Feed An Alga, Starve An Ecosystem: Nutrient Pollution in Florida’s Waters

Photo courtesy of NASA. Some rights reserved.

The EPA today announced the release of finalized “common sense” standards (pending publication in the Federal Register) that will set specific numeric limits on nutrient pollution allowed in Florida’s waters.

Currently, excess nitrogen and phosphorus – attributed to sources such as stormwater runoff, industrial waste water discharges, fertilizer from agriculture and livestock production – are impacting “more than 1,900 rivers and streams, 375,000 acres of lakes, and 500 square miles of estuaries” in Florida. Elevated nitrogen/phosphorus levels, and the toxic algae blooms associated with them, can significantly impact aquatic life and contaminate drinking water. They can also have an economic impact when water quality is degraded to the point that fishing, swimming, or other tourist activities become undesirable (or downright disgusting).

The final rule that sets the standards is actually the result of a 2008 lawsuit against the EPA by the Florida Wildlife Federation, who hoped to compel the EPA to set legal limits on nutrient pollution in Florida waters. Florida currently only has “narrative standards” for water quality, which are difficult to apply in practice. In 2009, a federal court found that nutrient pollution standards are necessary for Florida under the Clean Water Act, and approved a consent decree requiring the EPA to adopt numeric nutrient pollution standards by November 2010.  The final rule, which will take effect 15 months after publication in the Federal Register, complies with the consent decree.

And it turns out that toxic algae blooms aren’t just a problem for coastal regions such as Florida. A recently published study from UC Santa Cruz found that “toxin-producing algae once thought to be limited to coastal waters are also common in the open ocean, where the addition of iron from natural or artificial sources can stimulate rapid growth of the harmful algae.”

This is disappointing news for scientists that had hoped to boost phytoplankton growth in oceans for the purposes of fighting climate change. According to National Geographic, “some scientists argue that by adding iron to areas of the ocean that are iron deficient, populations of iron-starved phytoplankton would blossom.” It was hypothesized that flourishing phytoplankton populations would help combat global warming by removing lots and lots of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by means of their increased photosynthesis. Unfortunately, in this case, the cure may be worse than the disease.

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Read more about the EPA’s new standards for Florida waters here.

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