UF public perception survey shows high level of concern over algal blooms in Florida waters

Recently released polling data from the University of Florida’s Bureau for Economic and Business Research, in partnership with the Howard T. Odum Center for Wetlands and the Bob Graham Center, suggests that a vast majority of Florida residents are concerned about algal blooms in Florida waters regardless of political, socioeconomic or racial differences.

In a telephone survey, conducted in December 2018, nearly 80 percent of respondents indicated high levels of concern over algal blooms.

Assessment of who is responsible for the blooms did vary across different groups, especially by political affiliation. When categorized by political affiliation, Independents were 40 percent more likely than Republicans to perceive Florida’s state government as being responsible for the blooms, while Democrats were 85 percent more likely.

“We were surprised to see just how political identity affected voters’ perception of who’s at fault, particularly when it comes to the role of the state,” David Kaplan, Environmental Engineering Sciences department associate professor and director of the UF Howard T. Odum Center for Wetlands said.

Across all respondents, the groups most frequently implicated as responsible were: agricultural producers (60 percent), followed by Florida’s state government (53 percent) and local governments (40 percent). The federal government, Florida residents and tourists took a small portion of the blame, cited by 32 percent, 30 percent and 22 percent of respondents, respectively.

Responses were collected from a total of 421 respondents, along with demographic data on race, ethnicity, education, income and political affiliation.

Chris Cuevas, an undergraduate in the Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences at the University of Florida, worked under the direction of Kaplan to complete the study as part of the Bob Graham Center’s Haskell Faculty and Student Research Awards program. The aim of the study was to better understand Florida voters’ perceptions of algal bloom issues.

Respondents were also asked to reflect on their voting motivations and prioritize a series of topics. Overall, about half of survey respondents rated the environment as a major election issue, behind the economy (67 percent) and health care (62 percent). The environment ranked as an important issue relatively equally across parties.

Blue-green algae and red tide bloom severity are correlated with the concentration of phosphorus and nitrogen in water bodies. Several human factors, including urbanization, excess nutrient runoff from agricultural lands and decades of artificial water flow management have contributed to the recent blue-green algae blooms and red tide events.

“Solving Florida’s algal bloom issues will require extensive bipartisan cooperation and collaboration among stakeholders across the state and a substantial investment in science, education and improved water management,” Kaplan notes.

Both technological and regulatory solutions are needed to reduce the flow of excess nutrients into Florida’s water bodies and reduce the frequency and severity of future algal bloom events. A major obstacle for the legislature is finding solutions that are both politically and economically feasible given the contributions of tourism and agriculture to Florida’s economy.

“Florida has the potential to become a model for how to mitigate major algal blooms,” said Cuevas, “but we need to work together to make that happen.”

David Kaplan March 13, 2019