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Florida’s Algae Is Our Own Doing

Years of mismanaging the environment got us here. What now?

Kevin Koczwara
Nov 7, 2018 · 9 min read
Photo: Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Evan Miller grew up in Stuart, Florida, 40 miles up the coast from West Palm Beach. He started surfing when he was nine years old. He frequented the beaches on Florida’s Atlantic coast with his dad, a surfboard shaper, until he and his friends were old enough to drive themselves. Now, the 34-year-old takes his daughter to surf the same breaks, but he’s worried he won’t be able to for long. A toxic blue-green algae is wreaking havoc on the freshwater flowing into the ocean from Lake Okeechobee. In July, 90 percent of Lake Okeechobee was covered in algae and the algae spread from the lake to the Atlantic Ocean through the St. Lucie River. A toxin released by the thick slime has been linked to neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and possibly Lou Gehrig’s disease, according to Scientific American.

“The beaches have been closed for several weeks in Stuart because the blue-green algae is up on the beach and in the water where people swim,” Miller said in a phone interview on September 15.

Miller staged a protest over the problem back in 2013, through a group he started called Citizens for Clean Water. More than 5,000 people came out to rally at the St. Lucie Lock and Dam, where the polluted lake water pours into the ocean. Since then, though, the problem has only continued to get worse. The algae becomes toxic when it starts producing cyanotoxins, which are potent to anything in the water with it but also humans and animals in its vicinity because they can be aerosolized. The cyanobacteria lives naturally in freshwater but the blooms occur when nitrogen and phosphorus are added to the water supply from runoff. According to tests done in July and August, the algae contained toxins at levels that were 10 times the amount the World Health Organization deems hazardous to humans. The algae sent 15 people to the hospital in July and forced Sportsman magazine to close its office near the St. Lucie River.

The blue-green algae isn’t the only thing making Florida’s coastline a death trap for local marine life. On the Gulf Coast, a toxic single-cell organism called red tide formed in November 2017 and has killed off hundreds of marine animals along a 130-mile stretch of coast from Pinellas to Lee Counties. While the two algae aren’t exactly connected, they’re both indicators of a changing climate in Florida.

Florida’s algae breakouts could threaten its iconic beaches and the tourism industry that goes along with them.

“One of the hypothesis about climate change is [Red Tide] does well in warmer waters,” says Richard H Pierce, senior scientist ecotoxicology and associate vice president of research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. “Usually during winter time in Florida, waters get below what we call the lower threshold of what the red tide can live in and so it generally does not do well after the Gulf gets pretty cold. But with the temperature increasing, that lower level may not be reached; it may stay above that, and so it is possible we may have longer red tides.”

Florida is home to some of the most beautiful coastline in the United States. But the state’s algae breakouts could threaten its iconic beaches and the tourism industry that goes along with them. Reports suggest that the red tide has cost business in some counties $90 million and roughly 300 workers have lost their jobs. While the two blooms are naturally occurring, pollution has turned them into an unnatural mess. Until now, it’s gone unnoticed, but people have begun organizing and working together to try to repair the damage. Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in the seven counties affected by the blue-green algae blooms in July and issued an emergency order for the counties devastated by the red tide.

“I’d like to actually have a state for my children and my grandchild to live [in] and enjoy like I did,” says Preston Robertson, the COO and general counsel of the Florida Wildlife Federation. “But we need to wake up and really pay attention to what is going on here.”

You could date Florida’s current environmental problems back to the 1800s, when the draining of the Everglades began. Once stretching from the southern tip of Florida to present-day Orlando, the wetlands have shrunk 50 percent, and are now filled in with farms, housing developments, malls, and amusement parks. And with that came flooding.

After a devastating 1947 hurricane in which a reduced Everglades was less capable of absorbing the stormwater, the government built a series of levees and canals to divert runoff away from homes and farms and toward the coast and Lake Okeechobee, the state’s largest lake and an important part of its freshwater system, allowing people to farm year-round in the dense and rich soil south of it.

All the while, Florida’s population was booming. (In 2014, it became the third most populous state, surpassing New York.) With more people comes an increase in human waste (rich in nitrogen and phosphorus) from aging septic systems as well as new farms, lawns and golf courses that need fertilizer. The sugar cane farms used Okeechobee to water their crop, and up until 1986, they back-pumped densely fertilized water into the lake. Over the years, all this runoff changed the lake’s makeup; its once sandy bottom turned murky and muddy thanks to phosphorus and nitrogen. By 1988, high levels of phosphorus discovered in the lake raised the ire of the government and environmental activists after an algae bloom. The federal government had to step in to stop the pollution and a lengthy legal battle ensued that lasted until 1991. It called for a 34,700-acre buffer zone that the state was to build so that the plants in it could filter the water before it went into what remains of the Everglades.

