No silver bullet for Florida’s Harmful Algae Blooms

Posted in: Environmental, Water


algae in waterHarmful Algae Blooms (HABs) occur when toxic or nuisance algal species occur at high levels, choking waterways, killing fish and marine life, and blocking sunlight native aquatic plants need to survive. Research has shown that excessive nutrient loading in water bodies resulting from human activities can cause HABs. In the United States, HABs are a problem in every coastal and Great Lakes state, and the negative affects to people, wildlife, and natural resources can be severe.

In 2018, Florida experienced some of the worst HABs on record, on the heels of similar large-scale blooms from 2015 through 2017. In July 2018, a state of emergency had been declared in seven Florida counties.

This is not a problem to take lightly. In addition to harming the environment, HABs have significant negative economic impacts. In Florida, $14.5 million was allocated in emergency funds to clean up damage caused in 2018. In 2016, Florida’s shellfish industry lost roughly $3.3 million. Extensive news coverage of HABs had a noticeable and negative affect on tourism: Lee County alone had an estimated loss of $8 million in vacation rentals.

florida map showing algae blooms
Reports of algae blooms across Florida indicate that this is not a localized concern. Image provided by FloridaDEP.gov. Sources: Esri, HERE, Garmin, Intermap, increment P Corp., GEBCO, USGS, FAO, NPS, NRCAN, GeoBase, IGN, Kadaster NL, Ordnance Survey, Esri Japan, METI, Esri China (Hong Kong), (c) OpenStreetMap contributors, and the GIS User Community

What now?

These impacts spurred stakeholders across the state to action. In January 2019, Governor Ron Desantis issued Executive Order 2019-12, which included a number of directives dedicated to investigating and solving water quality issues.

To start, a public database of algae reports and testing results throughout Florida was created. As can be seen from the map at right, HABs are a concern for stakeholders state-wide.

In addition, a Blue-Green Algae Task Force met throughout 2019 and issued its first consensus document in October 2019. They identified several approaches to mitigate HABs:

  • Strategic Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs) – BMAPs serve as road maps for specific basins to meet numerical nutrient criteria and total maximum daily load (TMDL) limits. According to the task force, a “more strategic approach to project selection, implementation and monitoring” is needed for BMAPs moving forward.
  • Expand Agricultural Best Management Practices (BMPs) – BMPs reducing nutrients introduced into the environment from agricultural activities have been established in all BMAP areas, but expanded enrollment in and enforcement of BMP programs is needed.
  • Eliminate Onsite Sewage Treatment and Disposal Systems – Roughly 30% of wastewater generated in Florida is treated in an onsite septic systems, which deposit nutrient loads directly to the environment with very little treatment. The acceleration of existing septic to sewer programs would eliminate onsite septic systems.
  • Suppress Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSOs) – SSOs occur when municipal wastewater systems can’t handle wastewater flows due to any number of causes. SSOs pose a human health risk and act as contribute to nutrient loading. Wastewater systems need to be more resilient to reduce SSOs.

Looking ahead

I recently wrote about Tampa Bay’s history with environmental challenges and the collaborative effort that put the Bay on a path to recovery. A similar collaboration will be needed to solve the water quality issues contributing to HABs, this time on an even greater scale. The initial solutions proposed by the Task Force are a great start, but this is just the beginning of a long road to success. There is no silver bullet solution and no single entity or stakeholder can solve the problem alone. We must all come together once more to protect the health of our environment and communities.


Matt Munz

About the Author

Matt Munz, PE, ENV SP is an environmental/water engineer and project manager out of Mead & Hunt’s Tampa office. His experience spans wastewater, reclaimed water, deep well injection, and reuse. As a native Floridian, Matt has always been passionate about the state’s water quality. Outside of the engineering world, Matt likes to spend time with his family enjoying the natural wonders of the Bay Area, from hiking and hunting the headwaters of the Hillsborough River in Green Swamp to fly-fishing the flats of Old Tampa Bay.

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