Toxic algae — like that found frequently in Florida’s waterways — can cause nausea, vomiting, liver disease, ALS, Alzheimer’s and even death. In the summer of 2018, algae at the St. Lucie Lock and Dam tested nearly 62 times more toxic than the level considered safe for human contact by the Environmental Protection Agency. In 2019, algae considered too toxic for contact was again discovered in Lake Okeechobee, and as a result, experts are concerned that the fish caught on the lake may not be safe to eat (a study completed in 2018 similarly found that fish in the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon were safe to eat only occasionally and in moderate amounts).

Nonetheless, the Army Corps’ operational priorities do not currently consider impacts to human health. In fact, for years, their outdated operational priorities have resulted in communities throughout Florida being exposed to dangerously high levels of toxins when the Army Corps discharges water from Lake Okeechobee. Especially now that the Environmental Protection Agency has confirmed that any concentration of microsystin above eight parts per billion is harmful for human contact, the PROTECT Florida Act will amend the Army Corps’ operational priorities to prioritize public health and protect Florida’s citizens from this serious health threat.

The current operational priorities for the Army Corps include flood control, navigation, water supply, enhancement of fish and wildlife, recreation and more. This bill maintains the importance of all these priorities and adds public health as a criteria that must be considered while executing each of these priorities. For the purposes of the legislation, public health is defined as managing Lake Okeechobee and the Central and Southern Florida system to:

  • minimize the potential of toxic cyanobacteria and other harmful algal blooms;
  • prevent discharges containing cyanobacteria or related toxins into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee watersheds, downstream users, and other areas where such cyanobacteria or related toxins will cause or exacerbate public health risks;
  • ensure the integrity and stability of the Herbert Hoover Dike;
  • maintain all provisions of applicable State, Federal, and Tribal water quality laws, policies and regulations; and
  • ensure necessary water volume and quality reaches the greater Everglades, Tribal lands, Everglades National Park, Florida Bay and Caloosahatchee Watershed to restore the natural habitat.

Under this definition, the health of all communities in Florida will be given equal priority by requiring the Army Corps to take into account the impacts on all “downstream water users, and other areas where such cyanobacteria or related toxins will cause or exacerbate public health risks.” The bill does not tie the hands of the Army Corps to any one specific strategy to fulfill the new operational requirement to consider public health. Instead, the Army Corps is directed to coordinate with the National Academies of Sciences to develop strategies to prevent pollution and protect public health.

Additionally, the bill does not alter the water rights compact between the State of Florida and the Seminole Tribe, nor diminish access to water for the Miccosukee Tribe. The bill will not impede the construction of CERP and CEPP projects either. In fact, the bill explicitly prohibits changes to the schedule for completion of any CERP or CEPP projects authorized prior to the enactment of the legislation. Finally, the bill prohibits the use of restoration funds to undertake Deep Well Injection.

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