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Since 1986, the algae has become a more permanent fixture. It’s evolved, growing in strength, potency, and size. It releases more of its cyanotoxins, which enter the air and water when the bacteria dies and floats to the top, creating the split-pea soup looking blooms. The toxins can cause vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, infection, eye irritation, sore throat, cough, and headaches. When the algae reaches the ocean, it dies in the saltwater, but the blooms end up on the beach and in the ocean, forcing local officials to close some beaches where the lake discharges make it down the estuary.

Miller got a staph infection after surfing in water that was infected with the bacteria. A friend of Miller’s, he says, began hallucinating and spent seven days in the hospital after an infection in his leg. The long-term consequences of exposure to the algae haven’t been studied, but when there was a bloom in 2016, hospitals saw an increased number patients seeking help in emergency rooms.

All this has come in concert with climate change, which has brought extreme weather, including periods of drought, long stretches of intense rain, and more powerful and frequent hurricanes, which moves more runoff into the watershed. And as that runoff and rain moves from the land to the waterways, it eventually makes its way to the ocean where it feeds another toxic bacteria.

It’s taken humans less than 100 years to permanently damage the ecosystem and it will take longer to repair it.

On the state’s Gulf Coast, a bloom of red tide is wrecking the coastline, killing fish, dolphins, sea turtles, and manatees. Red Tide produces a potent neurotoxin that sets fire to the nervous system and can be passed down from the fish that live in it to the animals that eat the fish—including humans. Shellfish can filter the algae, but in doing so they also become toxic, causing gastrointestinal and neurological issues. The red tide’s toxins can also be aerosolized and cause respiratory problems to people and animals near infected water.

Red tide is not a new problem; there were reports of such blooms by Spanish sailors making their way to the Gulf of Mexico in the 1500s. But what those sailors saw probably doesn’t compare to what lives in the ocean today.

“They are definitely getting a lot denser,” says Larry Brand, professor of marine biology and ecology at the University of Miami. “In my estimate, compared to 50 years ago, there is about an average of 15 times more of the red tide, which means 15 times the toxins, so it is having a bigger effect on humans and the wildlife.”

As water temperatures rise and rainier seasons bring nutrient-rich runoff, the bacteria has grown and thrived. The bacteria would usually break up and die once the Gulf cooled for the winter, but now seasonal drop hasn’t come and red tide can survive longer and get stronger.

“This is, I would say, one of the most severe red tides I have experienced,” Pierce says. “I have been at Mote a little over 30 years. We have had [red tide blooms] that have lasted long; however, if this one keeps going, it will be one of the longest. This is, I would say, the most severe we have had.”

And it doesn’t look like it’s quitting. The bloom has recently moved its way up the coast to Tampa Bay, and experts say there’s no real way to kill it or halt its progress that wouldn’t have further consequences for the environment. “We’re looking at some different chemical techniques that will destroy the organism and destroy the toxin and even re-oxygenate the water,” Pierce says. “When you have something like a dead-end canal where it doesn’t have a lot of good flushing, when the fish die and start decomposing, they use up all the oxygen, and it becomes a putrid mess.”

As for the algae on the Atlantic coast, the only answer that seems to crop up over and over is removing the farmland south of the lake and filling it back in with the wetlands that once thrived there. “If you want to ever restore it, flood those fields. Put it back into Everglades,” Brand says. “It will become a nutrient sink again rather than a nutrient source.”

The plans for a reservoir south of the lake have finally moved forward, but the federal funding could be canceled at any moment. Freshwater has become political capital. It’s a vote-getter now, and each politician wants to propose a new all-purpose answer that can heal the environment. In this year’s governor race, politicians on both sides blamed one another for accepting campaign money from the sugar cane industry. Both incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson and former Gov. Rick Scott have taken shots at each other over their role in the explosion of algae in Florida’s waterways.

But the truth is there is no magic potion or answer. It’s taken humans less than 100 years to permanently damage the ecosystem and it will take longer to repair it.

Robertson sees the blooms as something of an alarm bell. It should get people to notice what has happened in Florida isn’t normal and take note that climate change is affecting everyone and shouldn’t be used as a political poking rod. “My goal here is to depoliticize the environment,” Robertson says. “My goodness, we have one world to live in and one state, and it is saddening to me that climate change, which is so evident, has become a political football. We need to put that on the sideline. We have plenty of stuff to argue about, but let’s protect what we’ve got and conserve what we’ve got.”

For someone like Miller, he hopes people catch on and vote for elected officials and plans that will help restore the Everglades and save Florida’s water system. It doesn’t look likely, though, with a proposed $4-billion mega-mall at the edge of the Everglades gaining zonal approval by Miami-Dade County in May. It’s one more attempt at harnessing the wild for a big and glamorous project without any view for the environment’s future. For Miller, raising his daughter in the same town he grew up in and surfing with her just like he did with his dad, the fear is real that someday she won’t be able to move on and start surfing the same spots with her friends because the water is too toxic.

Kevin Koczwara

Written by

Freelance Journalist at some publications you’ve heard of and others you haven’t.

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