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Florida's Blue Green Algae Task Force Wants Tighter Septic and Stormwater Rules

Pedro Portal Miami Herald
A boat motors through blue green algae in the Caloosahatchee River near LaBelle in 2018.

A state task force examining ways to fix Florida’s dirty water narrowed its recommendations on Monday by suggesting tighter rules for septic tanks and aging stormwater systems.

The six-member panel of scientists has been rushing to complete a list of proposals in advance of the January legislative session. In response to grumbling that the group was moving too fast, Chairman Tom Frazer has said the list is meant to provide a framework for lawmakers and won’t be the end of the group’s work. The latest draft of recommendations was released Friday afternoon, ahead of Monday's 8 a.m. meeting.

“This is not the final recommendation from this body,” he repeated Monday.

Gov. Ron DeSantis created the panel in April to deal with worsening water conditions, a promise he made days after an election that coincided with a widespread red tide off Florida’s west coast and slimy blue green algae outbreaks in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers. 

The group has so far mostly focused on the Lake Okeechobee watershed, where phosphorus pollution, largely from farms around the 730-square mile lake, remains well above limits set decades ago.

The state tries to manage pollution through sweeping plans called Basin Management Action Plans. The plans look at wastewater facilities, farms and other sources of pollution and use permitting, farming practices and conservation programs to try to limit pollution. But they’ve been chronically underfunded and not well-monitored. The task force wants to tighten up management and increase spending.

The panel also wants to take a look at failing septic tanks and stormwater systems threatened by sea rise, and increasingly blamed for coastal pollution in South Florida.

The state has more than 2.5 million septic tanks, but stopped inspecting them in 2012 after former Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill overturning inspections. The task force wants those reinstated and limits set on where septic tanks - that treat a third of the state’s wastewater - can be installed. Septic tanks are now banned only on property smaller than an acre near protected springs, unless they include features to remove nitrogen. The panel has recommended that ban be extended to other vulnerable areas.

Not everyone agrees. Roxanne Groover, executive director of the Florida Onsite Wastewater Association, warned Monday that many wastewater facilities are nearly maxed out.

“Before we take something off and transfer to something existing, we need to make sure they can take the loads,” she said.

The panel also wants to revise design criteria for stormwater drainage systems to do a better job of cleaning run-off that can include waste from leaky sewer lines and septic tanks, chemicals trapped in soil and dog waste. Last week, following record high tides, four Miami-Dade County beaches were closed after unsafe levels of fecal matter were detected.

“We need a more proactive approach to our drainage system, to managing it,” said Florida International University wetlands ecologist Evelyn Gaiser. “I just know how important it is in some of the coastal areas driving some of these problems.”

Stormwater systems also go uninspected. So in addition to systems that do a better job of cleaning water, they want a uniform inspection process and monitoring to identify problems.

Aging sewer systems have also become a chronic problem. Miami-Dade County is now under a federal court order to clean up its system over the next seven years with $1.6 billion in fixes. In its review, the panel found that thousands of sewer lift stations across the state, that move sewage from neighborhoods to wastewater plants, were installed before 2003 without back-up power. During outages during storms, those systems can back up.

“The infrastructure is indeed challenged,” Frazer said, “and we need to deal with that."

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
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