Red tide, blue algae: Florida’s coastal crisis

From ToxicLeaks

History of Florida’s water crisis[edit | edit source]

To understand the 2018 crisis in southwest Florida, where marine wildlife has died in never-seen-before numbers, one must first understand the natural flow of waters from the central part of the state. During the rainy season – the source of most water – the Kissimmee River flows into Lake Okeechobee, a large and otherwise landlocked body on the peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Because of the state’s topography, the water gently drained south into the wetlands of the Everglades.

For more than 100 years, though, Florida put economic interests ahead of environmental concerns. Canals were built to connect Lake Okeechobee to the coasts to drain the swamp, and make rapid and unregulated development possible in places like Cape Coral, a fast-growing city that’s been called “the boomtown that shouldn’t exist.” The city itself has 400 miles of canals that are their own eco-disaster.

Yet it’s the Caloosahatchee River that runs through coastal Cape Coral and Fort Myers, completing a journey from the lake via dredging and a canal that connects its 67-mile length to the central Lake Okeechobee. The system is engineered so that water releases from “Lake O,” which now have to be controlled rather than naturally flowing south, divert to the coasts and affect marine environments.

With the water releases comes the phosphorus – 484 metric tons in 2017, well above the 105 metric ton limit set by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in 2000. Both agricultural and urban pollution from northern cities upstream, such as Disney World’s home of Orlando, create a toxic brew.

The U.S. Sugar company covers 230,000 acres, farming citrus and the sugar cane that environmental activists point to when they tie Florida’s “Big Sugar” industry and its political deals to the disaster. That’s a big part of the story, even as Florida allowed 3 million acres that flow into Okeechobee to become overdrained and overdeveloped, activists say. The legacy of mismanagement was a recipe for disaster.

Red tides and toxic algae blooms[edit | edit source]

For years, the southwest Florida coast – a tourism and retirement mecca – has suffered through bouts of the toxic algae blooms that the Lake O discharges feed. In most summers, some regions on both the east and west coasts will see the grotesque and foul-smelling green blooms for at least a few weeks before they dissipate. Yet even lifelong residents, seasoned media and marine wildlife pros said they’ve never seen damage like 2018, and it continued for weeks after Gov. Rick Scott declared a February emergency and then another in June. It’s not just the algae, which causes human as well as wildlife health crises.

The smelly cynobacteria blooms from runoff dumped in the Gulf of Mexico met with one of the worst “red tides” in the region’s history. That’s caused by another algae, the Karenia brevis, which produces neurotoxins that kill marine life and can cause illness if seafood is ingested by humans. The combination also causes respiratory symptoms in people, and early research suggests links to some human cancers.

While red tides are naturally occurring and have affected Florida’s coastal waters for hundreds of years, the K. brevis concentrations and the duration are cause for alarm. Monitors on tony Sanibel and Captiva islands, found just across the bridge from Cape Coral, show levels of 10 million cells per liter and highs of 140 million cells per liter, paralyzing wildlife in oxygen-depleted waters. The background level is just 1,000 cells per liter; for the week ending August 7, 2018, the entire southwest coast was above 1 million.

Health and environmental impacts[edit | edit source]

While humans experience eye and lung irritation, and worry about long-term exposure from harmful algae blooms (HAB), they also worry about the urban water supply and property values. Yet the impact on marine organisms and ecosystems is most devastating, and the 2018 season has left people in tears.

A 26-foot whale shark washed up on the Sanibel Island coast known for its seashells. The beloved dolphins are dying, and the threatened manatee – a symbol of southwest Florida – alongside them. More than 400 endangered sea turtles washed up. Coastal counties have been forced to open disposal sites for thousands of dead fish. “Anything that can leave has,” said Heather Barron, head veterinarian at Florida’s Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW), “and anything that couldn't leave has died.”

Policies and solutions[edit | edit source]

Scientists continue to pursue a better understanding of HABs because Florida is by no means the only place they’re seen: The algae attacks affecting China, the Baltic Sea, U.S. fresh water Great Lakes and beyond are thriving. Warmer temperatures and heavier rains, both of which are associated with climate change, support algae blooms fueled by urban pollution and agricultural runoff. In Florida, it’s been 10 years since a research study confirmed more frequent and more abundant blooms tied to population growth and human activity. The 2018 catastrophe demonstrates the consequences of failing to act.

In Florida, the episode came during a contentious campaign season in a state known for disregarding environmental priorities at its peril. Yet even Republican Gov. Rick Scott, famous for banning “climate change” language in state government products and discussions, lives in a waterfront mansion in hard-hit Collier County, where the National Weather Service issued health-related beach hazard statements.

As accusations flew between politicians pocketing money from “Big Sugar” entities funding campaigns, public outcry reached a crescendo in angry meetings and public protests. Some 6 million people are affected by the algae blooms, while Florida continues to cater to special interests and their lobbying, including U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals as well as nearly four dozen smaller sugar-farm operations.

Residents of Cape Coral were promised USD$3 million for algae cleanup, which they had yet to see. But they were also told by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that there is no better solution to Florida’s Lake Okeechobee problem than to release the water through the Caloosahatchee River and its counterpart, the St. Lucie River to the east. That in turn has long jeopardized the Everglades to the south as well.

Ten years ago, Florida reached an agreement with U.S. Sugar to buy out farmland and return it to its natural state but the deal has never been completed. Industry players want new treatment plants to remove the phosphorus before it wreaks havoc downstream, and blame urban growth to the north.

The U.S. National Wildlife Federation disagrees and insists that only Everglades restoration will solve a problem caused by disrupting the natural flow. Meanwhile, scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota are working on the red tide problem with new technologies and strategies. They include “living docks” for naturally filtering water in canals, promoting certain seaweeds known to reduce the K. brevis, and a patented process using ozone to kill the red-tide algae while oxygenating small areas of water.

Sadly, they also continued to rescue marine life. With climate change likely to influence the scale of future algae outbreaks – and knowing that human life depends on earth’s biodiversity – the 2018 tragedy has made clear the need to make decisions that put southwest Florida’s environment first.