There is an environmental crisis in Florida right now. The red tide has spread to the Atlantic coast, and it’s affecting some of the most popular beaches near Miami.
The photos of dead manatees and endangered sea turtles killed by red tide are shocking and heartbreaking. What is even more frustrating is that these deaths are largely preventable. Both Florida and the federal government could have stepped in years ago to regulate nitrogen and phosphorus pollution but chose to sit on their hands.
Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution flowing from agricultural land, septic tanks, and other human-caused sources are fueling toxic cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) and red tide outbreaks in the interior and coastal waters of the Sunshine State. More than one hundred manatees, a dozen dolphins, thousands of fish, 300 sea turtles and even whale sharks have been killed by toxic algae and bacteria this year. And those are just the deaths that have been reported.
So what does this have to do with Louisiana and the rest of the nation? The Environmental Protection Agency says that nitrogen and phosphorus pollution is one of America's most widespread, costly, and challenging environmental problems.
This same pollution also causes the annual Dead Zone off Louisiana’s coast that decimates aquatic life and harms our fishing communities. The Dead Zone has more than doubled in size since 1985, thanks to our collective failure to regulate nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. Last summer, it was the size of New Jersey.
Issues with nitrogen and phosphorus pollution aren’t endemic to the Gulf of Mexico. Lake Erie is still suffering from toxic algae outbreaks that shut down Toledo’s drinking water supply in 2014. Harmful algae outbreaks in Chesapeake Bay kill marine life year after year and are occurring more frequently.
There has been a movement in the Mississippi River basin for nitrogen and phosphorus pollution to be curtailed at the federal level for a decade now. Several groups petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency in 2008 to regulate runoff under the Clean Water Act.
By 2010, EPA appeared to be on track to develop nitrogen and phosphorus pollution rules in Florida. But anti-government forces, led by the newly empowered Tea Party, pressured EPA to back off. In 2012, Florida — with EPA approval — developed nitrogen and phosphorus pollution limits that were decidedly less protective.
It became clear that asking the EPA politely wasn’t working, so environmental groups were forced to go to court. In 2012, we joined partners along the Mississippi River, including the Midwest where nitrogen and phosphorus pollution originates on industrial farms, to sue the Obama administration and force the EPA to regulate nitrogen and phosphorus pollution runoff under the Clean Water Act.
From Louisiana to Florida to Ohio, toxic algae outbreaks are growing year by year. The states — given a pass by the federal government — are doing practically nothing to regulate the pollution that is poisoning our water. Many state governments have actively and self-destructively deregulated what protections we do have. In 2012, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed the repeal of a law that required inspections of septic tanks to make sure they weren’t polluting Florida’s waterways.
We continue to hear that voluntary actions can fix the problem. It’s clearly not working. Florida’s red tide and blue-green algae outbreaks show it’s only getting worse. Deregulation is killing our waterways, and we are now feeling the consequences of kicking the can down the road.
Because state governments have proved themselves to be incapable of tackling this problem, it’s time for a renewed national effort to regulate nitrogen and phosphorus pollution at the federal level. It’s time for EPA to do its job and enforce the Clean Water Act. If our governments don’t go beyond asking nicely for voluntary pollution prevention, they will continue to put our fisheries, wildlife and health at risk.
Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution isn’t just a Florida problem. It is an ongoing national crisis. Florida’s toxic algae outbreak this summer is simply the most recent of a long list of man-made catastrophes related to our failure to prevent toxic algae outbreaks. If we don’t take action, it won’t be the last.
Matt Rota is senior policy director for Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental nonprofit based in New Orleans that has been advocating for federal management by the EPA of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution for over a decade.