Saturday, March 30, 2024

Is $25 million for FGCU water quality study a boon or a boondoggle?

**Update 1 April 2024** Today I talked to a Water School colleague who worked behind the scenes to get this $25 million funding from the state, and I'm convinced now that it will be a positive thing addressing a real research need. It's building on a successful partnership between FGCU's hydrogeology and engineering folks and the statistics / data management company SAS, which specializes in organizing and making sense of massive amounts of data. The partnership started with them putting together data from the Peace River watershed to better understand harmful cyanobacterial blooms and other problems there. The new funding will allow them to extend that approach to other watersheds around the state. Among other things, the project is going to round up all the state's existing data on water quality and make it more accessible to the public through online "dashboards" and such. (A common criticism of Florida's current environmental monitoring programs is that their data is hard for the public to access and use, and it sounds like this new project will partially fix that.) Another goal of the big analysis / synthesis is to better pinpoint the worst pollution sources, and to more strongly connect pollution to its consequences (e.g., harmful algae blooms).

**Original Post 30 April 2024**

The Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University, where I work as a professor of marine science, was recently gifted 25 million dollars from the state legislature to fund a “comprehensive water quality study.”

Money for water quality research sounds like a good thing, and assuming we have some freedom to plan the research ourselves, I think we can make good use of it. Nevertheless, there have been some legitimate concerns and criticisms surrounding the gift. I first saw these expressed in social media commentary, then in a pithy editorial by author and journalist Craig Pittman in the Florida Phoenix.

The main criticism is that the state already has more than enough information on its water quality problems to start fixing them. Therefore, spending more money on studies is a wasteful distraction; a way for politicians to look like they’re helping the environment while avoiding making any real changes that might inconvenience their polluter and developer buddies. The implication is that it would be better to spend the money on things we know will reduce the pollution problems, like wastewater and stormwater system upgrades, conservation land purchases, etc.

This criticism is fair. Honestly, as much as I appreciate money for studying things, if we are not ALSO allocating serious money and effort to fixing the things we already know are broken then we won't see the changes we need. There’s a lot of precedent for the “commission some experts to study an environmental problem then ignore their advice on how to fix it” thing happening in Florida. For example, a few years ago Governor DeSantis made a “Red Tide Task Force” and a “Blue Green Algae Task Force” to study those problems, but the most important recommendations that the task forces gave have been largely ignored. Specifically, recommendations to address the root causes of the algae blooms (pollution and habitat destruction) have mostly been ignored in favor of “treat the symptoms but not the causes” approaches like dumping chemicals into the rivers to kill the algae. Meanwhile, anti-environment politicians and the polluters backing them have worked ceaselessly to erode Florida’s existing environmental protections, trying to stop grassroots efforts to reduce fertilizer and pesticide spraying, and trying to shrink Florida’s aquatic preserves, for example. Some of their attempted environmental villainy has failed, but some has gotten through.

One of concerns in Pittman’s article is that FGCU is a compromised institution that won't be able to give an unbiased assessment of Florida’s pollution problems. As evidence for this Pittman brings up some dirty laundry that impugns FGCU’s environmentally friendly image:

1) The original sin of the university having been sited on wetlands that weren’t supposed to be developed. This was part of a sketchy exchange of favors between the state and land baron Ben Hill Griffin, which opened the gates to lucrative but environmentally destructive development in eastern Lee County. In my opinion it would have been better to site the university nearer downtown Fort Myers to reinvigorate the walkable downtown, reduce outward sprawl and commuter traffic, etc., but nobody asked me because I was in high school in Washington State in the 1990s when this was happening. As it stands now, FGCU IS built in the middle of wetlands, but we’ve made the most of it by using them for teaching and research about biology, ecology, stormwater engineering, etc. We’re hoping those activities have some positive effects that counterbalance the sin of our placement.

2) How FGCU provided a “soft landing” in the form of a cushy job for Noah Valenstein, the former head of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, who worked under environmentally-unfriendly governor Rick Scott and a little bit for his successor Ron DeSantis before exiting amidst environmental crises. I see Valenstein once or twice a year at water school staff meetings. So far, he hasn't done anything to interfere with us doing our jobs and expressing our honest views about the environment... which is quite different from some other recent appointees into Florida’s universities who have clearly had a mission to disrupt them. E.g., conservative activist Christopher Rufo who was installed at the New College of South Florida to purge it of wokeness.

