Scientists are curious people, constantly searching for answers to questions that often elude others. Laura Reynolds has found the answers she sought out, but she doesn’t think anyone is listening.
Reynolds said since moving to work in Florida as an environmental scientist and conservationist, she has seen how disconnected people are from the problems the delicate ecosystem faces.
“Part of the problem is that many people don’t think about where their water comes form or where it goes,” Reynolds said. “The fishermen in Dade County don’t even realize that the water entering Biscayne Bay affects their catch.”
Reynolds believes change is necessary now for any type of recovery to happen.
“Think about turning on the faucet on the day that no water comes out and then deciding that there’s a problem the needs to be dealt with,” Reynolds said. “We have got to get away from that kind of reactionary thinking.”
For three years, Reynolds has been the executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society, in Dade County. The group operates to conserve all natural resources, including water, and educate members and the public about the delicate relationship we all have with the planet. Years before she took the top position in the non-profit organization, Reynolds served on the Tropical Audubon Society Board of Directors as both the vice president and the chair of education.
“Really, a non-profit tries to take the science and make use of it,” Reynolds said. “If you’re just a scientist in the field and you don’t interact with some of the people that are trying to influence policy then your work just sits there.”
Born and raised in Monticello, New York at the base of the Catskill Mountains, Reynolds was always surrounded by nature, both thriving and suffering. Reynolds said her childhood turned her into an environmentally conscious scientist.
“I got to see the Long Island Sound start to come back from a very bad place,” Reynolds said.
The Sound is an estuary of the Atlantic Ocean between Connecticut, Long Island and New York City that has suffered tribulations with pollution through the years. Reynolds attributes the recovery of the Sound as evidence that restoration is possible from the brink of total pollution.
Her love for the environment spurred questions that she didn’t have the answers to. By age 9, Reynolds realized her life would be spent as a scientist finding those answers.
Laura has worked, researched and taught in Florida since she moved here in 1994. She completed her undergraduate degree in marine and environmental science at Jacksonville University. She sought more science research and her master’s degree in education at the Florida International University while also working as an adjunct professor.
After seeing a divide between people and the land, Reynolds turned her focus from research to education outreach and advocacy.
“I think that universities ought to require some kind of environmental course, whether you’re a major or not,” Reynolds said. “I think it’s so important that people understand that we live above our water supply.”
Reynolds believes a combination of political reform and an educated, conscious public is the only way to save Florida’s ecosystem.
“For the most part people are reluctant to make changes in their life because they don’t think it makes a big difference,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds said she reduces her impact on the water supply by taking shorter showers, using public transportation, Xeriscaping her yard and saving rain water for irrigation through a rain barrel system.
Reynolds believes the transient, non-native population of Florida is a large contributor the state of the water here.
“Unfortunately for Florida, a lot of people were not born here,” Reynolds said. “Their roots are not here and so their actions to protect it are not the same.”
Reynolds said there are some native Floridians trying to preserve the state’s delicate ecosystem, but not enough.
“Development rights are being transferred in the northern Everglades because [natives] don’t want their land to ever be developed,” Reynolds said. “They want to see their family’s legacy continue on. We need more of that. Those are kind of people that can save a community.”
Visitor pulling algae out of Ichetucknee Springs, 2011. Taken by activists for the Sierra Club's Slime Crime Tracker.
Mark and Annette Long have lived in Florida for most of their lives and lately they’ve noticed something wrong with the local waterways.
“The water is covered in algae and it doesn’t have a whole lot of flow,” said Mark. “The spring basins aren’t what they used to be.”
Mark is a Florida native and Annette moved to the state about 30 years ago. They said they began noticing problems with the water in Florida about 10 years ago.
Alarmed by this observation, the couple who live in Chiefland, became activists for water issues in their area. They started Save Our Suwannee, which engages in a number of activities from educating the public to lobbying local governments. Of major concern to them is nitrate pollution.
Nitrates (NO−3), or nitric acids, are chemicals commonly found in fertilizers and waste.
Paul Chadik, a University of Florida professor of environmental engineering sciences, said nitrates are a nutrient for the development of algae growth, causing harmful algal blooms. This process is known as cultural eutrophication.
