New chief science officer faces old problems of harmful algae, polluters and politics

USF professor Mark Rains is Florida's new chief science officer. Credit: Mark Rains' Facebook page

Tampa-based scientist and ecohydrologist Mark Rains, Florida’s new chief science officer, is an active researcher and professor who will soon be using his expertise to influence decision-making and policy in legislative and political realms.

Rains was named chief science officer – the state’s second CSO – by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who announced the appointment Tuesday after former CSO Tom Frazer left the post with no fanfare and no public explanation of when or why.

Rains is director of the school of geosciences at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

His predecessor Frazer recently became dean of the College of Marine Science there last August. Frazer became Florida’s first-ever chief science officer in April 2019, when DeSantis created the position. Frazer left the post at some point and joined USF. His work as CSO focused on toxic and harmful algae blooms fouling Florida waterways and causing health problems for humans and animals.

The Blue-Green Algae Task Force convened by Frazer issued a series of strong recommendations on how to curb the algae problem, but few of those strategies made it into law last year when legislators adopted the Clean Waterways Act of 2020. Water-quality advocates said the act’s best provisions were stripped under pressure from polluters before it passed and was signed by the governor.

Rains’ expertise, as described on the USF website and LinkedIn, is in ecohydrology in fresh, brackish, salty and hypersaline water ecosystems.

He earned his doctoral degree in hydrologic sciences from the University of California, Davis, in 2002, and worked in California for David Magney Environmental Consulting.

Rains came to USF in 2013. He is part of a six-person USF team studying harmful algae blooms in Lake Okeechobee under the auspices of the U.S Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA awarded USF a three-year, $1 million grant to learn how to reduce pollution – specifically excess nutrients – in watersheds.

The project, running through August 2023, is commissioned to identify best technologies and strategies to reduce pollution of Lake Okeechobee that is fueling harmful algae blooms spreading to contiguous waterways including the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie Canal. Sources of the pollution include domestic wastewater and agricultural runoff.

“Floridians and those visiting Florida have already seen the effects of unchecked HABs [harmful algae blooms] on the state’s waterways for years. The blooms are harmful to the areas’ public health and economy, causing mass fish kills, respiratory issues in humans and decreased tourism,” says a project description on USF’s website.

He also co-authored a report this year with the USF Ecohydrology Research Group on groundwater in Kenai Peninsula Lowlands, in Alaska, and how the water is used by and impacted by humans and animals such as salmon.