Ecological Politics

UM's Larry Brand flouts the grant system, pays the price

Since the early 1980s, that health has been in decline. The lush seagrasses that spread over the bay died off and the once gin-clear water became murky; algae proliferated. Aside from the ecological effects algae can have on the estuary, masses of it, known as "algal blooms," have hampered some of the fisheries and diving schools operating in the area. In 1995, at the encouragement of some of his colleagues at NOAA, Brand started to look into the algae problem. It was the beginning of a long journey that would eventually lead him to the trash pile behind his lab.

Initial studies of Florida Bay focused on a lack of fresh water coming in from the Everglades, which some scientists believed had caused the bay to become "hypersaline." They traced the high salt conditions to decisions government agencies made to divert water away from its natural flushing area, Florida Bay, to allow development of South Florida's agricultural and residential areas. These scientists added that circulation in the bay was limited, in part due to manmade changes that enclosed the area (from the construction of the Flagler railroad in the early 1900s), in part due to fewer tropical storms in recent years. The lack of fresh water, these scientists said, led to a rise in salt and "stressed" the seagrasses. This caused a massive seagrass die-off, which released nutrients into the bay, which spawned the growth of the algae.

However, in what would be the beginning of a legendary battle, Brand disagreed with the "hypersaline" theory. After several years of research and a followup grant from NOAA, he argued that the seagrass die-off did not provide the nutrients for the algal blooms. Instead Brand said the source of one of the nutrients, phosphorus, had been in the bay for centuries and was natural to that area. But, he said, the source for the other nutrient, nitrogen, was the Everglades. More nitrogen in Florida Bay, Brand continued, meant more algae, i.e., more pollution.

Larry Brand has one-third of the space he once had at Rosenstiel, effectively crippling his research on Florida Bay
Steve Satterwhite
Larry Brand has one-third of the space he once had at Rosenstiel, effectively crippling his research on Florida Bay
Brian Lapointe displays Caulerpa taxifolia seaweed, a close relative to the seaweed that's destroying Florida's reefs
Brian Lapointe displays Caulerpa taxifolia seaweed, a close relative to the seaweed that's destroying Florida's reefs

Well, this may seem like a fairly harmless theory, but now Brand was getting into some dangerous territory. To prove his theory, he drew from data collected by the South Florida Water Management District showing that increased water flow into the bay corresponded to increased size of algal blooms. Then Brand made a leap that few would forgive. He said that when the sugar plantations drained the Everglades in order to grow sugar they released nitrogen from the peat soil. This excess nitrogen was the major source of the nutrients that caused the growth of the algal blooms in Florida Bay. The only way to stop this, Brand concluded, was to reflood the sugar plantations, i.e., get rid of the sugar plantations!

With those words, Brand was laying the groundwork for a lawsuit -- something the sugar industry, the state of Florida, and the South Florida Water Management District desperately wanted to avoid. What's more, Brand was talking about ruining a $500 million state industry. His life would never be the same.

From the beginning, Everglades restoration has been a delicate balancing act among businessmen, politicians, engineers, managers, and scientists. But maintaining this equilibrium has been virtually impossible. Each responds to different masters. Each moves at different speeds, and each seeks different answers to the same set of questions. What a scientist calls a "hypothesis," a water manager may call a "policy decision." What a water manager calls a "policy decision," a businessman may call a "problem."

With his contention that nitrogen-rich water from the Everglades was the source of the algae, Brand was upsetting this balance. For the government and some scientists, Everglades restoration was about the other nutrient, phosphorus, not nitrogen. Indeed the federal lawsuit settled in 1991 that led to the Everglades restoration effort stated that an overabundance of phosphorus from fertilizers streaming into the Everglades from the sugar plantations caused the growth of cattails, setting off a chain of events that slowly began destroying the delicately balanced plant and animal life. The suit, which claimed that Florida's state government and the South Florida Water Management District hadn't done enough to protect the environment, became the cornerstone of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) signed into effect in 2000.

CERP said sugar plantations would have to greatly reduce the phosphorus in their wastewater. Only then would the Everglades system be restored. CERP also relied on a tenuous understanding that when it came to sugar growers, this was it: Phosphorus was the pollutant; the sugar plantations would attempt to clean up their wastewater; the scientists would work closely with the government and sugar to achieve this goal. But Brand destroyed this equilibrium with his nitrogen notion. "The Everglades restoration project focuses on phosphorus," Brand declared, "which is great for the Everglades because that's what's causing the problems there. But in the Florida Bay, it's nitrogen that's causing the problem."

Brand wasn't the first to break the unofficial rules of Everglades restoration by talking about nitrogen. In fact the battle lines over this estuarine system were drawn long before Brand declared that the sugar growers needed to reflood their plantations in order to save Florida Bay. In the late 1980s a tall, portly coral reef specialist from Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce named Brian Lapointe noticed a severe decline in the health of the reefs. Like the bay, the reefs are a multimillion-dollar industry drawing diving tourists from all parts of the world. Initially Lapointe pointed to the sewage and septic tanks he said were depositing nitrogen near the reefs. This nitrogen made way for the growth of algae, which led to diseases that killed off the coral, he said. Later he added that the source of the nitrogen wasn't just sewage, but also farmlands in the northern and eastern Everglades. As they did for Brand, statements like these would inevitably lead to trouble for Lapointe, too.

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