Florida isn’t paying enough attention to the role of septic tanks in fueling algal blooms throughout Florida, says Brian Lapointe. But getting rid of septic systems will be expensive — about 30% of Floridians rely on them.
Brian Lapointe came to Florida, to Key West, in the 1950s to take a boat to visit his grandfather in Cuba. Turquoise waters. Fishing boats. “It changed my life forever,” says the Massachusetts native.
Water seemed a backdrop everywhere. At the time, the popular TV program Sea Hunt, with fictional diver Mike Nelson, was set in Florida. Jacques Cousteau roamed the seas. Lapointe, then not yet 10, was sold. “I want to move to Florida and become a marine scientist,” he recalls thinking. “I want to save the oceans.”
He’s attempting it — one toilet at a time — as a scientist with the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce on the Indian River Lagoon. Toilets are a recurring presence in his research — work that challenges assumptions about who’s to blame for Florida’s water troubles and whether certain Everglades restoration projects are likely to succeed.
Florida, unfortunately, has been fertile ground for algae specialists like Lapointe — from regular blue-green algae outbreaks in Lake Okeechobee and the estuaries of the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, to red tide on both coasts and fecal contamination. The state has two task forces working on algal bloom issues (“Environmental Task Forces,” page 73). It’s a national problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year listed 23 states with algae-caused beach closures or health warning advisories.
Those problems lay far in the future when Lapointe’s family relocated to West Palm Beach in 1960. Lapointe took up fishing, surfing and diving, then returned to New England to study marine science at Boston University and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Nutrient chemistry fascinated him, and he worked with his hero in the field, the late John Ryther, who had shown how nitrogen feeds algal blooms in saltwater. The danger of too much nitrogen in marine environments has shaped Lapointe’s research ever since.
In the mid-1970s, Ryther and Lapointe came to Harbor Branch, now an arm of Florida Atlantic University. Walt Disney World had opened just a few years before. ‘We were poised for rapid population growth and increasing tourism. More toilets flushing, right?” Lapointe says. Some municipal systems simply dumped human waste into water bodies. During that same decade, the number of septic systems being installed in Florida peaked. From the Keys northward on both coasts, Lapointe says, excess nutrients such as nitrogen were beginning to affect coastal waters.
Lapointe earned a master’s in environmental engineering from the University of Florida and a doctorate from the University of South Florida. His dissertation was on algal blooms in Tampa Bay. In 1987, Monroe County, home of the Florida Keys, funded his first septic tank impact study, the first of many he’s done. He found that runoff from septic systems — ill-suited to the Keys hard coral soil — affected the island waters, the reef and Florida Bay. It took 30 years and $1 billion for the Keys to move all of its residents from septic to centralized sewer service.
Over those decades, Lapointe has continued to gather data on the effects of nitrogen — regardless of the source — on Florida’s waters.