To pair with the rest of our educational content in each Earth to Florida newsletter, we bring you monthly updates on statewide environmental news. Read on below to see what we found for the month of April:
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- In 2019, the state’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force outlined recommendations to expedite the reduction of nutrient pollution in the state, one of which included increased inspections of septic tanks. One bill introduced this state legislative session, Implementation of the Recommendations of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force, was originally written to require septic tank owners to have their systems regularly inspected at least once every five years. Though this bill unanimously passed in the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, it didn’t pass in its original form. A strike-all amendment changed the language of the bill, removing the septic tank inspection requirement. If passed, the bill would require the monitoring of the effectiveness of nutrient pollution reduction projects that have a cost exceeding $1 million.
- A bill introduced this state legislative session that would direct the Resilient Florida Grant Program to provide funding for studies and permitting costs related to nature-based sea level rise and flooding solutions has passed in the Florida House of Representatives. The bill also expands on the requirement for public entities to conduct a sea level impact projection study by also mandating a risk assessment for at-risk structures and infrastructure. The bill is now in the Senate for consideration.
- Another bill proposed in this state legislative session would direct the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to investigate using radioactive phosphogypsum as a material in the construction of roads. The bill is backed by Mosaic, Inc., a Tampa-based mining and fertilizer company. The use of phosphogypsum was banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1989 but is allowed to be removed from storage for agricultural purposes and research. Several environmental groups are opposing the bill, saying it would lead to the contamination of Florida’s air, water, and soil and increased public health risks. The bill was recently passed by the Florida House of Representatives and is now in the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee.
- Compared to 2021 and 2022, fewer manatees died this past winter. However, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) officials warn that the past two years of malnutrition could have long-lasting effects on the animal’s ability to reproduce. In other manatee news, a new rehabilitation center coming to the Brevard Zoo will help provide immediate care to manatees that are in stable condition, but need additional care or monitoring. There are currently five federally permitted centers that provide acute care to manatees and four secondary holding facilities that look over the animals once they are stabilized.
- New surveys of seagrass on Florida’s Gulf Coast have found that Tampa Bay and Sarasota Bay have lost 30% and 26% of seagrass respectively since 2016. Scientists blame the losses on several severe red tides and the 2021 Piney Point disaster, where 215 million gallons of wastewater were pumped into Tampa Bay. Two bills that aim to help restore seagrass beds in Florida have passed several committees in both chambers in the Florida state legislature.
- According to survey results released by the EPA, Florida has come out on top as the state with the most lead pipes in the country. As such, the state will be receiving almost $380 million from the agency’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund to remove lead pipes and upgrade its drinking water infrastructure. Water that passes through lead pipes has been linked to brain damage and can especially harm children.
- The Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt has South Florida bracing for a long, smelly seaweed season. By the end of March, the mass that stretches across 5,000 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the West coast of Africa, had reached a record-breaking weight of 13 million tons. The mass is expected to make landfall in South Florida throughout May and July, though some beachgoers have already seen big globs near Fort Lauderdale. In normal amounts, Sargassum plays a key role in coastal and marine ecosystems. But large blooms can block sunlight and kill the seagrass growing below. When the sargassum dies and decomposes, the decaying organic matter removes the oxygen from the water, which can cause fish kills. Scientists attribute the bloom’s unusual massiveness to a combination of human activity and climate change.
- On April 12, Fort Lauderdale went for an unexpected swim when it received over 2 feet of rain. If confirmed, the 25.91-inch rainfall event could beat the current Florida state 24-hour rain record by over 2 inches. The unexpected flooding is the result of a combination of torrential rainfall, higher-than-normal tides pushing water inland, and an inadequate stormwater infrastructure that is only equipped to handle 3 inches of rain a day. The flooding led to the shutdown of the airports and seaports that fuel Florida’s tourism-based economy. Scientists say extreme rainfall events like this are expected to continue and worsen with the changing climate. The day after the flood, as Floridians mourned their homes, a Florida Senate subcommittee voted to forbid state agencies from considering climate change as a factor when investing pension money.
