By Suraj Rajendran, Staff Writer for Save The Water™ | September 6, 2016
Florida has been experiencing a rather serious water crisis as of late, one that has the danger of causing widespread disaster for the region. Most people are describing it as a “guacamole-like sludge” that is due to faulty political and economic decisions in the last one hundred forty years. In reality, this disastrous guacamole is a toxic bloom (an algae outbreak) that covers large expanses of Florida’s St. Lucie River. Now, Florida’s government and other authorities are looking fervently for a way to solve the issue before it gets out of hand.1
How We Got Here
Why do we have this problem today? Simply said, it’s mainly the fault of humans. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s there were a myriad of businesses who, with the combined effort of the government, attempted to drain the Everglades in order to develop land in the area. To accomplish this goal, water that usually flowed south from Lake Okeechobee through the Everglades to Florida Bay was rerouted westwards into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, eventually entering the sea.
As land development began, ranches, farms, and homes began to spring up and produce effluents such as fertilizer and human/animal waste. Both of these are filled with phosphorous and nitrogen which are necessary for the production of fast-reproducing algae. These pollutants are swept into the lake and slow-moving rivers when Florida’s heavy seasonal rains come.2 The entrance of phosphorous and nitrogen into waterways is often called eutrophication. To add to the misfortune, lakes themselves produce these same nutrients. Phosphates that are naturally attached to various sediments in the lake bed are released into the water column when the dissolved oxygen concentration is low. An algal bloom was inevitable. All the conditions had been met: sunlight, slow-moving waters, and plenty of nutrients.
A Number of Problems.
What’s so bad about this layer of thick guacamole? To begin, an algal bloom isn’t necessarily detrimental. In some lakes, the blooms contribute to the natural aging process and can impart important benefits by enhancing the lake’s primary productivity.
Unfortunately in other lakes, like Lake Okeechobee, severe algal blooms can decrease dissolved oxygen concentrations and increase dead algae decay. Lakes that are highly eutrophic might even be subject to anoxia (an absence of oxygen) and fish kills. To humans, algal blooms are rather unappealing. This factor plays a large role in lessening the lake’s recreational value and thus results in many economic problems. Repeated blooms, like the ones in Lake Okeechobee, have already caused property values in the area to decline considerably.
It can be toxic.
Some algal blooms can produce toxins that are harmful to aquatic organisms, domestic animals, and humans. These chemicals are released into the water as algae, namely cyanobacteria, decay. Like most Floridians have already noticed, a cyanobacterial bloom will form on the surface of a water source. Because of this, humans and other animals will come into close contact with layers of the bloom that have made it near the shore. If toxic, algal blooms can create lung irritations and gastroenteritis if it enters the human body. In less serious cases, toxic blooms may cause skin irritation.3
Halfway through June, the State of Florida began water testing in several areas around Lake Okeechobee: Fort Pierce Inlet Beach; Blind Creek Park North; Jensen Beach; Bathtub Beach portions of St. Lucie River; and several more. As the results came in, it was apparent that some samples had exceeded concentrations established as “safe” by the World Health Organization. The test results, though, show low levels of toxicity.
Unfortunately, this data is not up-to-date as the latest samples are as early as June 30th. This is before coastal areas around St. Lucie were shut down due to the stench of algae on the Fourth of July weekend. With the samples the state has taken, it has found that there are algal blooms in forty-four locations, with the worst situations in St. Lucie County and Martin. The algal blooms have even been detected as far west as Fort Myers near the Caloosahatchee River.
Of the samples, twenty-one of them have been classified as toxic and have the potential to be a public-health risk. While Florida has no current health standards for toxic algae in recreational waters, many county health departments have banned swimming in algae-infested waters. With Governor Scott’s declaration of a state of emergency, authorities have suggested reducing the flow of water in Lake Okeechobee into surrounding water sources. By doing this, the flow of nutrient-heavy water would decrease substantially and allows fresh and salt water to mix. With the addition of salt water, algal blooms may begin to decrease as the problem-causing algae is a freshwater species.
Of course, this is just a temporary solution. The arrival of heavy rains during hurricane season would necessitate the state free high volumes of nutrient-rich water, creating yet more algal blooms. Officials claim that prediction and prevention of this crisis will be difficult.4
“The nature of most freshwater algal bloom events makes it difficult to predict where and when a bloom will occur or how long it will last,” states Dee Ann Miller, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.5 “However, lessening the negative effects of algal blooms is possible through restoration work to improve water quality by reducing nutrients. By reducing nitrogen and phosphorous levels, we can help decrease the intensity and duration of algal bloom events.”5
What Comes Next?
Right now though, the biggest question is how far this algal bloom will spread. The problem’s center remains in the waterways that branch off of the St. Lucie River.4 However, authorities have begun to keep a close eye on other vulnerable areas including Caloosahatchee River, which is the relief river for excess water in Lake Okeechobee. There are already signs of algal blooms entering the river, but a prolonged period of dry weather, which Florida is going through, would only make it worse. Officials say that a solution must be found immediately, otherwise the consequences of the crisis will be permanent.2
- Mayra Cuevas. July 1, 2016. “Toxic algae bloom blankets Florida beaches, prompts state of emergency.” CNN. http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/01/us/florida-algae-pollution/
- Rhea Suh. July 17, 2016. “Toxic Algae Blooms: Fish Are Dying, Beaches Are Closing, People Are Getting Sick.” Alternet. http://www.alternet.org/environment/toxic-algae-blooms-fish-are-dying-beaches-are-closing-people-are-getting-sick
- Kevin G. Sellner, Gregory J. Doucette, & Gary J. Kirkpatrick. July 2003. “Harmful algal blooms: Causes, impacts and detection.” Journal of Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology, 30(7). https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10295-003-0074-9
- Joseph Erbentraut. July 7, 2016. “Toxic Algal Blooms Aren’t Just Florida’s Problem. And They’re On The Rise.” HuffPost. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/florida-algal-blooms_us_577d70cee4b0c590f7e7e3d2
- Pam Wright. July 18, 2016. “10 Things to Know About Florida’s Harmful Algae Blooms.” The Weather Channel. https://weather.com/science/nature/news/florida-algae-crisis