Is an Ounce of Red Tide Prevention Worth a Pound of Cure?

Glenn Compton
With yet another red tide scourge that lays claim to our beaches and estuaries, while crippling tourism and businesses, it’s time we connect the scientific and regulatory dots.

Under approved presumptive design criteria, stormwater treatment facilities are constructed and permitted with no required monitoring of their discharge. If stormwater management systems are designed according to the goals and guidelines established in Chapter 62-40, FAC, there is a rebuttable presumption that the discharge from the stormwater system will comply with state water quality standards. In fact, many major outfalls, including the City of Sarasota’s downtown watershed, discharge unmonitored substances directly to area bays and Outstanding Florida Waters. 

These types of outfalls are subject to additional inputs from illicit connections, contaminated groundwater infiltration, etc. To be fair, some of these outfalls do incorporate systems designed to remove most pollutants if properly maintained. But without compliance monitoring who’s to know their performance efficacy? Models used to design these treatment facilities are seldom verified or calibrated with current, site-specific hydrologic or water quality data. And signed and sealed permit drawings simply do not replace the analyses of discharge water quality, which would be a true litmus test of compliance.
While we continue to monitor major discharges associated with Lake Okeechobee, its tributaries, and their measurable impact on water quality, shouldn’t the cumulative discharges from these other sources be examined as well? Is there a relationship between long antecedent dry conditions, followed by storm events that help generate algal blooms outside Lake Okeechobee or other areas? Do these additional discharges have an additive or synergistic impact on red tide and water quality degradation? 

It may be politically sensitive to raise such questions of potential impacts from the many permitted, yet unmonitored, outfalls that enter waters predisposed to red tide and algal bloom episodes. But it’s environmentally and economically insensitive to walk away once the permit is issued, with no opportunity to establish long-term compliance. We regularly monitor our own health with periodic measurements of vital signs. Yet we choose not to keep a finger on the environmental pulse by simply ignoring critical monitoring of point discharges of stormwater entering waters of the state.
While funding red tide research is important, perhaps we should also identify and quantify the sources that feed algal and red tide blooms. Most puzzles require all their pieces before they’re fully solved. A complete understanding of red tide is no exception. Scientific inquiry has been politicized to the detriment of other environmental and health situations, which should not interfere with our comprehensive understanding of red tide and algae blooms. 

It’s not long after many residential stormwater ponds are permitted when algae proliferate and are treated with herbicides, oftentimes serving as an additional source of pollutants entering downstream receiving waters. But rather than debate proven scientific principles, the monitoring of select major stormwater outfalls may shed light on their relative contributions to red tide blooms. Another potential catalyst being examined are Saharan sands via atmospheric deposition and their iron content, long felt to provide a micronutrient for algae and red tide growth.
There are many governmental and research entities that have shied away from this quandary. After all, the outfalls are permitted with the support of regulatory criteria that include presumptive design criteria as the endpoint. Many of these stormwater discharge permits are issued to counties and municipalities which contribute to these research and environmental organizations. 

And while some have been quick to claim definitive correlations between Lake Okeechobee or other potential sources of and red tide, sound scientific principles should rely upon data from all potential inputs before final assessments are made. Such correlation coefficients, unencumbered by politics and "missing” information, must hold up to required scrutiny. It’s certainly possible that major inputs such as Lake Okeechobee are responsible for red tide and associated water quality degradation, but to what extent? 
After almost 50 year’s experience in the environmental field in Florida, encompassing governmental, private, and academic sectors, I’ve witnessed many changes. Best management practices (BMP’s) and other programs have been helpful to curb eutrophication, for example. Unfortunately, these programs are difficult to regulate and seldom monitored. And sampling the water quality and discharge of stormwater outfalls is an expense both public and private sectors wish to avoid. However, without quantifying these major inputs to receiving waters it’s impossible to pinpoint a specific cause(s) or source(s) that triggers red tide and algal blooms, much less derive conclusive linear correlations. 

Unfortunately, the monitoring of many stormwater outfalls has been eliminated, replaced by presumptive design criteria and reliance upon BMP’s. The high economic price tag associated with red tide blooms indicates we would benefit from a full understanding of sources responsible for their increased frequency. Presumptive criteria fall short of verifiable monitoring data and long-term assurances of maintaining water quality standards and criteria.
Limnologists, oceanographers, and other scientists must be allowed to contribute to these investigations, including the decision-making process. These and other disciplines knowledgeable in biology, chemistry, hydrology, and their regulatory relationships are essential to a full understanding of red tide impacts and mitigation. Elected officials and their appointed agency administrators seldom carry these necessary credentials. Regulatory oversight of permitted discharges has also diminished over the years, with the full support of these officials and administrators. Some agencies have become nothing more than paper tigers with regard to their obligations to compliance monitoring and maintenance or water quality standards and criteria.
In summary, with the rush to identify solutions that mitigate the impacts of red tide and harmful algal blooms, it’s important to include the monitoring of potential long-term sources. Quick fixes, such as proposed clay flocculation, may offer no more than a band-aid approach, resulting in further secondary water quality and biological impacts. It’s more than a coincidence that the red tide blooms occur in populated coastal areas that contribute to stormwater discharges. The best course of action would be to develop a robust set of data for potential sources that feed and generate red tide in order to effectively address solutions and mitigation for these and other harmful algal blooms.  

Glenn Compton is the Chairman of ManaSota 88, a non-profit organization that has spent over 30 years fighting to protect the environment of Manatee and Sarasota counties.