- Through April, over half the state of Florida experienced an increased threat of wildfires due to drought conditions. Since the beginning of the year, the state has seen more than 1,000 wildfires burn across 33,000 acres. This is because Florida has been experiencing less rain than usual this year, leaving lots of dry, built-up vegetation for fires to ignite. As of late March, most of the state had been categorized as experiencing either extreme, severe, or moderate drought conditions, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS).
- A proposal to give the threatened gopher tortoise extra protection has been denied by Hillsborough County commissioners. While state protections for the tortoise are already in place, the Hillsborough County proposal would have put restrictions on developers and increased penalties for unpermitted work on significant wildlife habitat. Gopher tortoises are considered a keystone species in the state because hundreds of other animals use their burrows for homes, protection from predators, or refuge from wildfires. The gopher tortoise is threatened by human development that encroaches on its native habitat.
- The last known population of the Rice’s whale, about 50 individuals, lives in a deep depression about 60 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico between Pensacola and Fort Myers. Congressman Matt Gaetz recently introduced legislation that would exempt the U.S. Air Force from the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. The act prohibits activities that threaten marine mammals, like the testing of live fire by the military. The National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) recently issued a letter allowing the Eglin Air Force Base in the Panhandle to test munition in the Gulf, as long as it’s done in areas outside the whale’s habitat.
- Amid property insurance customers facing soaring premiums, Florida consumers will have to pay an extra 1% on their insurance premiums for emergency fees beginning this October. The fees are partly due to claims from Hurricane Ian, which led to property insurers not having enough assets to cover the damages.
- The National Hurricane Center recently announced that Hurricane Ian was briefly a Category 5 storm. Ian was the third-most expensive weather disaster in world history and residents are still rebuilding, especially in barrier islands near Fort Myers. Sarasota’s Climate Adaptation Center predicts 14 storms for this year’s hurricane season, half of which are predicted to be a category 3 or higher. Additionally, a new study has found that Florida and the Gulf Coast could face more hurricane landfalls due to global warming and winds that direct hurricanes to shift toward the southeast U.S. coast.
The Good News
- In the 1960s, the Northern Everglades was altered, and the meandering Kissimmee River was turned into a channelized canal. This led to a drop in animal populations and an increase in nutrient pollution. Recently, with a cost of over $1 billion, the river has been physically restored, along with 40 square miles of wetlands. The restored flow of water has caused populations of game fish like bass to increase and wading and waterbird populations have already climbed above intended targets. Thanks to the federal 2023 Consolidated Appropriations Act, the Kissimmee River will join the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, which will provide special protections and funding for conservation.
- A newly discovered citrus tree is able to keep growing even after contracting citrus greening disease. The Donaldson tree emerges as a new hope to Florida citrus farmers that have reported major yield losses and crop damage due to drought, damages from Hurricane Ian, and most importantly, citrus greening disease, also known as Huanlongbing (HLB). FDACS has begun growing the species and distributing it to nurseries around Florida for propagation.
- In the late 1970s and 80s, William Moriarty, known as the Johnny Appleseed of Tampa Bay, led a rogue group of volunteers to plant trees in parks, thoroughfares, and lots. Eventually, he formed the Tampa Bay Reforestation and Environmental Effort. Now, 40 years later, the organization has planted 30,742 trees – 266 types at 619 locations. Moriarty began to plant trees without permission when he found out his native woods were set to be demolished for development. When he was finally caught by a city landscape artist, he opted to legitimize his efforts. Moriarty’s next goal is to raise $2,700 to plant 10 fruit trees in a vacant corner lot in St. Petersburg, which will be turned into a community garden.
- In a win for community members, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced that the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve will officially move forward. The aquatic preserve will be the first to be designated in the last 30 years. The DEP’s management plan aims to protect around 350,000 acres of seagrass and 700 square miles of coastal habitat along Citrus, Hernando, and Pasco counties.
