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Florida’s Poop Problem Is Killing Manatees

Inside the Sunshine State’s water quality crisis

A manatee swims in a tank

Dead manatees, climate change, poop water: In the past few months, it’s become clear that Florida’s multiyear reckoning with intersecting environmental crises is coming to a head. The quality of the state’s once-pristine bodies of water has cratered over the past decade. Tribal, state, and local government officials have been working for years to formulate a comprehensive response to a lethal combination of aging sewage infrastructure, rising sea levels, and higher water temperatures. The stories that have rolled in so far this year, though, suggest the time to mount a successful, proactive statewide plan is limited.

As the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported last week, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission counted 432 manatee deaths between January 1 and March 5. That’s almost three times the average death in this same period in prior years and over half the number counted in the entirety of 2020, which was 637.

The rash of manatee deaths has so far been attributed to two things. The first cause is the recent spate of cold weather. Speaking with The Guardian, Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said that “a manatee will choose starvation over freezing to death,” and thus move to warmer waters with fewer of its typical food sources. Already this year, 41 of the 432 deaths have been attributed to cold stress—last year’s total was 52. But the cold is only one prong of the issue. The remaining 391 deaths bear the fingerprints of human interference.

The explosion of algae blooms, particularly in the Indian River Lagoon, which stretches 156 miles along Florida’s east coast, has decimated the seagrass that manatees and the lagoon’s fish population depend on for sustenance. According to the Weather Channel, close to half of all manatee deaths this year have been recorded in the lagoon, and the Daytona Beach News-Journal reported in late February that the lagoon has lost roughly 46,000 acres of seagrass.

River and lagoon managers saw this coming as early as last fall. In September, Florida Today noted that the northern end of the lagoon and the Banana River had turned the “pea-soup green” color that typically accompanies algae blooms. (Algae blooms cover the surface of the water, blocking the sunlight from reaching the bed of the lagoon and cutting off seagrass’s crucial source of energy.) By December, the water had turned a reddish-brown color, the shores of the lagoon were covered with foam, and there had been multiple reports of dead fish washing ashore en masse.

Speaking with Florida Today, Duane DeFreese, the executive director of the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program, said that the algae blooms are the result of an increasingly rough hurricane season and human contamination; when heavy rains flow, nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers, automobiles, and leak-prone septic tanks pour into the river via runoff. (There’s also the accompanying issue of seaweed being washed into the lagoon, as when it dies, it releases nutrients that the single-celled algae devour.)

As with any story about humans intentionally or unintentionally killing off wildlife by decimating their habitats, it’s important to keep in mind that more often than not, the choices we make that might first affect one particular species usually end up costing us just as dearly. In the case of the manatee deaths, this couldn’t be truer. For years, Florida municipalities have put off the costly updates their sewage infrastructure desperately needs, and for years, those septic tanks and sewer lines have responded by spewing treated and untreated sewage into bodies of water that humans regularly depend on for drinking, recreation, and everyday use.

Two years ago, the Florida Times-Union reported that between 2009 and 2019, roughly 1.6 billion gallons of wastewater flowed into the state’s estuaries and oceans due to deteriorating sewers; of that, 360 million gallons were untreated raw sewage. The culprit in many cases was pipes and sewer systems constructed decades ago, now in dire need of replacement or update—costly procedures that many local governments have staved off. The Times-Union, citing utility experts, found that replacing the state’s locally operated sewage systems would run up a bill in the hundreds of billions.

The problem is, if Floridians can’t afford to replace this crucial piece of infrastructure, it’s highly likely that they won’t be able to continue to reside in many of these areas comfortably. As Emily Atkin wrote for The New Republic in 2017, following Hurricane Irma, the combination of outdated pipes and storm surges resulted in the release of 28 million gallons of treated and untreated sewage in 22 Florida counties. “In other words,” Atkin wrote, “Irma was a literal shitstorm.”

Local governments have tried to tackle this issue, through measures large and small. Miami-Dade County secured a $235 million loan from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to address and update its sewer systems. Last week, Hometown News Brevard reported on the efforts of the Indian River Lagoon Clam Restoration Project, which started in 2018 with the mission of introducing clams into the lagoon. As has been pursued elsewhere, for instance with New York City’s Billion Oyster Project, the Restoration Project is trying to grow the lagoon’s native clam population, as clams and oysters act as natural filtration systems, helping to prevent mass algae blooms. So far, the group has planted about four million clams and has plans to place another eight million by the end of 2021.

Meanwhile, the town council in Fort Myers Beach has recognized that its ability to enact such change is limited and requires intervention from both state and federal agencies. It’s why the council started an initiative in early March that encourages residents to send handwritten notes to legislators in the Florida House and Senate. The council has mailed flyers to homes in the area showing them how to engage with their elected officials and has also taken out full-page ads in the state’s major regional papers.

The Miami-Dade loan, the clam restoration project, and the town council’s outreach effort may all seem like encouraging signs of local government entities and grassroots conservation projects working to help Florida residents take a more active role in the democratic governance of the waters they depend on. But there’s also another, less optimistic way to read them: as cries for help from places that have watched politicians skirt arguably one of their most important job responsibilities.

If Florida continues to address its water crisis by way of patchwork updates, going about the issue county by county or city by city, there will be a limit to what can actually be changed before catastrophe strikes. Hurricane season—which starts earlier and earlier these daysis fast approaching, likely meaning another year of record-breaking storms and another fall and winter of algae blooms and sewage-filled waters. Already in the past week, midge flies have “invaded” Southwest Florida, local headlines announced, courtesy of low oxygen levels in local water sources. It’s a cycle that can only be broken with a rigorous, holistic plan that accounts for all of the state’s vulnerable sewage systems. In the absence of such a plan, the future of both manatees and man will only grow murkier.