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Algae And Audits: Florida Waterkeepers Call On State To Be More Proactive Planners

Jacksonville flooding
Robert Torbert

Florida’s 14 nonprofit waterkeepers are asking environmental regulators to conduct an audit of the state’s vulnerability to storms and sea level rise.

The water watch-dogs say Florida is not planning well enough for the effects of climate change.

Last year, Hurricane Irma caused flooding levels in Jacksonville’s urban core not seen in more than 150 years. And statewide, insurance claims near $10 billion.

Matanzas Riverkeeper Jen Lomberk said the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) needs to do a comprehensive audit of infrastructure.

“Water treatment facilities and then things like fire stations, rescue stations, police stations, hospitals, medical facilities — things that in the case of sea level rise we would need to be protected,” she said.

Lomberk said the state should then find ways to make them more resilient against wind, rain and floods.

She and her counterparts, including the St. Johns Riverkeeper, are also asking the state to consider flood risks more before projects are approved.

“So many projects are being approved, especially in coastal areas, where they’re not taking into account the vulnerabilities of sea level rise and coastal erosion,” she said. “So, they’re essentially throwing public dollars into the ocean.”

RELATED: Read the waterkeepers' proposal to the state Department of Environmental Protection

A bill requiring governments to take sea level rise into account when funding projects died during Florida’s last legislative session. In the waterkeepers’ position statement, the group wrote that “hurricanes and major storm events can deteriorate water quality threatening human health” and that “scientific projections indicate that major storm events like Hurricane Irma are likely to continue to batter and threaten the region in the coming years” as a result of climate change.

In its three-pronged approach, the group is asking that a future audit be used to inform the creation and implementation of “best management practices to harden infrastructure and protect natural systems” by prioritizing green infrastructure like designs meant for flooding and moving away from projects like sea walls.

The group is also asking the Florida DEP to restart what’s called the Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force. The task force, a group of more than 20 scientists under the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission in charge of making recommendations and researching bloom causes, has gone unfunded since 2001.

Although Gov. Rick Scott called a state of emergency because of algae in South Florida last month, St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman said the state needs to be more proactive.

“We’ve not seen a comprehensive approach to really figure out how to deal with the root causes of pollution. Nor have we seen an adequate response to testing what’s happening and alerting the public,” she said. “We believe the state is putting Floridians at risk by not quickly testing these outbreaks. Nor are they advising people to be aware and concerned.”

RELATED: A Look At How The Gubernatorial Candidates Are Targeting Florida's Water Problems

Rinaman’s team recently tested algae in Clay County’s Doctor’s Lake and found the level of toxins to be well above the EPA’s permissible amount.

Some recent tests by the he state’s Department of Environmental Protection mirrored those results while other state tests have found lower toxin levels.