Gary W. Kuhl Col

Gary W. Kuhl

GUEST COLUMN

What will it take to wake us up? Maybe it’ll be when the Gulf of Mexico’s bordering states see their tourism industries go straight down the drain? Maybe when all of Florida’s springs, lakes, rivers and beaches turn green or brown with blue-green algae, red tide or Lyngbya? 

Maybe when the cost of removing the sewage, pesticides, fertilizer and livestock manure from our drinking water sources increases dramatically?

The sad thing is that anyone spending 10 minutes researching the deterioration of one of our most important natural resources — water — will quickly know the answers.

It’s poorly treated sewage from poorly operating septic systems and wastewater treatment facilities. It’s too much fertilizer applied to lawns and agricultural crops. It’s poorly managed stormwater contaminated with pollutants. It’s livestock manure. It’s the practice of spreading untreated human waste on sandy, porous soils. It’s the Tampa Bay region dumping raw sewage into the Bay due to a lack of modern facilities to handle an ever increasing population. It’s the relaxation of regulatory standards for water quality. And, all of these factors are exacerbated by warmer temperatures.

A few facts.

In 2012, there were 810 million beach day visits in Florida; more than any other state, more than any other country in the world.

In 2017, Florida tourism accounted for $88.6 billion in visitor expenditures. Tourism supports 12.7% of total employment in Florida, or about 1.5 million jobs. And get this one, “Florida beaches have more visits than all theme parks and national parks combined” (2012 study by J. Houston). It is very clear what the negative economic impact of polluted natural water bodies means for our state.

The Weather Channel on July 7, featured a major story outlining the impact of pollution on beaches in Florida and Mississippi. Over the July 4th weekend, all 21 public beaches in Mississippi were closed to swimmers due to public health impacts of algae blooms and large beach deposits of rotting seaweed. In Florida, Sarasota County closed four of its public beaches over the July 4th weekend for similar concerns. And Miami closed several of its beaches for the same concerns, along with high fecal coliform bacteria counts.

Does anyone think this type of media coverage will go unnoticed by the national and worldwide audience? How about the description of beachgoers in Florida and Mississippi suffering from burning eyes, respiratory problems, vomiting and disgusting odors at once pristine beaches with an occasional flesh-eating bacteria story thrown in?

With saltwater sport fisheries in south Florida closed to harvest due to the major fish kills from last year’s red tide, it seems very clear that these problems, unsolved and apparently increasing in frequency, may ultimately have a significant negative effect on tourism in Florida and other coastal states.

So the first item of business to help reverse our deteriorating natural water quality would be to enforce existing water quality standards. No one should be exempt. Reducing or eliminating water quality regulations may (or may not) help our economy short term, but over the long term it is a disaster.

No one wants to hear this because money will need to be spent on prioritized water quality improvement projects based on cost/benefit. The Florida Legislature actually did this in the 1980s. These projects need to be well vetted and utilize proven technology. Sewage treatment facilities, reclaimed water facilities and stormwater management projects all need consideration.

Florida ranks as the seventh lowest tax state in the nation. Fixing our water problems is going to cost money, lots of it. This shouldn’t be a political issue---it’s an economic issue. Ask fishing guides in south Florida right now about impacts to their livelihoods. Soon, I fear, we will see negative economic impacts to coastal hotels, restaurants, and businesses.

Coordinated state and local planning for Florida’s projected population increases of 300,000 each year is an absolute necessity. Planning for schools, roads, water and wastewater facilities, solid waste and many other items must occur. We must plan for future needs including funding responsibilities. Got to do it!

Some say these are words of an alarmist. We need many more alarmists among our local, state and national elected officials. We better wake up soon!

It must be said that there is a ray of hope right here in Citrus County. Our city, county and state elected officials over the past 25 years have made major strides in properly treating our wastewater and finding avenues to utilize our reclaimed water resources.

Nonetheless, even with these efforts, many of our natural water bodies remain categorized as impaired by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, with our county still having many septic systems in operation.

The importance of Citrus County’s natural water resources to our economy cannot be ignored. Consider just the economic impact of our scallop season. We must continue to work hard to preserve our natural water bodies here in Citrus County.

Hopefully, we will wake up before it becomes too late.

A native Floridian and Citrus County resident, Gary Kuhl is an environmental engineer who served as the county administrator for Citrus and Hernando counties and as the executive director and operations director for the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

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