Chadik said that when the algal cells start decaying, the bacteria that catalyze the process absorb large amounts of oxygen from the water.
“Other aquatic life that needs the oxygen can’t get it,” he said. The aquatic ecosystem would be damaged, he said.
A 2008 Florida Department of Environmental Protection study reported that nitrate pollution in both surface and groundwater has increased by a factor of two or three over the last 20 years.
According to the study, about 30 years ago, nitrate levels in Florida’s water were about 0.2 mg/L. Now, the average is about 1.0 mg/L.
The Longs both said they were very concerned over the amount of nitrates finding its way into the water.
Severe environmental degradation can occur at 0.4 mg/L, said Annette, who serves as president of Save Our Suwannee. That’s the general scientific consensus among the experts she has spoken with.
“It causes algae to bloom once it’s exposed to the sun,” she said. The algae overgrowth then “smothers out the healthy aquatic vegetation.”
The maximum contaminant level (MCL), a standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency, allows 10.0 mg/L of nitrates.
Annette also said nitrates pose a threat to the humans drinking the water.
“There are even studies that indicate a level of 1.5 (mg/L) causes bladder cancer.”
Agriculture is one of the major source of the pollutants, the Longs said. Fertilizers commonly used in agriculture contain nitrates, herbicides and phosphorus. He said the rain washes the chemicals into both ground and surface water.
Terry Hansen, an environmental consultant for the environmental protection department, agrees that the Suwannee and Santa Fe rivers are in poor condition.
“The state has determined both the Suwannee and the Santa Fe are impaired,” he said.
An “impaired” means the water body has been evaluated and found it is not meeting intended use.
The state ranks bodies of water based on a scale of one to five. A one means the water is drinkable, and a five indicates the water is for navigation and industrial use only.
The Suwannee and Santa Fe rivers are both class three water bodies, meaning they are for swimming, fishing and recreation. Impaired water bodies exceed the pollution allowed for a class three.
To address this issue, the department has implemented a Best Management Action Plan (BMAP). A BMAP is a collection of methods used to lower pollution.
For instance, the BMAP for the Santa Fe River prescribes a public education campaign about the impact of stormwater and new guidelines for controlling pollution from construction sites, as well as other sources.
Hansen said the complex nature of Florida’s water systems is one reason why pollution is such a major problem. The underground aquifer connects to several bodies of water, meaning nitrates and other nutrients can have a wide reach.
“There is no single place you can implement a system of control,”Hansen said.
According to the study, water bodies near agriculture contained about 4.0-5.5 mg/L of nitric acids on average, significantly higher than the amount Annette said was dangerous. Water near undeveloped areas contained about 0.1 mg/L.
Another part of the problem, Annette said, is Florida’s lack of enforcing effective environmental policy.
“The state is bowing to industry,” she said, and “dragging its feet” in setting standards for limiting pollution.
The federal Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, made it unlawful to discharge pollutants into the water from a point source (pipes or man-made ditches) without a permit. Mark said far too many of these permits are being issued to industrial businesses such as paper mills.
Cris Costello, a regional organizer for the Florida Chapter of the environmental advocacy group, the Sierra Club, expressed a similar opinion.
“The problem is that FDEP considers polluters their customers,” she said. “They cater to those customers to an incredible extent to such an incredible extent that the environment suffers.”
Florida needs to adopt numeric limits to water pollution.Rather than being proactive, state currently doesn’t take action unless the water is already green and slimy, she said.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection finalized a plan in January 2012 to implement a numeric limit, which is awaiting approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Costello said.
The Sierra Club advocates a cheap and easy way to limit nitrate pollution is with local laws regulating fertilizer use, he said.
Manatee County, Fla., is the latest county to adopt regulations on nitrate-based fertilizers. The ordinance prohibits the use of fertilizers containing nitrogen or phosphorus from June 1 through Sept. 30, due to heavy rainfall during these months. In addition, it limits where the fertilizers can be used.
Annette said rules like these should be implemented across the entire state.
The couple remains optimistic that Florida’s water situation will improve.
On the subject of water, Annette said, “It’s the only reason people come to my town. I hope things will turn around.”