Manatees, red tide, toxic algae and dying springs have made Florida news

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The list of environmental disasters that hit Florida lands and waters in 2021 was as long as a tarpon killed by the red tide. Headlines on media platforms last year made directors of tourism development boards more nervous than a Florida panther in a room full of rocking chairs.

As the calendar turns to 2022, all of these terrible events will be lost in our rearview mirror, right?

If only.

Manatee deaths: Earthjustice sues EPA over Indian River Lagoon water quality

Blue-green Algae Working Group: Aims to bring in experts from the United States, China, and other countries

Feeding time: Authorities Approve Unprecedented Feeding of Hungry Manatees

Looking ahead to 2022, and given the few resolutions in 2021 that could have brought about real change, expect this year to look, feel and smell a lot like last year.

The list of assaults on the fragile environment seems endless: biosolids, wildfires, invasive species, coral bleaching, aquatic herbicides, destruction of the Everglades, oil drilling/fracking, lack of biodiversity and sea level rise, king tides and erosion.

As if that weren’t enough, here are some of the biggest environmental eco-disasters the USA Today Network of 17 Florida news sites will be monitoring next year:

Piney Point Phosphate Mine

Florida is a special place surrounded by water, filled with water, and where its people live, work, and play on a giant bubble of water deep beneath our feet. Yet for 100 years we have allowed the destructive practice of phosphate mining – just to provide the ore for fertilizers, detergents and other chemicals.

In April 2021, the Piney Point phosphate mine began leaking toxic wastewater produced by the mining process. More than 215 million gallons of contaminated water leaked from containment ponds in a Manatee County tributary that was flowing into the south end of Tampa Bay. Two months later, a massive red tide bloomed in Tampa Bay. Were the two events causally related? You can bet on it.

The problem is that the Piney Point story is far from over. In recent months, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has filed a lawsuit to recover $46 million spent on emergency contracting services to mitigate the leak, as well as more than $1 million in fines imposed since 2019 for mismanagement of the containment facility. More recently, a plan was approved to inject the toxic water more than 2,000 feet into the ground – the same place many Floridians get their drinking water from.

What could go wrong?

toxic algae bloom

It’s become a rite of summer as reliable as the mosquitoes, pouring down torrential rains and sweltering heat: the annual greening of some inland waterways.

Years of allowing nutrients to flow downstream unchecked into our lakes, canals and rivers have caught up with us to the point of coating our waters with toxic cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae. Cities are spending money on signs that say “Hands off the water” instead of “Enjoy our waterways.”

Most Florida residents will forget all about the green gunk until about May, when the amount of daylight builds up long enough to help the algae begin to grow. At the end of June, when the longest day of the year occurs, the algae will double as if on steroids.

Manatee deaths

The cute and lovable manatee has had a year to forget in 2021. A record number of deaths have occurred — 1,056 through Dec. 10, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission — many of which are attributed to starvation. No one wants this story to continue, but the saddest thing is that the main food source for many manatees – seagrass beds in coastal estuaries – is still scarce.

An emergency supplementary feeding program has been launched, but is it on a large enough scale to help hundreds of people, or just a handful? It will be a story with a ton of interest within and beyond the Florida state lines.

Florida Springs

Florida’s nearly 900 natural springs pump hundreds of millions of gallons of clean, fresh water out of the ground. Some form rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico. They are a window into Florida’s vast and critically important aquifer – the source of 90% of the state’s drinking water.

Over the years, however, we have found ways to drain, pollute and reduce their flows to the point where some are just holes in the ground. We are spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to restore some of the most important springs. Yet permits are still handed out to water users who pay pennies to earn millions tapping into a natural resource for uses ranging from irrigating crops to bottling for retail.

Crimson Tide

Red tides were first recognized by early European explorers in Florida, but like the subject of climate change, a debate has raged in recent years arguing how much human influence has exacerbated their frequency and gravity.

A grave in 2021 bloomed over the summer along beaches in Pinellas, Manatee, and Sarasota counties as well as much of the west side of Tampa Bay. The visual of a 300-pound goliath grouper, a fish protected from fishing since 1990, being lifted by a backhoe into a dumpster has angered environmentalists who have blamed the fury of the tide on the recent Piney Point spill.

hurricane season

For the second time in as many years, and the third since 2005, hurricane season has found its way into the Greek alphabet. The good news is that children in Florida have learned several letters in the ancient language. The bad news is that it’s becoming all too common.

A study published Nov. 22 blames climate change and says even the northeastern United States will see more monster storms arrive faster, but slow down once they make landfall.

Uncontrolled development

Residential and nonresidential construction in Florida in 2019 was a $58.7 billion industry generating more than 154,000 building permits, according to the Association of General Contractors of America. That won’t slow down as Florida’s population is expected to reach 26 million by 2030, according to the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

This means that more water will be needed, while more waste, more sewers and more roads will be produced. Disappearing land means panthers and bears may join manatees as Florida icons needing to be fed to survive.

Ed Killer is TCPalm’s outside writer. Sign up for his newsletter and other weekly newsletters at Friend Ed on Facebook to Ed Killer, follow him on Twitter @tcpalmekiller or email him at [email protected].

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