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Lawmakers take heed of algae task force proposals

Lawmakers are pushing several bills this session that have regulatory implications as the state tries to rid its waters of blue-green algae and similar pollution.

The recommendations came from the Blue-Green Algae Task Force, a group of five scientists who meet regularly to discuss water issues like pollution, toxic algae blooms and septic tanks.

Republican state senators Debbie Mayfield, Indialantic, and Joe Gruters, Sarasota, are among those lawmakers who took up some recommendations from the task force, a group of five scientists formed under Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“There’s gonna be lots of new regulations when it comes to protecting our water,” Gruters said. “We’re in a new era. Republicans are controlling this issue and we’re going to make sure we’re protecting Florida’s environmental resources for generations to come.”

The governor also is pushing another bill that emerged from a task force he convened last year to investigate the state’s blue green algae problem, which has been particularly troublesome for communities connected to Lake Okeechobee by the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

The task force recommendations have been incorporated into legislation filed in both the House and Senate that include a regulatory component.

Some environmental advocates say they are encouraged by the water quality bills that have been put forward so far but that there is still room for improvement.

“It’s a good start but it’s weak on several components,” said Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani. “The bill defers to various technical committees to respond back on things like stormwater treatment and sludge disposal. It just delays the implementation, and

without knowing what the recommendations are from the technical committees, it’s hard for me to support the bill entirely.”

Mayfield’s bill says agriculture must do a better job of controlling nutrients spreading from farmlands, which stretch throughout much of the historic Everglades.

“The agricultural sector is a significant contributor to the excess delivery of nutrients to surface waters throughout this state and has been identified as the dominant source of both phosphorus and nitrogen within the Lake Okeechobee watershed and a number of other basin management action plan areas,” the bill reads.

Florida Gulf Coast University professor and researcher Mike Parsons is part of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force and said Mayfield’s bill seems pretty inclusive of task force recommendations.

“Basically everything looks like it’s in there,” Parsons said. “They really focus on the sewers and waste water treatment plans and some of our recommendations on that and stormwater and stormwater collection.”

The bill also takes aim at septic tanks, which are problematic in coastal counties like Lee.

“Conventional onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems contribute nutrients to groundwater and surface waters across this state, which can cause harmful blue-green algal blooms,” the bill reads.

Some environmental groups say the bills are a good start but that more work needs to be done to update decades-old regulations and rules.

“It doesn’t go as far as the Blue-Green Algae Task Force recommended,” said Rae Ann Wessel, with the Sanibel- Captiva Conservation Foundation.

Wessel said the bills and recommendations provide a road map to better water quality.

But the answers have long been known, Wessel said.

Getting the political will to carry out the solutions has always been the problem, she said.

“Pollution sources is something we’ve been talking about for decades,” Wessel said. “The solutions are stopping the source of pollution and this touches a lot of those.”

Wessel said Florida needs to update water quality rules and regulations, which she said are outdated and inadequate.

“We need to get some new guidance in this state because we’re growing so quickly and the pollution is coming from the land and you overdevelop the land,” Wessel said.

Wessel said part of the problem stems from the lack of natural water storage on the South Florida landscape.

“And if you don’t set aside land to hold the water, you can’t get ahead of it,” she said. “Once it’s in the water, it’s so much harder and more expensive to clean up.”

Historically, several feet of water sat on the local landscape.

Developers and government agencies started draining the historic Everglades about a century ago, and a myriad of water quality problems have followed in recent years.

Today water flows off the landscape as fast as gravity allows.

“We’re very pleased to see this moving forward, (but) our wish list might have some details we’d like to see added,” Wessel said. “We have to remake our stormwater regulations. They’re 25 years old.”

Parsons said the task force will likely discuss public health issues when it starts to meet again in March.

“We’re going to be putting more focus on the public health part of the blooms and (task force chair) Tom (Frazer) wants to provide more opportunities for public input,” Parsons said.

Connect with this reporter: @Chad-GillisNP on Twitter. Zac Anderson of the USA TODAY Network - Florida Capital Bureau contributed to this story.

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