Why your vote for The Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District really matters if you care about Florida’s reefs and coasts

I wrote this for a non-scientific audience.

I am a diver, I know a lot of people who dive, and I know a lot of those people detest state level politics. I think this is a really big problem for us folks who love Florida’s coasts, its oceans, reefs, and fish. The way we look after our natural resources is a political and economic choice that we have a lot of impact on based on how we vote. I believe that people who care a lot about the environment tend to think that its management is the job of technical people, scientists and engineers. But I would argue that the people you vote for hold the power to utterly ruin the way we look after out natural resources, by setting anemic budgets, non-existent allocations, and removing agendas altogether, in effect decimating management organizations at the state level. Rick Scott, I’m looking at you. I would also say that these are incredibly myopic decisions, since so much of the state’s economy is completely dependent on healthy and functioning ecosystems. Environmentalism is not an afterthought, it is the framework on which our state economy gets built.

Governor, judiciary, amendments aside, as many local newspapers already do a pretty good job analyzing the environmental impacts of these candidates, I am here to write about the little known Soil and Water Conservation District. As somebody who cares about Florida’s healthy coral reefs, fisheries, and coasts, why does this particular elected position have so much importance to Palm Beach County voters?

Loggerhead on Gulfstream Reef, Delray Florida
Loggerhead on Gulfstream Reef, Delray Florida

The Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District is the local government agency that helps farmers implement best management practices in agriculture. Agricultural best management policies reduce the amount of pesticides, fertilizers, animal waste, and other pollutants entering the Florida water resource system. What does that have to do with our reefs, fish, and coasts?

Agricultural runoff from land sources (farms) is one of the biggest causes of serious stress to Florida’s reefs. Runoff has two components that cause major biological problems: sediment and nutrients. Sediment clouds our coastal waters and blocks reefs from their critical life source: sunlight. Sunlight is required for a photosynthetic algae living in the coral tissue (“photosynthetic” is just another word for when a plant turns light into food). These algae are a critical part of the coral animal, and if they are not making food, the coral cannot grow and continue to be part of a healthy reef. They also give coral their color by the way.

Nutrients from the agricultural runoff also increase when best management practices for soil and water are not followed. This results in unchecked growth of algae that coats coral reefs and also blocks the sunlight. In addition, when the microscopic plantlife throughout the coastal waters (“phytoplankton”) have a lot of nutrients to work with, they bloom in full force, die, and deplete the oxygen that is naturally dissolved in the water. This kills large amounts of fish in a very short time, coating the beaches and shorelines with rotting fish. This has impacts on commercial and recreational fishing, and similar scale blooms have been linked to record breaking manatee die offs. Some algal blooms are natural, but many, with increased nutrient supply are not.

The definitive scientific study of excess sediment and nutrient content on coral reefs shows that when runoff increases, so too does coral mortality, algal blooms, and muddy water. Some things that decrease with runoff are: coral cover on the reef, the strength of the hard calcium carbonate skeletal part of the coral (i.e. more brittle corals), and the diversity of corals (Fabricius 2004). More diverse reefs lead to healthier reefs that are more capable of absorbing shocks, like disease or a big storm with waves that hammer the reef. Think of it like the backup players on a football team, talented and numerous backups make for a stronger team during an unexpected injury. When you lack strong backups, you have the Florida gators 2013 season.

The agricultural land in Palm Beach County is a significant source of runoff that not only impacts our near shore reefs, but also those of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (LaPointe et al. 2004). Thus, the choices we make have far reaching impacts that in turn, affect the dive/marine/fishing economy in the entire state of Florida. This is an industry in which millions of Florida residents make a living.

Economically speaking, we need healthy reefs even if we don’t dive. Reefs protect and buffer coastal settlements (our homes) from the big storms we get during hurricane season. Reefs also buffer settlements from the constant wave action that has produced hometown surfing greats like Kelly Slater. Reefs provide nursery space for commercially valuable fish species to reach a size where we are allowed to fish them. And most relevant to me, as graduate student living in frosty Cambridge, MA, they attract a lot of money (millions and millions of dollars) in tourism revenue each year from divers, snorkelers, and visitors to our national parks, beaches, and barrier islands.

Foureye Butterfly fish and a barrel sponge off Briny Breezes reef
Foureye Butterfly fish and a barrel sponge off Briny Breezes reef

The Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District helps farmers implement best management practices for decreasing runoff, sediment, and excess nutrients that end up making their way to our coasts and our ocean environments. It is an education-based agency, whose elected board does not receive a salary. It is not public knowledge how their budget gets spent (spare generalities, i.e. “we spend it on outreach”), or how effective their education programs actually are in practice. As we all know, you can print as many brochures as you want, but whether or not they actually have an impact is another thing.

There are two candidates: Eva Webb and Karl Dickey. Here are my thoughts on them. Originally, all of the Gadsden Flags scared me off from Karl’s site, as Libertarians tend to reduce Florida’s environmental problems to a false equivalency between private property and conservation, a gross oversimplification that ignores many of the hard-to-count economic and financial benefits that healthy environments offer people and their livelihoods. He is not that type of libertarian though. He is plugged into environmental thinking, has some great ideas about good governance and accountability, and has vision on how to reshape the Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District to meet the needs of an increasingly urbanized area surrounded by not only agriculture but also fragile ecosystems. Despite my effort, I could not get ahold of Eva Webb. From what I gather, she has ties to the Florida Farm Bureau (Assistant Director of Field Services), an agricultural lobbying/interest group. Just to put it in perspective, the national level American Farm Bureau called their 2010 meeting “”Global Warming: A Red Hot Lie?” Yikes. However, a big part of the Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District remit is to engage stakeholders, and perhaps her ties to agricultural interest groups may help with that. Perhaps it is a conflict of interest. I tried asking, and I don’t have an answer.

Whoever you vote for, just make sure you vote. Divers are a significant part of the marine economy, which is in turn a significant part of Florida’s golden goose: the tourism industry.

Papers I mentioned in this blog entry:

Fabricius, K. E. (2005). Effects of terrestrial runoff on the ecology of corals and coral reefs: review and synthesis. Marine pollution bulletin50(2), 125-146.

Lapointe, B. E., Barile, P. J., & Matzie, W. R. (2004). Anthropogenic nutrient enrichment of seagrass and coral reef communities in the Lower Florida Keys: discrimination of local versus regional nitrogen sources. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology308(1), 23-58.

Moray Eel off Briny Breezes Reef, Boynton Beach
Moray Eel off Briny Breezes Reef, Boynton Beach
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