This column stinks — and so does the way FL handles its poop

September 24, 2020 7:00 am
algae bloom

A 2018 algae outbreak in Stuart, where Lake Okeechobee water is discharged. Credit: John Moran

Last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis held a big event at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, which is the only government facility in the nation where mermaids work as state employees.

The governor wasn’t there to cavort with the ladies with prosthetic tails, though. He was there to pose for pictures with a giant-sized check, which he said represented the start of a $50 million program to restore the state’s springs to their former glory.

Of course, this was not strictly accurate. The $50 million program DeSantis announced was actually the third year of a $150 million program originally unveiled by his predecessor, former Gov. Rick Scott, according to the Florida Springs Council.

I looked over the list of projects included in the Scott-DeSantis springs program. Turns out a lot of them were all about one thing: Poop.

For instance, to help clean up Weeki Wachee Springs for the mermaids, the plan calls for “design, permitting, and construction of 3 million gallons a day [mgd] of advanced wastewater treatment.”

For Rainbow Springs, it’s “construction of a new 0.80 mgd expansion … and upgrade to advanced wastewater treatment.”

For Silver Springs, there’s “decommissioning the Ocala East Villas Wastewater Treatment Facility and pumping the wastewater” to Marion County’s wastewater treatment plant.

For Ichetucknee Springs, the plan calls for “abandonment of up to nine septic systems and connecting the parcels to existing sanitary sewer.”

The fact that so much of this needs fixing shows how Florida has repeatedly done an execrable job of dealing with its excrement.

Everybody poops, as a popular children’s book points out. But some people try to ignore that fact of life.

The Chamber of Commerce boasts about how 900 people a day move to Florida, but nobody talks about how all those new residents put a strain on our sewer systems and septic tanks.

No developer wants to pay impact fees to upgrade those systems, either. Meanwhile, local governments often balk at making a sewer system fix a priority, especially if doing so requires raising taxes or rates.

Then one rainy day the sewer pipes or the wastewater treatment plant get so overloaded they can’t handle the load anymore. Suddenly — BLOOP! — they dump a big bucket of nasty into the nearest waterway. We’ve seen this happen in St. Petersburg, Tampa, Sarasota, Jacksonville, DeFuniak Springs, Boca Raton — name a Florida city and it’s had a major sewage spill, often more than one.

Olympic pools full of poo

Nine months ago, Fort Lauderdale had so many sewer mains break that they spilled nearly 127 million gallons of the stinky stuff, which the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported was “enough to fill 192 Olympic-sized pools.” (Now there’s an image I never wanted in my head.)

Having all that fecal mess fouling the water is bad enough. What’s worse is that it can spur the growth of toxic algae blooms.

Remember when red tide laid siege to Florida’s coastline from November 2017 to early 2019? At its peak in October 2018, red tide was afflicting all three of the state’s coasts — the beaches of the Panhandle, the Gulf, and the Atlantic. That rust-colored bloom shut down beaches with the sickening stench of massive fish kills, chasing tourists away as its choking toxins wafted in on every sea breeze.

A new scientific study published this month in the journal Harmful Algae confirmed what experts have long suspected. Red tide blooms begin 40 miles or so out in the Gulf of Mexico, no one knows why, but once the bloom moves near to shore we’re the ones giving it more fuel.

The study examined all the red tide blooms that occurred off Charlotte Harbor between 2012 and 2018 and found that stormwater runoff polluted with sewage and fertilizer fed the explosion of tiny critters so it could keep going, like a really rank version of the Energizer Bunny.

“Are we making things worse with our storm runoff? Yes,” said the study’s lead author, Miles Medina, an environmental scientist at the University of Florida. “We’re increasing the intensity and the duration of the bloom.”

Something similar happens with the vile blue-green algae blooms that explode on both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts whenever the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dumps excess water out of Lake Okeechobee. The blooms begin in the lake then get flushed out via the Caloosahatchee River to the west and via the St. Lucie River to the east, coating both coasts in green gunk that at times resembles toxic guacamole. Once again, the existing bloom is fed by our waste.

(Get ready for another one, by the way. The Corps of Engineers just announced that because of all the rain we’ve been getting lately, the agency would probably have to release lots of polluted water from the lake in the near future — along with whatever is growing in there.)

The pollution-fueling-algae-bloom problem has gotten so bad that the Weeki Wachee mermaids have even worked it into their show for the tourists. They warn about nitrate pollution from sewage and fertilizer tainting the spring, giving power to an algae monster called Mr. Scrunge, described as “a green villain with his own theme song.”

“First in Feculence!”

Two years ago, DeSantis campaigned on a promise to stop the coastal version of Mr. Scrunge, the blue-green algae blooms that had damaged tourism-related businesses on both coasts. Once elected, he appointed a Blue-Green Algae Task Force that recommended some changes in the law, which the Legislature turned into a bill that resembled the stuff flowing out of the broken sewer plants.

The bill was so bad, environmental groups said it actually would make things worse. They called on DeSantis to veto it and push for something stronger, something better. Instead, in June, he signed it into law.

One of the problems the critics pointed out with the bill named (I kid you not) the “Florida Clean Waterways Act” is that it failed to address Florida’s growing population over the next 20 years, just like all the prior regulations. Another is that too much of it depends on voluntary participation by the polluters.

“The state is going backwards with regard to pollution control,” Gary Goforth, a Ph.D. with 35 years of experience in Florida water resources management, told me this week. For instance, he said, the state gave the agricultural industry millions of dollars to come up with ways to voluntarily cut the nutrient pollution flowing off over-fertilized farmers’ fields, he said, “yet the nutrient loads are worse now than when they started.”

This is the way we always do things in Florida, though. We give the polluters whatever they want, even let them write the rules they’re supposed to abide by, all in the name of keeping our economy roaring.

Then when there’s a disaster — a sewage spill or an algae bloom that harms that same economy — we throw a lot of taxpayer dollars at the problem, although rarely enough to actually fix what’s wrong.

Here’s my suggestion: Let’s stop trying to fix our poopy problem.

We never want to spend the money or impose the regulations that will really deal with it, so let’s just give up the pretense of being effective. Instead, let’s let our overloaded sewer systems break. Let the poo-poo flow unimpeded into our bays and rivers and creeks. Let toxic algae bloom in every color of the rainbow!

While we’re at it, let’s also stop trying to hide what’s going on.

Let’s advertise it instead. Let’s take that big cardboard check the governor displayed last week and give it to Visit Florida to pay for billboards all over the country that feature Mr. Scrunge boasting, “Florida’s First in Feculence!” and “We’re No. 1 in No. 2!”

If we do that, I bet those 900 people a day will quit moving to Florida. Maybe then we’ll get serious about cleaning up our waterways, which is something the mermaids would probably appreciate.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.