The third largest coral reef on the planet, the Florida Reef Tract, spanning from the Dry Tortugas to Stuart, has succumbed to death by sewage pollution.
Every day, nearly 300 million gallons of wastewater are still dumped from a half dozen sewage outfalls onto the reef tract from Miami-Dade to Broward counties. Until recently in the Keys, fecal pathogens and nutrients from roughly 30,000 homes and businesses using septic tanks and cesspits seeped onto the reef tract resulting in lethal coral diseases and reef-smothering algal blooms.
From Miami-Dade to the reef’s northern boundary in St. Lucie County, leachate from another 300,000 septic tanks may presently contribute to the reef’s collapse.
The demise of South Florida’s reef tract has been a loss for Florida’s recreational divers, fishermen and those dependent on the tourist economy in the hotel, restaurant and other service industries. Yet, it wasn’t until after the reef tract suffered near total coral loss that a $1.2 billion wastewater infrastructure project was initiated along the Keys island archipelago to hook up septic tanks and cesspits to modern centralized wastewater treatment systems.
Elsewhere in Florida, city and county utilities have also been slow to make similar wastewater infrastructure upgrades that would improve adjacent water quality and mitigate harmful algae blooms in Florida’s estuaries, rivers and springs systems.
A 2016 Report by the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that Florida was running an $18.4 billion deficit in needed wastewater infrastructure projects. These are just the financial commitments needed to get Florida’s wastewater systems to properly collect, treat and reuse water according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection laws.
It does not account for the increased treatment capacity needed for Florida’s future population that expands by 1,000 new residents every day, or the impacts of climate change-induced rainfall events, flooding and sea-level rise that will increase in the coming decades.
Recent hurricanes, Irma and Michael, were bellwethers for problems with Florida’s wastewater infrastructure. When Irma hit southwest Florida in September 2017, hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage were dumped. Flooded residential areas hemorrhaged septic tank effluent into coastal waters, creating a public health nightmare for residents and an impending environmental catastrophe. Last October, in Michael’s path in the Panhandle, a damaged and dilapidated wastewater collection system dumped tens of thousands of gallons of sewage and may cost $200 million to repair.
Florida residents and tourists have first-hand experience with harmful and toxic algal blooms that result from sewage dumping during storm events, such as Irma.
In southwest Florida, a red tide event began one month after Irma and lasted for over 16 months, with massive fish kills along the coast, hundreds of manatee and dolphin deaths, and an unaccounted loss of tourism revenue.
Along the Indian River Lagoon, sewage dumping caused by Irma totaled over 20 million gallons, which supported a brown tide that lasted for six months, and affected ecosystems, tourism and real estate value.
This past summer, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Blue-green Algal Task Force concluded that to reduce harmful algal blooms, Florida should aggressively mitigate its sewage leaks and dumping from its dilapidated wastewater infrastructure. The task force also recommend that Florida utilities should connect septic systems to upgraded centralized wastewater treatment systems next to sensitive or impaired water bodies.
DeSantis was voted into office partly because he vowed to eliminate the harmful algal blooms plaguing the state, including red tides, brown tides, seaweed blooms on reefs, and blue-green algal blooms. He has asked state legislators to send him bills during this upcoming legislative session that will address the wastewater infrastructure problems around the state.
Floridians, along with our 10 million annual visitors to the state, are drawn to the water to experience and recreate in our unique aquatic ecosystems. We should not be threatened any longer by wastewater pathogens and algal bloom toxins in our surface waters and drinking water.
The state’s quality of life depends on DeSantis and Legislature implementing policies that protects human health and ecosystems from Florida’s wastewater pollution problems.
Dr. Peter Barile is an environmental scientist and a published scientific expert on Florida’s water quality and health of coral reefs and estuaries. He is the Science Director of the American Water Security Project, and is based in Melbourne, Florida.
“The Invading Sea” is part of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.