unfortunately, is the largest thing that happened, and that's why we had the red tide in the bay next question," Kapela said. "Obviously, it wasn't hurricane Elsa. There was red tide in the bay around the Piney Point disaster. Why won't you just admit these nutrients from this are causing the red tide? It's maddening, it's maddening. Somewhere the science along the chain gets spun to say, well, the research is ongoing. We still don't know what causes the red tide. You know we are not sure what's happening. It's a naturally occurring thing; then they sweep it under the rug. Everyone forgets about it, and we have another one two years later."

The question many people are asking ask how much dead fish, manatees, dolphins, and sea turtles will it take to get comprehensive reform and action?

According to numbers provided to ABC Action News by Pinellas County, during the 2021 bloom, they collected 1837.23 tons of dead fish. The bloom persisted for several weeks from late May through August, and patches continue today. For comparison, during the entire 2018 bloom that started in August near Pinellas County, it lingered through winter 2019. During that time, they collected nearly the same amount of dead marine life, 1862 tons. That's 3,724,000 pounds.

"Do you see your entire industry collapsing if we continue these cycles of fish kills? Paluska asked.

"Sure it, it is collapsing right now," Kapela said. "These red tide events used to be localized and not as nearly severe or as long-lasting, and now they are occurring for months and months at a time and wiping out entire regions. I mean, in 2018, from Marco Island all the way to Clearwater, everything died. We keep killing the big breeder fish. We have an entire collapse of the ecosystem every few years. It's going to turn into a dead zone, and it is already."

Paluska reached out to the governor's office for clarification on his comments. Jared Williams, Deputy Communications Director, sent us a transcript of DeSantis's statement at the news conference.

"If you looked at the map then, and leading up until Elsa clearly Elsa pushed more of the blooms into Tampa bay and led to some really intense events."

Williams also said, "this statement indicates that Hurricane Elsa shifted the already existing red tide bloom into the Tampa Bay, not that the existing bloom was caused by Elsa."

During the governor's 2018 campaign, he promised to clean up Florida's polluted water. Mainly the blue-green algae plaguing Lake Okeechobee and the East and West Coasts along the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers during releases.

Since taking office, Gov. DeSantis has used his position to push for water reforms. Williams said, "Executive Order 19-12, which laid out major reforms to protect Florida's water resources. Executive Order 19-12 created the Blue-Green Algae Task Force and reactivated the long-dormant Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force, both of which continue to explore ways to mitigate harmful algal blooms in Florida. Additionally, Governor DeSantis has championed historic funding for the protection of water resources since taking office, securing more than $2.1 billion for these initiatives, including projects to reduce nutrient pollution in Florida's waterway."

In 2020, Gov. DeSantis signed the Clean Waterways Act into law. Sweeping legislation focused on septic tank, wastewater treatment, stormwater, agriculture (best management practices), biosolids, water quality monitoring, increasing fines and penalties, rights of nature, and regulating golf courses.

State Senator Linda Stewart ( D) District 13 proposed legislation in 2021 that would tighten restrictions on septic tanks and other water quality issues. Her bill passed the Senate but failed in the house.

"We have to continue to work on water quality, no matter what bill is out there, we have a severe water quality issue throughout the state that needs to be looked at every year, we need to look at ways in which we can improve water quality. It's our livelihood; it's you know how the people of Florida will be able to live in the future and for our children."

Stewart told Paluska she was frustrated by the slow process to fix the problem too.

"Well, you're talking to Tallahassee here. We don't do things rationally; we just have to wait and talk it out for quite a while until we can be comfortable with it. But, you know, I am comfortable with making water quality the number one priority for years now.

Stewart said a piecemeal approach year by year wouldn't help Floridians. Instead, she would like to see comprehensive reform.

"If we don't do something now, where do you think our water quality issues will be in 10 or 20 years?" Paluska asked.

"There'll be such a slight improvement; it won't even appear to be an improvement. So we've got to do drastic measures," Stewart said. I've been around a really long time, and you can't give up. You've got to keep moving forward; you can't move back; you have to resist stepping back. You just have to move forward."