Polluted waters: Will FL lawmakers insist on tough cleanup measures?

Pollution that fuels toxic algae blooms is contaminating Florida waterways. Here, palm trees along a southwest Florida canal cast shadows on thick plumes of green slime. Credit: Southwest Florida Water Management District, with aerial support provided by LightHawk.

Toxic algae blooms, red tide, chronic sewage spills and agricultural runoff are fouling Florida waterways, creating hazards to humans and marine life and making a smelly mess of waterfront communities once renowned for clean beaches and clean water.

Legislation backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis might decontaminate those polluted waters, but might not, with clean-water advocates fearing that lawmakers will create a paper tiger that won’t accomplish much.

The proposed “Clean Waterways Act” sponsored by Sen. Debbie Mayfield, a Republican from Brevard and Indian River counties, is in the spotlight as lawmakers, special interests, scientists, clean-water activists and pollution-fatigued residents look to the Florida Legislature for long-awaited action.

Her bill is scheduled for debate Thursday in the Senate Appropriations Committee, where citizens will have their last opportunity to publicly comment on the measure before it goes to the full Senate.

Serving as a timely reminder about polluted Florida waters, the state this week fined the City of Fort Lauderdale $1.8 million for multiple pipeline failures that spilled roughly 210 million gallons of sewage into the city’s streets and waterways since December, and as recently as three days ago.

Miami-Dade is in trouble for a series of sewage spills that led to sanctions under a federal-state enforcement action.

That’s just municipal pollution.

Septic tanks, numbering more than 2.5 million and treating about one-third of the state’s wastewater, are another source of pollution. And one of the biggest pollution sources of all is agriculture, one of Florida’s top two economic drivers, which gets the biggest pass in Mayfield’s bill.

This foul concoction, exacerbated by climate change, has fueled massive outbreaks of blue-green algae, brown algae, red tide and other toxins harmful to humans and marine life.

Mindful of this, Mayfield has for two years sponsored water-cleanup measures.

Her district includes parts of Brevard and Indian River counties, where waterways have been fouled by sewage spills and pollution so severe that fish have died en masse and washed ashore in waves several times over the past few years.

Once popular for fishing and recreation, the area has been under a series of no-swim advisories due to hazardous bacteria.

Other such pollution crises are found in Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee River and the St. Lucie River.

“Any lasting solutions must address aging sewage treatment infrastructure, eliminating wastewater spills, septic to sewer conversions and biosolids,” Mayfield said at a recent legislative committee meeting.

“I look forward to working with Gov. Ron DeSantis and my colleagues to implement these reforms to make cleaner waterways a reality.”

The reforms in Mayfield’s bill this legislative session include:

/Environmental regulation of septic-tank discharges;

/Backup power to keep wastewater systems operating during outages;

/Requiring financial reports that prove whether sanitary sewage disposal facilities are being properly maintained;

/Documentation of fertilizer use to measure compliance with agricultural best practices and the effectiveness of the practices;

/Updated stormwater rules and design criteria to improve the performance of stormwater systems statewide.

Florida’s Chief Science Officer Tom Frazer says Mayfield’s bill is the best Florida has seen in years.

“Based on a conscientious and rigorous evaluation, I stand by my statement classifying SB 712 as one of the most progressive pieces of environmental legislation Florida has seen in over decade,” Frazer wrote on Tuesday.

“Furthermore, it is vital to recognize that this bill is part of a multifaceted approach to improving and maintaining the health of our waters for generations, and I look forward to working with [clean-water advocates] to address the tremendous environmental challenges facing our state.”

The Florida Springs Council, Florida Waterkeepers, and Sierra Club of Florida say Mayfield’s bill has good provisions but lacks the fortitude required to appreciably improve water quality.

A key criticism is that the bill relies on agricultural interests to self-monitor runoff that travels from their farmland into downstream waterways.

Mayfield’s bill includes some key recommendations from the state’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force, a panel of university-based scientists. The task force says that runoff is contaminated with fertilizers, livestock waste and sewage byproducts called biosolids that are disposed of on agricultural land.

The runoff carries high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorous, which are nutrients that function like jet fuel for algae blooms.

The Task Force called for strict compliance of best management practices that protect water quality in key agricultural areas. But that’s not in Mayfield’s bill.

“The Blue-Green Algae Task Force believes the full compliance with the statute is necessary to realize the nutrient reduction benefits” that would clean up the basin enough for the waterway to recover from its polluted state, the task force report says.

That means accurate records, and inspections.

Critics say Mayfield’s bill leaves too much leeway for inaccurate reporting and, thus, insufficient reduction in nutrient runoff.

“Without taking immediate and consequential action to address agricultural pollution, it is a very real possibility that the state will spend millions, or even billions, of taxpayer dollars on water quality projects without any significant benefit to water quality in many basins,” according to water quality groups that have written amendments to strengthen Mayfield’s bill.

The clean-water groups say that while the bill includes good provisions based on the recommendations of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force, too much of it is based on practices favored by polluters and already proven to fail.