Even as our state grows in population, with more stress on our finite water and land resources, our leaders struggle to address an ever-expanding list of environmental catastrophes. Many of these problems end up costing taxpayers many millions of dollars to rectify and we continually end up mitigating what should have been prevented.
Nitrogen and phosphorous are examples of pollution that is causing harmful algae blooms in our lakes, rivers, ponds, and marine environments. This pollution stems from excess fertilizer from urban and agricultural sites.
Additionally, septic tanks are used in many areas of Florida, and when these systems fail, pollution gets into our groundwater. Run-off of polluted water from septic tanks, lawns and farm fields feeds microscopic algae in our fresh waters. This algae expands quickly in size, absorbing the oxygen in the water and killing aquatic species such as fish. As it grows, an algae bloom also blocks sunlight to submerged vegetation, killing that as well. What is left are stagnant slime-filled water bodies that threaten native species.
In many cases of water pollution, the public purse is used to try to clean up the mess and restore what was an environmental jewel. This seems like a backward scenario. Shouldn’t laws make it difficult to pollute in the first place so that the rest of us do not have to pay to restore our water resources? If fines for polluting public waters greatly outweighed the financial benefit for the polluter, and enforcement was rigorous, our waters likely would be much healthier than they are now.
Of particular benefit to cleaning our water would be saving our beloved manatees, which have died in droves this year due to starvation. Thick blankets of algae have filled our estuaries, blocking sunlight to and thereby eliminating seagrasses that manatees feed upon. The sight of dead, bloated manatees should make us all consider what we are doing wrong and correct it.
Water-related disasters such as at Manatees County’s Piney Point indicate we need far more oversite of existing facilities. The breach of a wastewater holding pond in April 2021 resulted in the pouring of over 200 million gallons of phosphorus-laden water into Tampa Bay, devastating the ecosystem so many millions of dollars had been spent to repair. Wastewater holding ponds such as this are replete with uranium, thorium, radium, and radon gas. The state apparently has decided to inject this water into our aquifer; is this really the best we can do?
Water protection goes hand in hand with land conservation. The Sunshine State was once the shining example, not only nationally, but internationally, of land conservation to protect our water, wildlife, open space and quality of life. Floridians of all political stripes supported programs such as Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever, so much so that when funding was slashed a few years ago, 75% of voters said yes to a state constitutional amendment to fully fund land conservation in the face of mounting development pressure. Sadly, our leaders in Tallahassee have not abided by the will of the people and continue to ignore this mandate.
Permanently protected natural lands provide essential habitat for species such as panthers, black bears and gopher tortoises. Protected lands also cleanse water before it seeps into our aquifer and waterways. As eco-tourism grows as an economic driver, these areas also serve as job-producing centers. Conservation programs also protect agricultural and pasture lands, which provide jobs, food, and open space. Furthermore, climate change is here, and as a low-lying peninsular state, we are at ground zero for its effects. Rising seas and more frequent severe storms are now the norms. Even as we aim to lower carbon emissions, actions must be taken now to protect what we have.
Water and land issues should concern our leaders, no matter their political registration. All Floridians should strive to keep Florida a special place to call home. With the 2022 legislative session set to begin in January, please ask your state senator and representative to move rapidly toward eliminating sources of pollution and protecting Florida’s natural treasures.
This article was originally published in the Naples Daily News on December 30, 2021.
About the author: Preston T. Robertson is President and CEO of the Florida Wildlife Federation.