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Enforcement of Clean Water Act could clean up water, save Florida manatees

Jaclyn Lopez


  • Florida’s waters are besieged by nutrient pollution and harmful algae blooms.
  • The common thread with manatee-killing events, and most harmful algae blooms in the United States, was unchecked phosphorous and nitrogen pollution.
  • This water quality crisis can be addressed by simply enforcing the Clean Water Act.
Enforcement of Clean Water Act could clean up water, save Florida manatees
Gregory Sweeney via Getty Images

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Florida’s water quality crisis is best told through the eyes of a Florida manatee. Florida manatees are slow-moving herbivores, roly-poly sea cows that graze on seagrasses throughout Florida’s rivers, estuaries, and nearshore marine waters. But in 2021, algae-choked water caused by nutrient pollution killed hundreds of the manatees.

On Florida’s west coast, the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack discharged 215 million gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay. Phosphogypsum is the toxic waste from creating phosphoric acid. It is radioactive, acidic, and has heavy metals and a lot of nitrogen and phosphorous. The two-week event added nearly 200 metric tons of nitrogen, the equivalent of what the region typically receives over the course of an entire year. This led to a deadly red tide, a type of harmful algae bloom that can turn the water red and is toxic to humans and wildlife. The red tide killed thousands of pounds of marine wildlife, including more than 30 federally threatened Florida manatees.

Meanwhile, on Florida’s east coast more than 600 manatees starved to death in the northern Indian River Lagoon. This mass mortality event was triggered by nutrient pollution in the lagoon that for years has fueled algae blooms that have killed thousands of acres of seagrass. The lagoon is important warmwater habitat for the manatee, and when temperatures dipped last year, manatees habitually returned to the area to a lagoon robbed of its lush seagrass. This year, wildlife managers have resorted to provisionally feeding manatees romaine lettuce. Between the Piney Point disaster and the Indian River Lagoon mortality event, harmful algae caused by nutrient pollution was to blame for the majority of the more than 1,100 unprecedented manatee deaths in 2021.

The common thread with both manatee-killing events, and the majority of harmful algae blooms in the United States, was unchecked phosphorous and nitrogen pollution. While point source discharges like Piney Point can be damaging, nonpoint source discharges are the leading cause of nutrient pollution in most watersheds. In Florida, anthropogenic nutrient pollution including “high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous are washing into the water from agricultural lands, leaky septic systems, and fertilizer runoff.”

The Clean Water Act, which works to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity” of our nation’s waters, regulates point source pollution under section 402 through the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program, and nonpoint source pollution under section 303. For nonpoint source pollution, total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) prescribe pollution diets for waterbodies, and most TMDLs rely upon “best management practices” (BMPs) to control the amount of nutrient pollution reaching waterways.

The majority of states, rather than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency directly, are largely responsible for implementing these provisions of the Clean Water Act and are therefore primarily responsible for managing harmful algae blooms. Yet few states have water quality criteria explicitly addressing harmful algae, and many have a poor track record controlling the nutrient pollution that fuels harmful algae.

The deficiencies of these programs are much discussed, and some solutions might involve amending federal statutes and regulations, holistic watershed planning, cost-sharing programs, and regional water treatment systems to improve water quality.

Another solution that might work just as well is enforcing existing laws and policies. For example, in the case of Piney Point, over the past 20 years Piney Point’s owners and operators have caused the discharge of over a billion gallons of nutrient-laden wastewater into the bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Had the Clean Water Act been enforced against those owners and operators, perhaps the 2021 Piney Point disaster would not have happened. Perhaps holding the polluters responsible this time through the enforcement of civil penalties might prevent future disasters from the phosphate industry, which has a track record of unpermitted discharges in the region.

In the Indian River Lagoon, repeated discharges from municipal wastewater treatment facilities, coupled with low or nonenforcement of NPDES violations, contributes to poor water quality. This point source pollution acts in concert with nonpoint source nutrient pollution in part attributable to ineffective and unenforced BMPs. Landowner enrollment in BMP programs in the region is low, less than 25 percent, which is significantly lower than the Florida average. And of the more than 6,000 referrals for enforcement to the state regarding agricultural producers not following BMPs, none have resulted in penalties.

So, in both examples of significant nutrient pollution resulting in harmful algae blooms that have killed Florida manatees, simple enforcement of existing regulatory mechanisms could result in improved water quality by reducing nutrient pollution that would in turn lead to a decline in the proliferation of harmful algae blooms.

Either way, it is clear the Clean Water Act, as currently implemented and enforced, is in need of reform to address our nation’s algae bloom crisis. In Florida, the steady decline in water quality from nutrient pollution and harmful algae blooms has been well documented by scientists, but it took the starvation of hundreds of once chubby manatees to finally bring into focus just how bad things have gotten in Florida. Florida can right the course by immediately enforcing the Clean Water Act against point source polluters and by brining noncompliant landowners into compliance.