Rarely sighted chief science officer appears while DeSantis touts millions in cleanup projects

Springs advocate says failing waterways need far more help and protection

By: - November 9, 2021 5:12 pm

Dead fish killed by red tide float in Boca Ciega Bay near Madeira Beach near St. Petersburg on July 21. Credit: Octavio Jones/Getty Images

Touting funding for local projects to reduce pollution from faulty sewer systems and septic tanks, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis presented his rarely sighted chief science officer Tuesday at a press conference in Hernando County.

“These are exactly the kinds of projects we need,” said Dr. Mark Rains, named Florida’s chief science officer in March when his rarely sighted predecessor, Tom Frazer, resigned.

Frazer and Rains both have worked on water-quality problems in Florida as part of the state’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force, a panel of scientists. The problems are many: waterways chronically fouled with blue-green algae, red tide and other invasive algae, causing fish kills, noxious fumes, coral die-offs, manatee deaths, and consternation among waterfront property owners and tourists.

Florida’s chief science officer, Dr. Bruce Rains. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

Working with Frazer, the task force recommended – among other things – that the state help local governments reduce runoff from faulty sewer and septic systems that works its way into canals, rivers, bays and springs where it nourishes algae that doesn’t belong there. Rains has continued to work with the task force, whose meetings are broadcast on the Florida Channel.

The Legislature adopted those recommendation in the 2020 Clean Waterways Act but, pleasing some and dismaying others, snubbed other key provisions, including tough limits on agricultural runoff.

The water-quality improvement projects described Tuesday by DeSantis, Rains and Environmental Protection Secretary Shawn Hamilton are part of the effort to reduce at least the pollution that is coming from sewer systems and septic tanks by building better systems less vulnerable to flooding and less likely to leak.

DeSantis’ office offered details in a press release around 3 p.m. citing 103 projects worth $481 million, all but $50 million of it in federal funds:

  • $394 million in federal funds for 72 wastewater-treatment projects statewide, projected to remove 619,000 pounds of nitrogen pollutants annually from Florida waterways
  • $20 million in federal funds for wastewater-treatment projects in small communities, projected to remove 24,000 pounds of nitrogen pollution yearly
  • And $67 million in projects to remove 70,000 pounds of nitrogen annually from Florida springs, of which $50 million is state funding and $17 million is federal.
  • For a list of all awarded wastewater projects, click here.
  • For a list of all awarded springs projects, click  here.

DeSantis said these projects and other funding he has championed for springs, the Florida Everglades and resiliency against sea-level rise demonstrate his commitment to Florida’s environment.

“From day one of our administration, we’ve been proactive, we’ve been on offense, we’ve been wracking up a lot of key victories along the way,” DeSantis said.

“All the projects funded through the wastewater grant program will reduce nitrogen pollution in key water bodies across the state. The 72 will reduce it by more than 619,000 pounds a year,” DeSantis said. “That is a really, really big deal.”

Sadly, it’s really not, said Florida Springs Council Executive Director Ryan Smart, whose council is fighting the state Department of Environmental Protection in administrative hearings for enforcement of DEP’s own water-quality standards for Outstanding Florida Springs.

“The 70,000 pounds is less than 2 percent of the reduction needed just in the Suwanee River basin,” Smart said. “Anyone who knows about the water-quality threats facing Florida springs knows that 70,000 pounds is a small drop in the bucket to reach water-quality goals outlined by DEP’s numbers in the [Basin Management Action Plans.]”

Ginnie Springs. Photo provided by Florida Springs Council

Those action plans, referred to as BMAPs, were adopted under the 2017 Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act.

DEP’s required nitrogen reduction for the Suwanee River BMAP is 4.1 million pounds annually.

For the  basin that includes Silver Springs, the upper Silver River, Rainbow Springs group, and Rainbow River, referred to as the Silver/Rainbow BMAP, the necessary nitrogen reduction is 2.7 million pounds annually.

“The total nitrogen reduction necessary to reach water quality goals in all Outstanding Florida Springs is approximately 10.5 million pounds per year,” Smart said. “The governor’s assertions that the springs projects announced today will make a big difference for springs and are a ‘really, really, big deal’ are not supported by the facts.”

Smart said some help is better than no help, but he warned that too little has been done for too long. He said natural springs and other waterways that attract tourists and new residents to Florida are degrading fast and will continue to decline if efforts to restore them are not stepped up dramatically.

DeSantis’ new DEP secretary and chief science officer implied they, too, see the projects as a starting point.

“That is a big jump forward, starting to make meaningful difference in what is going to be a complex and challenging issue that we’ll have to work through for the years to come,” Hamilton said.

Rains praised the work of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force, which he described as five independent, world-class scientists charged with “using the best available science to help the state better understand and overcome our myriad water-quality challenges.”

“The projects that are being announced here today are exactly the kind of projects we need. They will result in demonstrable water-quality benefits, and with the securing of long-term funding, we can see these not just as an endpoint but as a new beginning,” Rains said.

The 2020 Clean Waterways Act, sponsored by Republican Senate Leader Debbie Mayfield, of Brevard and Indian River counties, is described by proponents as a major advance in Florida’s war with water pollution. Its critics say it started strong as a bill but was watered down in the legislative process, passing with many recommendations of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force stripped out.

Mayfield’s district, which includes the polluted Indian River Lagoon, was the first to be awarded water-quality improvement grants, receiving $53 million, as announced by the governor on Sept. 24.

Sen. Linda Stewart, an Orange County Democrat, and Rep. Joy Goff-Marcil, a Democrat representing parts of Orange and Seminole counties, sponsored bills in the 2021 legislative session to restore provisions that were recommended by the task force but removed from the Clean Waterways Act. Their bills did not pass.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper. Contact her at [email protected]