Residents along the South Florida coasts are once again experiencing sludgy, slime-laden waters as a result of nefarious blue-green algae blooms.
In Southwest Florida, sightings of the blue-green algae have been reported in Cape Coral, Fort Myers Beach, North Fort Myers and Sanibel Island.
Earlier this month, in an effort to combat the toxic algae, Governor Rick Scott placed an emergency order for the following seven counties: Glades, Hendry, Lee, Martin, Okeechobee, Palm Beach, and St. Lucie.
According to a statement issued by Gov. Scott’s office, the algal blooms are caused by water discharges by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from Lake Okeechobee.
“Today, our state is once again facing a crisis from water releases controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” Gov. Scott said. “This has prompted me to issue an emergency declaration, so our state agencies can do everything in their power to minimize the harmful impacts these releases are having on our communities.”
According to Senator Marco Rubio, this is the third time in five years that the harmful algae run off from Lake Okeechobee has affected downstream areas. Prior to the recent bloom, Florida experienced a massive outbreak in 2016.
Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, can produce what are called cyanotoxins—harmful toxins that are capable of killing fish, domestic animals, and wildlife. In recent years, concern for human illness through recreational exposure (boating, kayaking, fishing, etc.) is on the rise, this according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
Following the 2016 algae blooms that affected South Florida, researchers from the United States Geological Survey studied the algae from Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee River, and the St. Lucie Canal in order to determine potential toxins. They found 28 different types of algae with the dominant organism identified as Microcystis aeruginosa. At lower levels, researches discovered several other cyanobacteria known to produce harmful toxins to both humans and wildlife.
The three main types of cynatoxins found in Florida’s freshwater systems include: hepatotoxins, which affect the liver, neurotoxins, affecting the nervous system, and dermatotoxins, which can cause skin irritations.
The FWC states that few cases of human illness related to cyanobacteria have been reported in the U.S. However, direct exposure to a cyanobacteria bloom may produce symptoms similar to that of hay fever, this includes sore throat, congestion, skin rashes, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. The Florida Department of Health advises that blue-green algae be avoided entirely.
Why does Lake Okeechobee produce so much blue-green algae?
Lake Okeechobee has long been the center of a divisive environmental and political debate. For decades the lake has been in a tug of war between environmentalists, state legislators, and big business (such as Big Sugar).
Many environmental groups believe that the lake is polluted due to lax agricultural regulations and overdevelopment of the area. The algae buildup that occurs in the lake is a result from phosphorus runoff caused by cattle manure and fertilizer from surrounding farms.
Prior to human involvement, Lake Okeechobee naturally drained south into the Everglades. However, in 1928 a massive hurricane changed that, altering the course of Florida’s history forever. Around 2,500 people perished as a result of the storm and the extensive flooding that followed. The Okeechobee Hurricane stands as the second most destructive natural disaster in human history.
In order to prevent future flooding, the Herbert Hoover Dike was constructed, effectively blocking off water flow to the Everglades. The dike is comprised of 143 miles of levee and includes hurricane gates as well as multiple water control structures.
Today, water still flows from Lake Okeechobee but into smaller canals that lead to either coast. This is how the blue-green algae is spread to the ocean.
Historically Big Sugar has also impacted the area by draining swampland in order to plant crops. This ushered in the agricultural development and subsequent commercialization of Lake Okeechobee, which further impeded drainage of the lake.
Local organizations such as Captains for Clean Water, advocate that the state of Florida acquire land in the Everglades Agricultural Area in order to restore the natural flow of water back to the river of grass. They wish to see the construction of storm water treatment zones that they believe would help reduce the phosphorous and nitrogen levels in the water.
“Nutrient reduction is critical so we do not simply send our problem south,” Captains for Clean Water said in a statement on their website.
Gov. Scott, however, plans to use the federal funding that the state will receive as a result of the 2017 hurricane season in order to fund repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike. Gov. Scott asserts that these repairs will allow Lake Okeechobee to store more water and will hypothetically reduce the need for releases.
“At our urging, part of this money will be used to speed the critical repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike, a long overdue federal project, to help Lake Okeechobee store more water to protect our communities,” Scott said.
Captains for Clean Water founder, Chris Wittman, believes that while the dike repairs are necessary, it’s doesn’t fix the underlying issue.
“Dike repair is needed, but it’s for flood control and safety of the communities around the lake,” he said. “It won’t have a benefit to our restoration as far as discharges and it doesn’t help get water to rehydrate the Everglades.”
Wittman, a U.S. Coast Guard Master Captain and charter business owner, says he has experienced first-hand the effects of the toxic algae blooms on his business.
“Fishing guides are probably some of the first to feel it, as far as cancellations and fish kills,” he said.
According to Wittman, restoring the Everglades is critical for Florida’s future and economy.
“By restoring the Everglades and restoring the flow of water to the Everglades, not only do you save the Everglades on Florida Bay, which are huge economic drivers to our state, but you also reduce the discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the east and west coast, which devastates those communities and hurts local economies,” he said.
In 2000, Congress authorized the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), a 35-year, 10.5 billion dollar initiative aimed at restoring and preserving South Florida’s ecosystem.
In 2008 the U.S. Sugar Corp agreed to sell 187,000 acres of land to the state of Florida for 1.75 billion dollars. This agreement had the potential to renew the natural water flow to the Everglades. However, the deal fell through during the recession due to economic uncertainty. Instead the state of Florida opted to buy a much smaller portion of the land for significantly less money.
Recently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to reduce flows from Lake Okeechobee in an effort to combat the algae blooms in coastal areas. Using a “pulse” system the Corps of Engineers will release the water at varying amounts over a seven-day period.
“The water level in the lake has dropped slightly over the past two weeks,” said Major Joseph Sahl, Jacksonville District deputy commander. “The guidance under LORS (Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule) calls for reduced flows under current conditions.”
It’s important to note that the current red tide blooms affecting Southwest Florida are different than the blue-green algae blooms that have been getting recent attention.
While red tide, or Karenia brevis, is a type of harmful algae bloom, it originates offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, and requires a high salinity.
In contrast, blue-green algae originates onshore and prefers fresh and brackish water. The blue-green algae blooms are a result of infected water released from Lake Okeechobee. The algae blocks sunlight and depletes oxygen in the water, killing submerged vegetation.
Lake Okeechobee’s impact is wide reaching and at this point, unavoidable. For updates on the water levels visit www.saj.usace.army.mil.