Reprinted: Herald Tribune
by Earle Kimel
Education is key –
VENICE — Appearing at the South County Tiger Bay panel on water quality and red tide — his third such panel this week — Jon Thaxton had no simple solution to reduce the impact of red tide or cyanobacteria blooms that led to devastated waterways along much of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean coastlines over the past year.
Neither did the other three experts on the panel — Richard Pierce of Mote Marine Laboratory; John Ryan, a Sarasota County environmental supervisor; or Alan Jones of Jones Potato Farm.
But all four pointed to the need to reduce the flow of nutrients from stormwater and wastewater into the gulf and ocean as the key to curtailing the frequency of red tide blooms.
“It’s going to take a comprehensive approach from many counties throughout the state of Florida to regain the ground that we’ve lost over the last 100 years, when we converted all of these natural landscapes of pine flatwoods and prairies into subdivisions, shopping malls and highways,” said Thaxton, senior vice president for community investment at the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and a former Sarasota County Commissioner.
“It can be done, it can be done without impacting growth, and it can be done with minimal impacts to industries,” he added. “But it will take, as Alan said, a large constituency of citizens suggesting to their elected officials and suggesting to the bureaucrats that this is a path we want to see the state of Florida and Sarasota County take.”
Jones made his point while addressing wastewater treatment and disposal as a statewide issue.
For example, he said, Sarasota should increase its level of wastewater treatment from its current secondary level to the same advanced treatment standards the cities of Sarasota and Bradenton meet.
He stressed that a vocal and active constituency is the best way to convince elected leaders that they’ve got to make the financial commitment to improve wastewater treatment and stormwater treatment.
“A lot of times elected officials hate to talk about those things,” Jones said. “They have a fear that they’re going to lose their jobs if they raise people’s taxes.
“Sarasota, there’s no reason the county of Sarasota can’t be shining star of the state of Florida for water quality,” he later added. “We have to demand it, in my opinion, as residents, and the officials will see that it will happen.”
Though Sarasota County has not yet adopted advanced wastewater treatment standards — something that was federally mandated for the two cities — it has spent almost $1 billion over the past 25 years to improve water quality.
Thaxton noted that the Gulf Coast Community Foundation wants to create a playbook for Sarasota to become the model for nutrient management in the state of Florida.
That nutrient management, Thaxton said, is the key to reducing the intensity and duration of the bloom of red tide which is part of the natural ecosystem.
He is not in favor of attempts to eliminate red tide.
“Every time we attempt to disrupt an original system’s function, the unintended consequences are typically more grave than the original cause,” Thaxton said. “So the goal with red tide should not be its elimination but returning it to a natural regime, in terms of frequency, duration, extent and intensity.
“Those are kind of the four parameters that we measure it by, as Dr. Pierce covered.”
Pierce, who pointed out that the link between excess nutrients from runoff and red tide blooms “has not been scientifically verified,” stressed that nutrient reduction is still a sound goal.
“Our point is just cut back on the nutrients; it’s got to be good for the coastal environment,” he added.
He noted that until recently, the focus had been to model and predict where red tide blooms occur and only recently has funding been available to foster the research necessary to find ways to control the intensity of those blooms.
“We do believe there are some things we can do to knock it back,” he said.
He pointed to a successful test of using ozone to reduce red tide, first in a 25,000-gallon test tank, or mesocosm, and then in canals.
“We’ve tested about a dozen different products which have potential to get rid of red tide as well as the toxins,” Pierce said, then noted that those still need to be tested on a small scale and then in the field.
“Our goal is to come up with a toolbox of different products that can be used in different places, in different ways, to knock back the intensive effects of red tide on our coastal environment,” he added.
Ryan, the county environmental supervisor, said that nutrients are an opportunity to create life. He suggested that instead of applying herbicides to clean algae blooms in stormwater ponds, county residents should introduce life that will help purify things.
“Every step of the way, in all of our water bodies, we should be trying to get fish there, birds, clams, all kinds of living things, because we like those, and avoid poisoning our water bodies,” he said.
Ryan also talked about Sarasota County’s Neighborhood Environmental Stewardship Team, or NEST program, that offers educational and hands-on activities to improve the watershed.
During the question-and-answer period, when Jeff Boone asked what one thing panelists would do to make a difference, Jones replied that he would want to better educate the public.
“You need to utilize a carrot approach to this by having some way to incentivize people to learn — essentially raise their environmental IQ about what we all can do to make a difference,” Jones said.
“The question comes down to who do we need to educate, how do we need to educate them, how do we get the people to want to educate themselves, and how do we implement a program that will carry us forward?” he added.
He wanted to see a statewide program, perhaps with online classes where people could get some sort of tax credit when they learn about the watershed they live in and what they can do to improve nutrient management in the state of Florida.
Pierce and the others agreed that education is a key.
“If we educate people, they can make decisions on all of the aspects that need to be implemented,” Richard Pierce of Mote Marine Laboratory, said. “I agree with educating people, citizens getting involved, engaging and empowering them.”