Anyway, back to the water quality study. Can FGCU do an unbiased study of water quality problems in Florida? I think we can. $25 million will send a lot of scientists out sampling a lot of water in a lot of places for a lot of different types of pollution, and those scientists’ analyses and reports are likely to be too numerous, too diverse, and shared in too many ways to be politically micromanaged to be pleasing to polluters. “On the ground” at The Water School we’re a plucky band of scientists and professors who are motivated by deep concern for the environment, love for education, and respect for the practice of ethical science. It is possible for research organizations that receive a lot of funding from special interest groups to develop blind spots when it comes finding and criticizing the effects of pollution linked to those groups, but I don't think this particular funding from the legislature has any strings attached that will keep us from pointing the finger at polluters.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Apocalyptic year for Florida Keys getting more apocalyptic

This has been a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year for Florida Keys ecosystems. This is remarkable not because Florida Keys ecosystems were doing fine until now, but because I honestly didn't think they could get much worse than they already were. Significant declines in Florida Keys reefs started in the 1970s, with pollution, diseases, and extreme weather events knocking out one coral species after another. First, most of the Staghorn and Elkhorn corals, which were essential to the habitat structure of the reefs, died out to white-band disease and other diseases. Then the brain corals, star corals, maze and pillar corals started dying out to other diseases and man-made stresses. By the 2000s the average coverage of live coral on the reef had gone down from over 50% to less than 10%. In 2014, a new coral disease called "stony coral rapid tissue loss disease" (SCTLD) spread from a dredging project near the Port of Miami into the keys, wiping out the survivors of the other diseases and bringing live coral coverage down to less than 5%. Recent geological surveys show that the entire sea bottom structure of the keys has changed. With no living corals to build up reef rock and offset erosion, the once-tall reef structures have been crumbling into flat fields of rubble and sand.

In 2023, a major El NiƱo on top of many decades of increasing global temperatures due to climate change brought the worst-ever marine heatwave to the Florida Keys. The water temperature exceeded 30 Celsius (the bleaching threshold where corals get stressed and start losing their symbiotic algae), earlier than ever, and reached temperatures higher than ever seen before in the Florida Keys. The killer temperatures lasted until October, which created an enormous "cumulative stress" on the corals (See picture). Even hardy, resilient species like sea fans, fire corals, and finger corals bleached and died, their flesh sloughing off their skeletons like meat from bones in an overcooked stew.

When I took my FGCU Marine Ecology class snorkeling there in October we saw a surreal scene of devastation. Dead but still-standing sea fans were covered in fuzzy algal turf. The few corals still alive were bleached to snow white, fluorescent pink, or yellow (see album).

The one part of the reef ecosystem that still seemed to be OK then was the fish. Even though the corals were dead and dying, the reef fish were still abundant in the no-fishing zones where we snorkeled. Sadly, in November 2023, not long after my class snorkeling trip, the fish in the keys also began to suffer. It was a mysterious ailment dubbed "spinning disease," that caused them to swim in an erratic, disoriented manner. It started happening to all sorts of fish species, from tiny pinfish to huge sharks and rays. The afflicted fish often die. This is particularly disturbing because it's affecting critically endangered species like the smalltooth sawfish. There are thought to be only a few hundred sawfish left in Florida, and more than 20 have already been found dead from this in the keys.

Naturally, people want to know what's causing the spinning disease, so just about every marine biologist and environmental management organization in Florida is trying to figure it out. People have tested for red tide (turns out it's not that), common pollutants like nutrients, pesticides, herbicides, and heavy metals (none of those seem to be much higher than normal), and diseases and parasites (none that we can find so far). Some people have speculated that recent water releases from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries caused it, but it couldn't have been that because: a) the spinning disease started months before the water releases and b) the water release areas are hundreds of kilometers north of the keys. That's not to say that pollution hasn't caused or contributed to this, though. The Florida Keys have been having problems for years with chronic and recurring sewage leaks and spills, including a broken pipe detected in October 2023 that leaked 106,533 gallons of sewage near the epicenter of the spinning disease on Big Pine Key. The info below on the spill is from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Public Notice of Pollution website, which also has information on thousands of other spills throughout the state.

Incident Location: (link)
Incident Description: During a verification inspection of the low pressure system force mains, the mechanics determined that the low pressure grinder system (LPS) force main was not passing a pressure test. Upon further investigation, staff discovered that the 1 1/4" HDPE force main had been augured through by a contractor while installing a fence post on private property. The force main was repaired, a portion of the fill was excavated and replaced and the area was cleaned up, washed down and lime was applied. Repair is complete and yard is restored.
Wastewater Type: Untreated
Cause: Contractor
Spill Volume: 106,533
Volume Recovered: 25
Waterbodies Impacted: N
Clean-up Status: Complete
Clean-up Actions: Vacuumed/pump truck, Applied lime, Washed down area, Raked and disposed of debris
Agencies Notified: Gary Hardie FDEP, State Watch Office

The continuing influence of sewage leaks and spills on marine water quality in the Florida Keys is indicated by elevated levels of an artificial sweetener called sucralose detected in recent FDEP monitoring. There's no natural source of sucralose, so if you're finding it in the water that means that there are wastewater inputs nearby, or that wastewater was spilled in the past and hasn't fully dispersed.