Florida Research News
- Long-spined sea urchins are struggling to maintain population numbers after two major die-off events in 1983 and 2022. Scientists have recently discovered that a protozoan parasite caused the 2022 mortality event. Also known as “the gardeners of the sea,” the urchins help keep reefs healthy by eating macroalgae that can suffocate corals. Now, scientists are trying to revive the urchin population to restore the ailing reefs. The journey has been long and full of trial and error, but recent results are hopeful.
- Since the 1920s, the Cuban treefrog has been disturbing ecosystems in Florida. This frog has been referred to as a “weedy species,” outcompeting all other native treefrog species in the area. Their range used to be limited by regular freezes, but climate change has expanded their reach into Georgia. Native treefrogs in Georgia have begun shimmying up the trees outside of their preferred heights to evade the Cuban treefrogs.
- In the last 50 years, the number of non-native ants has almost doubled in some areas of Florida, which has led to a decrease in native ant species. The populations of non-native leaf-litter ants are believed to have come to Florida by hitching rides on imported goods from around the world. Leaf-litter ants act as seed-spreaders and specialized predators, and the absence of native leaf-litter ants could have major impacts on ecosystems in the state. The native and non-native leaf-litter ants share many traits; however, it has not been determined if the non-natives will fill the same roles in the environment as the native ants.
- Recent studies show that sea levels in the Gulf of Mexico and the Southeast coast have risen faster than other parts of the U.S. over the last decade, especially in areas such as Pensacola, Cedar Key and Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans. Scientists say these higher seas will result in more flooding during hurricanes and king tides.
- A recent study by researchers at the Bonefish Trust and Florida International University found that Florida’s redfish are contaminated with pharmaceutical drugs. The researchers sampled more than 100 redfish in nine different Florida estuaries, and only seven of the fish contained zero pharmaceuticals. The highest number of pharmaceutical detections were in Tampa Bay and Apalachicola. Seventeen different pharmaceuticals were detected, with the most common being heart medicine, opioids, and psychoactive drugs. About a quarter of the fish contained pharmaceutical levels high enough to harm the fish, but the overall levels are low enough that the contamination is not a cause for human concern. Pharmaceuticals end up in the water from malfunctioning septic tanks and polluted stormwater runoff.
- The city of Tampa has launched a two-year pilot program to test if ultrasonic buoys can reduce algae growth. The technology would work by disrupting the algae’s ability to float to the surface, preventing it from absorbing sunlight and undergoing photosynthesis.
- A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico are releasing twice as much methane than the amount estimated by U.S. agencies such as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The results could impact future offshore oil and gas operations, especially as the U.S. government prepares to lease more drilling areas in the Gulf.
- In a new study, modeling efforts by researchers showed that sea level rise and Everglades restoration plans could cause the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow to disappear from coastal nesting grounds in 50 years. Experts say that if the sparrows are to survive, management decisions need to factor in how sea level rise alters the historical landscapes where the sparrows once nested.
Things You Can Do
- Published six months after Hurricane Ian, the Living on the Edge series, written by students in the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, highlights the many risks associated with living on barrier islands. The series covers topics from wildlife to rising human populations. Interested in reading more? Check out the report.
- In mid-April, the National Weather Service issued an El Niño watch. El Niño is a weather phenomenon that influences temperatures and weather conditions worldwide due to its warm surface waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean. Scientists expect El Niño to arrive between May and July, and it will likely be a strong one. The last time we had a strong El Niño event, the world had record high temperatures and suffered from loss of rainforest, coral reefs, and polar ice. While it is possible El Niño will not develop, leaving us in a neutral year, we should brace for 2023 to be one of the hottest in history.
- The U.S. Department of Transportation has established the Wildlife Crossings Pilot Project, which grants $350 million over five years to states and communities for the construction of wildlife road crossings. The crossings aim to protect the movement of wildlife across highways, ensuring that animals can migrate, access resources that are vital for survival, and adapt to the changing climate. California, Florida, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming have already passed legislation that aligns with this new project.
- In an effort to curb carbon emissions, the EPA may soon require natural gas-fired power plants to install carbon capture technology. Under the new rules, the utility companies will need to decide whether to adopt this new technology or switch to renewable energy altogether. The move comes as the current White House administration aims to decarbonize power plants by 2035.