Florida's septic tanks and pollution
Flashpoint: Florida Bay
When it comes to Florida Bay, the expanse of shallow water at the southern tip of the peninsula fed by the Everglades, Brian Lapointe’s focus on nitrogen as the key pollutant flashes into a scientific brawl with researchers he derides as the “Florida Bay Club” along with the Everglades Foundation, the influential environmental group founded by billionaire Paul Tudor Jones and the late Orlando developer George Barley. The foundation, in Lapointe’s view, has been “driving the bus” on policy that worsens algae in the bay, seagrass die-offs and impacts on marine life.
The prevailing view that has shaped water policy holds that Florida Bay has grown too salty since humans altered the flow of water in the Everglades and deprived the bay of enough freshwater. During droughts, the bay becomes twice as salty as the ocean in some places. If salinity spikes too much, the bay crashes, as happened in 2016, killing 80,000 acres of seagrass on the Florida Bay bottom. Dead seagrass can’t serve as a critical part of fish habitat or help clean water and releases nutrients as it decomposes, leading to algal blooms.
The commonly accepted solution is to move more freshwater south from Lake Okeechobee and farmlands, mimicking how water flowed before humans redirected it. In the process, a key challenge is removing phosphorous, which causes a cascade of problems in the Everglades. Those principles are reflected in the multi-billion-dollar Everglades restoration project.
Lapointe, however, says the bay’s problem isn’t salinity; it’s the nitrogen in the water it receives. Omitting nitrogen removal from the restoration plan is a major error, he says — both nitrogen and phosphorus must be controlled. Opposing scientists, some of whom he calls “scientists for hire,” are “dead wrong,” Lapointe says — nitrogen in the marine environment of Florida Bay causes blooms that will persist as long as the nitrogen keeps coming.
Among the very few scientists who agree with Lapointe is Larry Brand, a marine biologist with the University of Miami’s Rosentiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Brand says moving more nitrogen-loaded freshwater south is a “scientific mistake. This is a major story in my view, and it’s not being told.” Scientists in the opposing camp don’t take that message well, he says. “They would shut me up in meetings. It was nasty.”
Brand says farming south of Lake Okeechobee exposes the peat soil — naturally rich in nitrogen — to air. That releases the nitrogen south. Restoration projects that remove phosphorus from the system help the Everglades but leave too much nitrogen, which ends up in the bay. Brand says the only solution is to stop farming sugar. If the peat stays submerged, the nitrogen isn’t released.
Steve Davis, senior ecologist with the Everglades Foundation, says independent and reputable scientists don’t agree with Lapointe and that the data don’t support Lapointe’s and Brand’s concerns about nitrogen in the water. The quality of water — including nitrogen — coming out of Everglades National Park into Florida Bay doesn’t contribute significantly to algal blooms in the bay, he says. Davis says Lapointe is “connecting dots without looking at actual causation.”