Red Tides: An Unwelcome Reminder That Water Quality Matters

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Op-Ed Was Originally Published November 12, 2018 In The Sun-Sentinel.

Florida has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, attracting tourists from near and far. Yet Floridians and those who visit have been coping with a red tide for months and it is now spreading from the west coast of Florida to its eastern coast, leaving countless dead fish, sea turtles, dolphins, and manatees in its wake.

This is just the latest incident to serve as an unwelcome reminder that our efforts to restore our nation’s waters to a healthy condition are long from complete, even as the Trump Administration seeks to weaken federal protections guaranteed under the Clean Water Act by narrowly defining “waters of the United States”.

Human-caused pollution does not cause a red tide. However, the scientific consensus is that pollution, especially the excessive nutrients draining from our streets, lawns, farms and wastewater treatment facilities into our coastal waters, can feed the blooms as they approach shore and allow them to persist for longer periods of time.

While red tides occur in coastal waters, they are but one type of menace among a much broader category known as harmful algal blooms. These can occur in our freshwater lakes and rivers, as well as in our coastal waters from the northeast to the northwest and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.

These unwelcome events can cause illness in people and their pets, close shellfish waters, threaten livestock, and impact local businesses. In many of these cases excessive nutrient runoff is an important factor contributing to the presence or persistence of the bloom.

Yet the Administration is considering changes to federal law that would remove many wetlands and small streams from protection – the very waters that play an important role in filtering nutrient pollution and protecting downstream waters.

With the economic recovery that began in 2009 still going strong, it is critical that the U.S. increase its investment in water pollution prevention and mitigation strategies. Foremost among these must be redoubling local, state and federal efforts to reduce nutrient pollution.

This will require innovative technologies and investment strategies to manage farm and street runoff and to improve our water treatment systems.

In addition, a strong federal Clean Water Act with a comprehensive, scientifically-supported definition of what constitutes “waters of the U.S.” is essential to supporting state and local efforts to improve water quality.

This is personal for me. That’s because I worked on water protection issues at the EPA for three decades, and also because the Florida coast has been an important place of relaxation and spiritual renewal for my family and me ever since my father and his big band (Joe Giattina and the Bama Cardinals) played at the “Casino” on Pensacola Beach during summers in the early 1930’s.

It was on one family trip to Pensacola about 12 years ago that my wife and I experienced the effects of a red tide bloom. Walking the beach, my wife and I soon experienced a persistent throat irritation and cough. We were unable to go near the beach for several days.

When a harmful algal bloom strikes, what often goes unnoticed are the day-to-day impacts on the quality of life for people. The need to change long-planned vacations. The inability to have a family reunion at a favorite beach location. A trip to the emergency room because an aging parent suffers from a respiratory illness. It is oftentimes difficult to measure the costs to our quality of life, but we know that the costs are real.

Strong federal protections are essential if we are to have healthy waters for our children and grandchildren. We all depend on safe and healthy waters, so we must pay attention when the Administration rolls out its new water rules.

It’s up to every American to urge the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to ensure protection of our streams, wetlands and coastal waters. Our children deserve nothing less.

Urban Resilience