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Florida's Dirty Water Tops List of Woes For New Chief Science Officer

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Charles Trainor JR.
/
Miami Herald
An alligator swims through blue-green algae on Lake Okeechobee in July, when blooms covered most of the lake and were released into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

Florida's ongoing water woes tops the list of problems to be tackled by the state's new chief science officer.

In his first press briefing Friday, Tom Frazer, an aquatic ecologist and director of the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Florida, said he plans on convening a new blue green algae task force in early June. Armed with money newly approved by lawmakers, the group plans to find smaller projects that might have a more immediate fix for water quality issues in and around Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. 

"We do have a number of available funds to implement projects in [drainage basins] and we need to prioritize those and move forward on the best ones possible," Frazer said.

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Credit Tyler Jones/UF IFAS
Florida's new chief science officer, Tom Frazer, collecting algae in Gulf Coast waters in 2010.

In April, Gov. Ron DeSantis named Frazer the state's first chief science officer to help address spiraling environmental issues. Algae blooms now regularly foul the Treasure Coast and Caloosahatchee estuary, and pollution has worsened water quality in Central Florida springs and South Florida's Biscayne Bay and Florida Bay. DeSantis has pledged to spend $2.5 billion over the next four years to improve water and earlier this month, lawmakers approved a budget that included $682 million in spending over the next year.

Frazer, a California native who's worked for UF since 1996, said Friday during that time he has studied a number of water problems across the state in rivers and lakes, along its coasts and even coral reefs.

"So I feel like I have a good understanding of the various aquatic habitats in the state," he said.

While Everglades restoration is aimed at addressing South Florida's problems in the longterm, Frazer and his boss, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein, said next year's budget will allow them to start smaller projects in the region's numerous drainage districts that could provide more short-term relief.

"We want to address anything from stormwater [issues] to wetland restoration," Valentstein said. "We have not had the level of funding needed to ramp up that program until this year."

The department plans to announce the meeting date and location of the blue green algae task force, made up of five scientists including four from state universities, in the coming days. The meeting will be open to the public.