The green slime that washed onto Florida beaches earlier this month marks the eighth time since 2004 that toxic algae have fouled the Sunshine State’s storied coastline.
The algae blooms of 2013 were so severe the event became known as Toxic Summer. And this year’s outbreak has so thoroughly spread through delicate estuaries on both coasts that Florida officials declared a state of emergency in four counties. Toxic sludge has killed fish, shellfish, and at least one manatee and has sickened people who have touched it.
“This is absolutely the worst,” says Evan Miller, an environmental activist and founder of Citizens for Clean Water. Miller lives in the tourist town of Stuart, 110 miles (177 kilometers) north of Miami. “We’ve never seen algae so thick. You can see it from space. There are places in Stuart that are on their third and fourth cycle of blooms now.”
As the latest outbreak continues to play out with sporadic bursts of new algae blooms, dismayed Floridians are wondering if the recurring appearance of this tourist-repelling, fish-killing scum is their new normal.
It may be.
Blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, occur naturally and thrive in warm, calm water. Two conditions work against eradicating it: climate change and political inertia.
As the climate warms, toxic algae blooms are proliferating worldwide—from eastern China, which has seen some of the largest algae blooms on Earth, to the American West, where sludge covering almost the entire surface of Lake Utah is raising questions about the safety of fruits and vegetables irrigated with algae-infested water.
Florida, already confronting warmer and wetter days, will surely find itself battling more algae as the climate continues to heat up in the decades to come. But the guacamole-thick sludge that keeps appearing can be blamed more on political inaction.
The state’s current algae problem is rooted in its historic penchant for dredging and filling, which started when its founders began draining the swamp a century ago to create dry, marketable real estate.
Solving the problem is stymied by legislative bickering and warring factions that drive modern Florida’s economy and politics. Few expect environmental restorationists, Big Agriculture, and the residential housing industry to get together and agree to a fix.
“There is no single villain in this nightmare, and not one single thing you can do to make it all better,” says Maggy Hurchalla, a former five-term commissioner from Martin County and the sister of Janet Reno, who served as U.S. Attorney General in the Clinton Administration.
Green Sand, Dead Fish
The algae that paint Florida’s beaches green do not originate in the ocean. The invaders come from Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s largest freshwater lake, which lies 35 miles (56 kilometers) inland from the Atlantic coast.
Once, the Everglades extended from Orlando over most of South Florida to the tip of the peninsula, encompassing Lake Okeechobee. Water trickled slowly and continuously south in a broad, shallow sheet that became known as the River of Grass.
But as Florida’s founders built hundreds of miles of canals to siphon water away from the interior, they forever changed the natural flow patterns. That laid the foundation for a host of environmental problems that bedevil South Florida and its eight million residents—many of them in suburbs that would not exist if the land had remained sodden.
For one, the massive re-engineering cut Lake Okeechobee off from the rest of the Everglades. The lake was further isolated in the 1930s, when it was encircled by a 143-mile (230-kilometers) earthen dike, constructed to prevent the kind of flooding that killed 2,500 people in a 1928 hurricane.
Today, the lake is bordered by cattle farms to the north and sugar cane fields to the south, and it absorbs agricultural runoff from both directions. That helps make Okeechobee a perfect algae nursery. It is broad, shallow, and full of nitrogen and phosphorous—the kinds of nutrients that nourish massive algae blooms.
Lake Okeechobee is also a perfect launch pad for spreading green sludge to coastal beaches. The lake can gain two to three feet of rainfall during a normal wet season, and the only way to drain off excess water is to pump billions of gallons to both coasts through canals carved decades ago.
“They opened the gates and dumped it on us,” Miller says. “You could watch the algae moving down the canal.”
Adding to the region’s woes, deterioration of the aging dike around the lake, now in the midst of an $880-million, 18-year repair to shore it up, has prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to keep the lake level lower than normal.
Heavy El Niño rains last winter created what Col. Jason Kirk, the Corps’ district commander in Jacksonville, calls “a challenging year.” So much rain and runoff flowed into Lake Okeechobee that it could have covered the state of Delaware in two feet (0.6 meter) of water.
The Corps began lowering the lake on January 30, months earlier than usual, and by early May, the first algae blooms covered 33 square miles (85 square kilometers) of its surface. Today they cover 239 square miles (619 square kilometers)—almost a third of the lake.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection collected water samples and found algae blooms in 44 separate locations across a swath of South Florida that extends from Fort Myers on the Gulf Coast to Palm Beach on the Atlantic coast. As of July 20, toxins were detected in 34 samples. Of those, 12 were considered toxic enough to present a health risk.
The Corps began reducing the discharge out of the lake on July 1. But it has few options to control algae other than to try and slow the flow of water into the estuaries. It is hurricane season, and the lake level has to be kept low enough to absorb not only summer rainfall, but also a blow from a hurricane.
Environmentalists, joined now by angry owners of tourist-dependent businesses, say the problem could be solved if Florida would buy land south of the lake and create a storage pond for excess water. The pond would also serve as a filter to cleanse water of pollutants before it is sent south into the Everglades instead of into coastal estuaries, helping restore at least part of the original flow.
Florida collects $700 million a year from real estate transaction fees, and in 2014, Florida voters approved by a margin of 75 percent an amendment to the state constitution requiring at least a third of that money be set aside to buy or restore recreation and conservation lands such as the storage pond.
Environmental activists complain that lawmakers have ignored the vote and instead spent the money on programs normally funded by Florida’s general fund. Last March, Earthjustice Florida, an environmental law firm, sued the Florida legislature, citing in court papers a dozen examples where the real estate tax receipts were used to pay for salaries, insurance, equipment, and other costs. The legislature, in response, argued the expenditures were an acceptable use of the money. A ruling is expected later this year.
“The citizens who voted for this are totally upset,” says Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society. “The legislature is hijacking the funds for other purposes and not using it to buy land. We need to reestablish the missing link between the lake and the Everglades.”
As the algae crisis unfolded in the St. Lucie River Estuary, Citizens for Clean Water staged a protest on the beach near Stuart and formed a human chain to spell out the words "buy the land." The Martin County Sheriff’s office tweeted an aerial photo of the human sign, with the comment, “3500 people and a message that anybody can understand.”
Florida Governor Rick Scott blamed the algae outbreak on the federal government for failing to repair the dike in a timely fashion, and urged that the project be sped up so that the ideal lake level could once again rise. To clean up runoff into the lake, Scott also said he would ask the legislative to approved additional funds for a voluntary program that encourages homeowners to shift from septic tanks to sewer systems to help curb pollution entering the Lake Okeechobee. He did not say how much such a conversion would cost or which communities would be involved.
Larry Brand, a marine biologist at the University of Miami, says he’s skeptical that the sugar industry will sell enough land for large storage and filtering ponds, and he calls the governor’s septic tank conversion a “diversionary tactic” to keep from focusing on the real issue: preventing the pollutants from getting into Lake Okeechobee in the first place. He also concedes that lawmakers are unlikely to write more stringent water quality regulations.
“There is no short-term answer to this,” he says. “The Corps is trying to hold back some water up north to reduce the water coming into the lake. No matter which way that water goes, it creates problems. It is a case of who screams the loudest.”