TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Department of Environmental Protection should be teamed with health officials who permit septic tanks as the state tries to ensure cleaner waterways, members of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force agreed Wednesday.
Expanding oversight of the state’s millions of septic tanks was among a list of general recommendations that received some support Wednesday from the five-member task force as part of a draft report.
The report, based on topics reviewed so far, is expected to provide guidance for lawmakers as they approach the 2020 legislative session.
But task force members, who met this week in Naples, made clear they still intend to tackle issues about wastewater reuse or recycled water and agriculture and urban uses of herbicides and fertilizers, topics they have not fully addressed.
“By leaving them out it looks like we aren’t considering them,” said Valerie Paul, a task force member who is director of the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce.
Paul suggested listing future topics that will be discussed in the report.
“Some kind of placeholder, so absence isn’t an indication that we don’t intend to consider them or they aren’t important,” Paul said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order in January that created the task force after outbreaks of toxic algae and red tide across the state last year. The problems particularly drew attention in Southeast and Southwest Florida, as algae plagued water bodies such as the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers and as red tide caused fish kills.
The task force had been meeting monthly since mid-June, until Hurricane Dorian postponed a late August meeting. The panel met for two days this week, but a date has not been set for the next meeting.
Task force member Wendy Graham, director of the Water Institute at the University of Florida, indicated she would have liked a priority placed on design and funding of needed infrastructure improvements.
“I think we have to acknowledge that solutions to these problems have been attempted every eight or so years for several decades,” Graham said. “The Lake Okeechobee Protection Act. The Northern Estuaries and Everglades Protection Plan. Plans are out there, and we know that lots of storage and lots of regional treatment are required to solve these problems.”
Most of the draft report offers broad direction, from concerns about sanitary sewer overflows and the need to increase research about the public health impact of algae blooms to the need for improved design criteria for stormwater treatment systems.
A long-term goal of many officials and conservationists has been figuring out how to move residents from using septic tanks to sewer systems, which has always been a matter of cost. The Florida Department of Health oversees septic-tank issues.
As part of the report, task force members agreed that agricultural “best management practices” remain important to reduce runoff of nutrients from farms into waterways and downstream water bodies.
Thomas Frazer, Florida’s chief science officer, said there is always a need for better compliance with state rules, as well as a “strategic focus” in funding and personnel by the state.
“It’s just a realization that there is never going to be enough of the monetary resources to do everything that we need,” Frazer said. “Part of our effort here is an indication that we’re trying, as an administration anyways, to put as much money as we possibly can into water quality-related issues. It’s a priority for us.”