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Florida could adopt tech to curb algal blooms under bill moving forward in the legislature

Shown here is a river polluted with blue-green algae.
Sergiy Bykhunenko
Adobe Stock
Blue-green algae shown here in a river can produce enough toxins to harm humans and animals.

A bill that passed its first committee stop today would require the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to procure technology capable of removing harmful algae, toxins, and nutrients from water bodies.

The agency has a technology grant program local government entities can sign up for. According to a legislative staff analysis, the program uses short-term solutions to combat algal blooms and nutrient pollution in an attempt to restore Florida's water bodies. AECOM is an infrastructure consulting firm working with two Florida water management districts that received grants from the program.

"The problem that we're seeing is that we're now turning the corner a little bit, and we have more harmful toxic algal blooms throughout the state, and those of us that have been here for most of our lives we've kind of seen this really pick up in the last decade," Dan Levy says. He works for AECOM.

Even non-toxic algal blooms can be a problem. They block out sunlight, killing the plant life animals depend on, which is the main reason why more than 1,000 manatees have died so far this year. However, Levy believes his firm's algae harvesting technology would meet the legislation's criteria.

"We've spent several years working on a program called HABITATS. And that stands for Harmful Algal Bloom Interception Treatment And Transformation System. This was approved and funded under the federal water bill, Water Resource Development Act, and that authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to take an active role in solving the algae crisis facing our country," Levy says.

Levy says his firm's research with the Army Corps of Engineers proves his firm's technology is workable, scalable, and cost-effective. The legislation requires the state to prefer scalable technologies proven to improve water quality in freshwater bodies, among other criteria. But Jen Lomberk is concerned about the technologies the state may adopt. She chairs Waterkeepers Florida.

"There are a lot of technologies that are unproven and might have unintended consequences, so it's really important that the solutions that we're looking at are cost-effective, they're environmentally responsible, and that they're scalable. It's not just going to be effective for a small area of the state when we have these massive sweeping harmful algal bloom issues happening all the way from South Florida up to North Florida," Lomberk says.

Lomberk questions what happens when the technology adopted by the state kills harmful bacteria.

"Do the cells rupture and release toxins? Are there unintended consequences on other beneficial organisms that live in the watershed? If you're removing it, what are you doing with it? And what else are you removing? So, it's just really important to think through what some of the unintended consequences of using these new technologies might be," Lomberk says.

Lomberk says the bill also focuses on reacting to algal blooms rather than preventing them.

"Things like strengthening regulations on the industries that are responsible for a lot of the pollution that are fueling these harmful algal blooms or increasing funding for infrastructure to keep excess nutrients out of our waterways," Lomberk says.

Lomberk says the state could also adopt federal guidelines for pollutants that could contribute to harmful algal blooms. Lomberk says in the past, Florida has declined to adopt those guidelines. The state is now reviewing its water quality criteria and will decide whether to adopt new federal guidelines, including ones regarding a toxin that comes from algal blooms. Lomberk says if the state chooses not to adopt the guidelines, its approach will be reactive instead of proactive.

"They're going to focus on reacting to these harmful algal blooms after the fact. They're going to focus on trying to remove excess nutrient pollution after it's already entered our waterways versus the opposite, where they could be proactive in trying to set a system in place to keep these things out of our waterways in the first place," Lomberk says.

As for AECOM, the firm currently has an algae harvester at a 10-acre lake inside the Apalachee Regional Park. Levy says it was moved from Tallahassee's Lake Munson recently due to that lake not having enough algae to test the machine's capabilities thoroughly.

Robbie Gaffney graduated from Florida State University with degrees in Digital Media Production and Creative Writing. Before working at WFSU, they recorded FSU’s basketball and baseball games for Seminole Productions as well as interned for the PBS Station in Largo, Florida. Robbie loves playing video games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Animal Crossing, and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Their other hobbies include sleeping and watching anime.