Since October 2017, an intense red tide bloom has been moving with the winds and currents along our Southwest Florida coastline, wreaking ecological and economic havoc from Naples to Clearwater Beach. For all of us who live, visit and work in our beautiful area, the impacts have been enormous. And, the worst part is that no one can predict how long the red time bloom will last. As of early September, the 175 mile long bloom has moved offshore, but it is showing no signs of dissipating.
It is well-documented that red tide blooms have occurred along our coast for many centuries and that the red tide organism (Karenia brevis) is always present in low quantities our local waters. Scientists aren’t sure what causes an intense bloom like the one we have been experiencing this year. Various groups point to agricultural and mining impacts, to Florida’s population growth, to climate change, and to a variety of other factors. But, one element that almost all researchers agree on is that excess nutrients in our coastal waters are a contributing factor.
Excess nutrients in Lake Okeechobee are also causing enormous problems by feeding massive blue-green algae blooms that are clogging freshwater rivers and waterways. The problems occur when excess lake water is released downstream by the Army Corp of Engineers. The blue-green algae dies when it reaches salt water, where many scientists believe the excess nutrients in the algae decompose and are eventually taken up by the red tide organisms, contributing to the intensity of our current red tide bloom.
So, what can we do to improve Florida’s waters? We can fight at the personal and political levels for clean water by focusing on reducing nutrients, specifically phosphorous and nitrogen, in our water.
At the personal level, we can reduce the release of phosphorous and nitrogen related to our daily activities. Here are some specific actions to consider:
- If you have a septic tank, be sure it has been inspected and is working properly.
- Reduce or eliminate use of fertilizers in your yard, condominium grounds, golf courses and other areas. If you decide to fertilize, follow county regulations on when, where and how much fertilizer to apply. Do not fertilize close to water bodies.
- Plant native plants whenever possible and consider replacing existing non-natives with native species. Native ground covers can be good alternatives to St. Augustine grass. Once established, natives require little or no irrigation or fertilization.
- Prevent yard debris (leaves, plants and grass clippings) from washing into storm drains.
- If you live adjacent to a pond or stormwater drainage that feeds to a natural water body, consider creating a non-grass plant buffer zone adjacent to the water and planting wetland plants along the edges of the water. The plants can absorb nutrients into their root systems and reduce the flow of nutrients downstream.
- Insure “poop” from dogs and other pets is picked up and disposed of properly.
At the political level, we can use our voices and our votes to tell our political representatives that clean water with reduced nutrient loads is important.
- Speak Out for Clean Water. Tell your current political representatives that improving Florida’s water is important to you. Tell them to take action to improve Florida’s water quality by funding and building the long-planned reservoir to hold excess water from Lake Okeechobee, by mandating reduced levels of nutrient runoff from agricultural and mining operations, by adopting stricter home fertilizer regulations, and through other “clean water” initiatives: Don’t let this topic slip to the background in the months and years ahead.
- Protect Charlotte County wetland regulations. Charlotte County is currently considering changes to its wetland protection rules. Development groups are pressing to eliminate all County requirements on “buffer” (or undeveloped land) around wetlands, with the argument that the state and other authorities can make these decisions. The County is also considering eliminating all protections on some “lower quality” wetlands. There will be a workshop in October to discuss the proposals. If you live in Charlotte County, you can act now and tell the Charlotte County Commissioners that maintaining county regulations protecting our wetlands is important for limiting nutrient runoff and protecting our water quality! You can reach all the commissioners by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and including a request that your email be forwarded to all commissioners.
- Be a Clean Water Voter. In the upcoming election, make clean water a key decision factor in your voting decisions for candidates at the local, state and national levels. All three levels have roles to play in improving our water quality. Look for specific actions that the candidates propose to take and scrutinize their past records with respect to water issues.
To learn more about red tide and Florida water issues, an article recently published by National Geographic provides a very good overview. You can find it online at
Improving water quality is a complex and critically important issue that must be addressed on multiple fronts. Water quality is critical to the future of our beautiful area. It’s critical for our ecosystems, our health, our economy, and our tourist industry. Let’s all work together to improve it!