The other link to man-made pollution is the freakishly hot weather, which is signficantly hotter than normal due to the global problem of carbon dioxide pollution increasing the atmospheric greenhouse effect. In addition to contributing to hotter temperatures via the greenhouse effect, the elevated level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere lead to higher levels of carbonic acid in seawater, lowering its pH. This phenomenon is called "ocean acidification" and has already made the ocean 25% more acidic, on average, than it was 150 years ago. Experiments show that hotter temperatures, more acidic waters, and higher nutrient pollution levels all stress corals individually, and that their combined effects are even worse, hence the post-apocalyptic state that Florida reefs are in now.

Anyway, back to the spinning disease. My FGCU colleague Dr. Michael Parsons, who specializes in studying harmful blooms of microscopic marine algae, has strong suspicions that it's linked to a type of single-celled dinoflagellate algae called Gambierdiscus.

Unlike the Karenia brevis dinoflagellate algae that causes red tide, Gambierdiscus is benthic. Benthic means mostly found on the bottom, growing as an "epiphyte" on seagrass, seaweed, rock, etc. It attaches kind of loosely, though, so if there's a lot on the bottom you'll also find some in water samples. During this spinning disease event, Dr. Parsons has been finding Gambierdiscus at levels 10 to 50 times higher than ever seen before in the keys. Gambierdiscus makes multiple types of neurotoxic chemicals that can harm other marine life, as well as people who eat contaminated seafood. The best-known toxin that Gambierdiscus makes is "ciguatoxin," which accumulates in the marine food chain from small algae-eaters to big predator fish, and can then be passed on to people who eat the fish and develop a serious illness called "ciguatera." The weird thing in this case, though, is that Dr. Parsons and the other harmful algae researchers working in the keys have not been finding much ciguatoxin in these Gambierdiscus or in the affected fish, and there haven't been any reports of people in the keys getting ciguatera from eating the fish. (I still wouldn't recommend eating any seafood from the keys now, though.) With ciguatoxin, you'd also expect it to affect just the species in the food chain that were getting exposed via their diet, and the spinning disease seems to be affecting all species of fish- bottom feeders, plant eaters, predators, planktivores, etc. That is leading Parsons and other to suspect that the spinning disease is caused by one of the OTHER toxins that Gambierdiscus makes- maitotoxin.

Maitotoxin is the one of the deadliest biologically-produced toxins known to science. Unlike ciguatoxin, maitotoxin is water-soluble, so fish can be directly exposed through the water rather than through their diet. The maitotoxin hypothesis is consistent with observations by fishermen in the keys that spinning fish often recover back to normal after 17-25 minutes in a tank with water from an unaffected area. Parsons suggests that rescue tanks could be set up to put some of the most endangered species of fish in to recover, but you'd need a pretty big tank for a 5 meter (16 foot) long smalltooth sawfish. Because the maitoxin molecule is huge and complicated, you need sophisticated equipment to detect and measure it, and not many labs in Florida are capable of doing that. Dr. Allison Robertson at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama is able to do it, though, and she HAS detected maitotoxin in the recent samples Parsons has sent her from the keys. So far we just know that maitotoxin is present in the affected area- not how much there is. Parsons and Robertson are working on more quantitiative analysis now, comparing the concentration of maitotoxin in the spinning-disease area with its concentration in unaffected control areas. If the incidience of spinning disease closely corresponds with the concentration of maitotoxinin the water, and the concentration of maitotoxin in the water closely corresponds with the abundance of Gambierdiscus on the seafloor, that would be strong circumstantial evidence for the maitotoxin theory, which could be confirmed by experimental tests.

If it is maitotoxin produced by Gambierdiscus that is causing this, that will lead to more questions, such as "What's going on in the environment that's causing there to be so much Gambierdiscus and maitotoxin?" and "What can we do to stop it?" As for what's causing the Gambierdiscus increase, we already have a rough hypothesis based on what has been seen with Gambierdiscus in other parts of the world: It increases after man-made and natural disasters that damage reefs. Something about a degraded reef ecosystem seems to create ideal conditions for toxic Gambierdiscus. Maybe it's disruption of the normal microbial and grazer community that keeps Gambierdiscus in balance. Maybe it's increased availability of nutrients, seaweeds, and dead coral skeletons to grow on. Maybe it's all of the above. While we're waiting for more complete answers and the next phases of research, I have some suggestions:

1. Don't eat seafood from the Florida Keys until this is over, unless you're trying to do neurotoxicity experiments on yourself.
2. Get SERIOUS about keeping nutrient pollution out of South Florida waters-
    a. Support wastewater treatment system upgrades, maintenance, and monitoring.
    b. Tell the FDEP to bring the hammer down on those responsible for sewage leaks and spills.
    c. Fertilizer also contributes to nutrient pollution, so stricter fertilizer regulations for the keys could help. If I was king of the keys I'd ban fertilizer year-round with no exceptions for golf courses.
    d. Lobby the state and the feds to complete the everglades restoration projects they've been working on for decades that are supposed to improve the quality of the water passing through the Everglades to the keys.
3. Stop denying that climate change and ocean acidification are happening and start doing your part to reduce carbon dioxide pollution.