By Ed Killer, Treasure Coast Newspapers Outdoors Writer
The list of environmental disasters that befell Florida’s lands and waters in 2021 was as long as a tarpon killed by red tide. The headlines on media platforms last year made tourist development council directors more nervous than a Florida panther in a room full of rocking chairs.
So as the calendar turns to 2022, all those terrible events will be lost in our rearview mirror, right?
Looking ahead into 2022, and considering how little was resolved in 2021, 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, Everglades destruction, oil drilling/fracking, lack of biodiversity, and sea level rise, king tides and erosion.
As if that’s not enough, here are some of the biggest environmental eco-disasters the USA Today Network of 17 news sites in Florida will be watching next year:
Piney Point phosphate mine
Florida is a special place surrounded by water, filled by water and where its residents live, work and play on a giant bubble of water located deep under our feet. Yet for 100 years, we have allowed the destructive practice of phosphate mining — just to provide the mineral for fertilizers, detergents and other chemicals.
In April 2021, the Piney Point phosphate mine began leaking toxic wastewater produced by the mining process. Over 215 million gallons of contaminated water leaked from containment ponds into a Manatee County tributary that flowed into the southern end of Tampa Bay. Two month later, a massive red tide bloomed in Tampa Bay. Were the two events linked? You can bet on it.
Problem is, Piney Point’s story is nowhere near its end. In the last few months, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection filed suit to recuperate $46 million spent on emergency contracting services to mitigate the leak, plus over $1 million in fines levied since 2019 for improper management of the containment facility. Most recently, a plan was approved to inject the toxic water more than 2,000 feet into the ground — the same place where many Floridians draw their drinking water.
What could possibly go wrong?
Toxic algae blooms
It’s become a rite of summer as reliable as mosquitoes, intense rainstorms and sweltering heat: the annual turning of green 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 tune of coating our waters with toxic cyanobacteria, commonly called blue-green algae. Cities are spending money on signs that read “Don’t touch 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 grows long enough to help the algae grow. By late June, when the longest day of the year occurs, the algae will be doubling like it’s on steroids.
The cute, lovable manatee had a year to forget in 2021. A record number of deaths occurred — 1,056 through Dec. 10, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission — with many attributed to starvation. No one wants this storyline to continue, but the saddest part is the primary food source for many manatees — seagrasses located in coastal estuaries — still remains scant.
An emergency supplemental feeding program has been launched, but is it at a scale large enough to help hundreds, or just a handful? This will be a story with a ton of interest within and beyond Florida.
Florida’s nearly 900 natural springs pump hundreds of millions of gallons of clean freshwater out of the ground. Some form rivers that flow to the Gulf of Mexico. They are a window to 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 little more than just holes in the ground. We are spending hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars to restore some of the larger springs. Yet, permits are still doled out to water users who pay pennies to make millions by drawing a natural resource for uses ranging from irrigation of crops to bottling for retail sale.
Red tide was first recognized by the early European explorers to Florida, but like the topic of climate change, a debate has raged in recent years about how much human influence has exacerbated red tide frequency and severity.
A severe one in 2021 bloomed during the summer along the beaches of 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 harvest since 1990, being lifted by a backhoe into a trash dumpster drew the ire of environmentalists who blamed the tide’s fury on the recent Piney Point spill.
For the second time in as many years, and third since 2005, the hurricane season found its way into the Greek alphabet. The good news is Florida kids have learned several letters in the ancient language. Bad news is this is becoming too common.
A study released Nov. 22 blames climate change and says even the northeastern U.S. will see more monster storms arrive more quickly, but slow down once they’ve made landfall.
Residential and non-residential construction in Florida in 2019 was a $58.7 billion industry generating over 154,000 building permits, according to the Association of General Contractors of America. That won’t slow down as Florida’s population is projected to reach 26 million by 2030, according to the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
That means more water will be needed, while more garbage, more sewage and more roads will be produced. Disappearing land means that panthers and bears may join the manatees as Florida icons needing to be fed in order to survive.
Ed Killer is TCPalm’s outdoors writer. Sign up for his and other weekly newsletters at profile.tcpalm.com/newsletters/manage. Friend Ed on Facebook at Ed Killer, follow him on Twitter @tcpalmekiller or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.