algae blooms

Lake Okeechobee serves as the backup water supply for 3 million South Floridians. A study indicateds that the algae blooms that periodically clog some waterways aren’t caused by farm runoff but by septic tanks. / J.D. Vivian

Floridians are facing a big challenge — their water supply — and we’d better do something to address it soon. That was the message delivered at the Farm City 2016 Luncheon, held Nov. 16 at the South Florida Fairgrounds Expo Center in suburban West Palm Beach.

“Florida’s Water Future” was the theme for the event, which was hosted by the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce and included a four-person panel discussion.

Part of the concern is, of course, population growth. But another concern is water quality — for instance, algae blooms in the Indian River Lagoon (IRL).

Mark Wilson / Courtesy of Chamber of Commerce of Central Palm Beach County

Mark Wilson / Courtesy of Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce

“There are few issues more important than water,” said Mark Wilson, one of the panelists. He is president and chief executive officer of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

About 1,000 people move into Florida every day. Add to that the natural population growth of people reproducing.

Prof: Growth stressing resources

“Human activities are impacting Florida’s water resources,” noted Brian Lapointe, Ph.D., a research professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce and another of the panelists.

He is the lead author of the extensive 2015 report “Evidence of sewage-driven eutrophication and harmful algal blooms in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon.”

“Eutrophication” occurs when a body of water contains too many nutrients, such as phosphorous and nitrogen. Unwanted plants — algae, for example — love this environment; but their explosive growth reduces oxygen in the water. This kills beneficial plant life, as well as fish and other animals.

Lapointe’s report notes, “Eutrophication of the IRL resulting from widespread urbanization and population growth has long been a concern of scientists and resource managers.”

Manatee deaths blamed on algae blooms

The July 13, 2016, issue of The Orlando Sentinel reported that eight dead manatees had been found in Brevard County’s Indian River Lagoon (IRL) since the end of May.

Those deaths are tentatively blamed on the severe algae blooms in the IRL at the time. All eight had “little or no sea grass in their stomachs. Instead, their digestive systems were filled with a large type of algae.”

The Orlando Sentinel story, “Manatee deaths resume in Indian River,” quoted Martine de Wit, lead veterinarian at the Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory in St. Petersburg: “The hypothesis is that the change of vegetation that the manatees are eating makes them to susceptible to complications in their guts.”

Septic tanks adding nitrogen to IRL algae blooms

One major cause of the IRL algae blooms in recent years has been the septic tanks in the Indian River Lagoon. Lapointe’s report explains, “N (Nitrogen) enrichment from septic tanks (about 300,000) represents a significant and largely ignored N-source to the IRL.”

Wilson, of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, expressed concern that an insufficient and/or substandard-quality water supply could halt the state’s explosive growth and threaten its economic health.

“We use 7 billion gallons a day,” he said. “We’ll need 9 billion gallons a day by 2030. We’re going to need more water. Don’t expect more rain, so we have to get this right.”

Wilson added, “How do we stop people from moving here? If we don’t have more water, we automatically solve our population challenge.”

The panel discussion focused mainly on water quality and the causes of water pollution, not on new sources of the liquid.

Lake Okeechobee not the problem

Brian Lapointe / Courtesy of Central Palm Beach County Chamber

Brian Lapointe / Courtesy of Central Palm Beach County Chamber

Lapointe said, “Those (algae) blooms are not the fault of Lake Okeechobee. A lot of people blamed fertilizer and agriculture. But sewage and septic tanks were the likely culprits.”

Florida’s agriculture industry is no longer the biggest consumer of water, according to Ben Boynton, president of Boynton Financial Group, who served as moderator. “Municipal water use now exceeds agricultural water use.”

Wilson warned, “We can’t grow the economy without a good environment. This is an incredibly complex issue. Most people won’t think about this until they turn on their water and nothing comes out.”