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Fish are dying in Biscayne Bay.
Fish are dying in Biscayne Bay.
Photo by Kathryn Mikesell

Pollution Has Cost Florida Millions, and the Bill Keeps Rising

Amid a historic fish kill in Biscayne Bay, the public's eyes are on some of the causes of the dire situation plaguing our waters: nutrient pollution and algal blooms. Nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizers and sewage-treatment plans across the state are supercharging the growth of toxic algae that makes the water undrinkable and depletes it of oxygen. Cleaning up that algae hasn't been cheap.

Over the past decade, the State of Florida has spent at least $20 million cleaning up and preventing algal blooms in its major bodies of water, according to a recent study by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG).

The study compiled news stories from across the nation to get an approximation of how much each state has spent to deal with large-scale algal bloom events. Florida was fairly low on the list compared to Ohio, which has spent at least $815 million since 2010, but the researchers concede that their study is a significant undercount of the true costs and that the spending is just beginning for Florida.

"We only looked at prevention and treatment costs, not costs to tourism or commercial fisheries. We wanted to see what people have actually spent," says Anne Schechinger, a senior analyst for EWG and author of the study.

Schechinger tells New Times she spent time combing through news stories about blue-green algal blooms in five major bodies of water in Florida, including Lake Okeechobee, one of the state's major sources of drinking water.

Schechinger's research focused on blue-green algae, but she says similar sources of nutrient pollution can lead to the infamous red tide events that rocked the Gulf of Mexico last year, killing thousands of fish and leaving many people afraid to go near the water. The type of algae that causes red tide was observed in recent water samples from Sarasota County, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Blue-green algae is a form of toxic bacteria that can severely pollute drinking water and cause long-term health problems for anyone in or near water where it's blooming.

Direct costs for algal-bloom mitigation and prevention in other states come from treating drinking water, updating wastewater-treatment facilities and stormwater-drainage systems, and dredging phosphorous deposits in lakes, according to Schechinger.

"This is just the beginning — not everyone has started spending what they're gonna have to spend," she says.

Miami-Dade is seeing firsthand the environmental cost of ignoring pollution and water quality.

Two weeks ago, thousands of fish were left gasping for air in Biscayne Bay because of extremely low oxygen levels, leaving local scientists and environmentalists scrambling to pump air into the bay and find the source of the problem. Over the past few years, enormous sewage leaks have polluted Biscayne Bay and spewed even more nitrogen and phosphorous into the system.

In February 2019, the county created the Biscayne Bay Task Force to come up with recommendations to save the decaying ecosystem. More than a year later, the task force has submitted its plan to the county commissioners, and its members are calling for immediate action and investment.

"We're recommending the hiring of a chief bay officer. It's a big government, and you need a bay watchdog to lobby the state, because it's gonna cost a lot of money," says chairwoman Irela Bagué.

In a draft proposal submitted to the county commission, the task force outlined seven areas that need particular attention: water quality, governance, infrastructure, habitat restoration, marine debris, education and outreach, and funding.

Bagué anticipates major expenditures will include replacing the county's old sewage system, mapping canals to find pollution sources, and restoring critical habitats such as mangrove forests and seagrass beds.

Bagué says the parties involved in environmental management — including Miami-Dade County, its municipalities, the state, and federal environmental departments — have been acting separately for too long. She says preventing more environmental disasters will require coordination between every department to improve Miami's aging sewage infrastructure and to pass laws regulating nutrient-pollution sources like fertilizers.

This past March, the City of Miami passed an ordinance limiting fertilizer pollution, but the county and other cities have not. If the situation is to improve, Bagué says, everyone needs to be on the same page.

Although the cost of preventing more fish kills and algal blooms is likely to cost millions more, the price of ignoring it may be far greater for Florida, a state whose economy rakes in billions from fishing and aquatic recreation.

"The recreational impacts [of algal blooms] are huge. It makes it so people can't recreate safely around any body of water with blue-green algae," Schechinger says. "Those are all huge costs in Florida."

For Bagué and the Biscayne Bay Task Force, the money and support can't wait any longer.

"We have to act now," she says. "We don't have time to assemble again in another ten years."

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