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Guest Commentary: Demand action on the water crisis

August 8, 2018
By Rae Ann Wessel , Lehigh Acres Citizen

The waters of Southwest Florida and our Gulf coast are in crisis from harmful blooms causing an unprecedented mass mortality of aquatic life not seen before at these levels in our area. Our waterways and beaches are littered with dolphins, manatees, fish, birds, shellfish and invertebrates. The cause? Pollution from harmful high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus.

Nutrients are feeding two different harmful blooms:

- Freshwater cyanobacteria (aka blue green algae) that looks like neon green paint in Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee reaching coastal back bays and beaches. This algae is an indicator of polluted water that can turn very potent toxins on and off. Toxins can persist in the water and sand even after the visible signs of a bloom are gone. The current bloom began in Lake Okeechobee on June 7.

- Red tide is caused by a marine (saltwater) microscopic dinoflagellate that turns water a red color. It blooms offshore and moves onshore feeding off nutrients. The Gulf coast has been experiencing an extraordinary event since October along the southwest Gulf coast. Toxins released by the organism kill marine life, makes shellfish poisonous to eat and causes eye and throat irritation when present.

The two blooms are independent and not related, however, both are responding to excess nutrients from watershed and Lake Okeechobee runoff.

We all contribute to the excess nutrient problem so we all have to work toward solutions. We must ask our elected officials to stop eroding environmental protections: stop permitting wetland development, establish protective water quality standards, and upgrade stormwater regulations for urban and agriculture.

Actions have consequences and we will get the government we elect. In this election year, we have an opportunity to change the status quo. Regulations that protect the public health, safety and welfare are not government overreach, they are the primary function of government and necessary to protect the natural resources our economy and quality of life depend upon.

The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation has created a preformatted letter addressed to our state, Congressional and local officials at https://p2a.co/Yl1Gebl. For those who would like to customize their letter, ask the state to address any of these known sources of excess nutrients to improve water quality:

- Stop adding nutrients to the water. Prevention is vastly cheaper than clean up. We must capture and clean water on land before it flows into lakes, rivers, bays and the Gulf.

- Stop untreated agricultural runoff. Agriculture landowners are not required to hold and treat stormwater on their own land. They pump their nutrient laden water, untreated, directly into lakes, rivers and taxpayer-funded infrastructure built for other uses. They must be required to capture, store and clean their runoff as urban areas do.

- Stop all land application of biosolids/septage that add to the nutrient loading of state waters.

- Upgrade urban runoff. More development requires more space to capture and time to treat water, allowing it to filter into the ground before discharging to the canals, rivers, lakes and estuaries.

- Stop sewage treatment plant discharges to public waters.

- Require inspection and maintenance of septic systems in proximity to waterways and in high density.

- Reduce or eliminate fertilizer especially in waterfront areas. Many areas in this region have natural phosphorus rich soils that do not need additional fertilizer. Test your soil, plant a native landscape that needs no fertilizer and observe the summer blackout fertilizer ban.

- Advanced treatment of reuse water. Using water more than once is a fundamental conservation concept. Reuse water retains high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. The nutrients can be absorbed by lawns and gardens but if it runs off into canals and adjacent waters its contributing to the nutrient problem. Advanced wastewater treatment is needed.

Take action. Tell your story. Send a letter to elected officials.

Rae Ann Wessel is the natural resources policy director for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation.

 
 

 

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