WASHINGTON, April 13, 2016 - There’s a hot debate in Florida about what is causing massive fish kills in the Indian River Lagoon on the state’s Atlantic Coast. Some environmental advocates say the algae blooms responsible for the lagoon’s dead zones are being fed by nutrient runoff from sugarcane and other farms, while agricultural interests and new research suggest most of the problems stems from human sewage.
The Indian River Lagoon (IRL) – the most biodiverse estuary in North America – runs nearly 160 miles along Florida’s east coast from Ponce de León Inlet in Volusia County through Cape Canaveral to Jupiter Inlet in Palm Beach County. For decades, the IRL has weathered toxic algae blooms similar to those that have negatively affected aquatic and human health in the Western Lake Erie Basin.
Charles Shinn, director of government and community affairs at the Florida Farm Bureau, told Agri-Pulse that algae blooms have been more severe in the IRL as of late in part because of more extreme rain events in the winter and spring, which wash nutrients from fields, yards and sewers into waterways. He also contends that agricultural operations – which have notably decreased in number and size along the IRL in recent decades – aren’t the main source of these nutrients.
Brian Lapointe, a professor of marine ecosystem health at Florida Atlantic University, agrees with Shinn. “When you look at the basins along the northern IRL, there’s not a lot of agriculture there. It’s an urbanized estuary – you’ve got a lot of people and a lot of sewage, including septic tanks,” he told Agri-Pulse in an exclusive interview.
The state outlawed sewage plant discharges into the lagoon in 1995, but sewage pollution from septic tanks has gone largely unchecked. Lapointe says that’s because septic tanks were a “magic carpet for rapid cheap growth” in Florida, and the state wasn’t about to curb their use.
In the mid-1990s, a Florida Department of Health whistleblower accused the state of hiring consultants known for doctoring the numbers to favorably evaluate whether septic tanks were polluting groundwater. The whistleblower, then the top research engineer charged with regulating sewage treatment, was fired and the state’s regulation of septic tanks stayed relatively lax.
“It’s one of those situations where the fox was in the hen house,” Lapointe said. Florida health agencies “were insisting septic tanks worked just fine” based on those evaluations, but the firms “apparently fudged the numbers on what septic tanks are doing to Florida’s environment.”
Today, it’s estimated there are upwards of 600,000 septic tanks in counties along the lagoon. Most of them are located in Brevard and Volusia counties at the northern end of the IRL, where the highest levels of dissolved nitrogen can also found.
Lapointe recently published a study in which he used isotopes to identify the origin of the nitrogen throughout the IRL. Not only did the isotope values found in the northern reaches of the IRL “line up with a strong sewage signal,” Lapointe said, they also lined up with isotope values found in Boston Harbor and Cape Cod – places where the water is known to be impacted by human sewage.
On the Gulf Coast of Florida, where algae blooms have been mild compared to the IRL this year, Lapointe says he has also found isotope evidence that sewage is a “major” contributing factor to algae blooms, along with farm runoff and phosphate mining.
When it comes to explaining the fish kills in the IRL this year, the state’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute acknowledges the role algae has played, but won’t point fingers at where nutrients are coming from.
Kelly Richmond, spokeswoman for the FWRI – the research branch under Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, told Agri-Pulse that her agency is working to record fish kills and was cooperating with the St. Johns River Water Management District to conduct algae bloom sampling and water testing in the IRL.
The state’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, is keeping mum on the cause of the algae blooms in the IRL, too. The release his office put out in late March included no mention of sewage, runoff, agriculture or septic tanks. The state’s Chamber of Commerce, on the other hand, made a move in January to tackle sewage pollution by teaming up with Lapointe.
“I think this partnership is the beginning of turning the corner on this issue,” Lapointe said. Currently, the team is putting together educational videos for Floridians on septic tank pollution.
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