By: Martha Molfetas
South Florida is famous for many things, beautiful beaches, lush coastlines, palm trees, Caribbean paradise – you name it. The front page of today’s New York Times may change that image. A huge and unsettling algae bloom has erupted in four South Florida counties, forcing the state to declare a State of Emergency. The image of a ‘Hulk’ green colored wave beckoning the soft sands is enough to make any person shriek in disgust. That image alone is likely to change how we view South Florida.
What Is Causing the Outbreak?
Algae blooms are not new to Florida, or to the South Florida area. They happen when nutrient rich polluted fresh water meets a brackish or salt water bodies. Those nutrients act as fodder for algae that is naturally present in every waterway, anywhere on the planet. Those nutrients feed the algae, giving it a license to kill everything within its grasp as it spreads. Unlike other waterway vegetation, algae sucks up oxygen, causing fish die offs, and killing grasses and other plants that would otherwise flourish. These plants and animals literally suffocate to death. The impact on us and other land dwellers is also apparent. Algae emit nitrogen and phosphorous gases that can make it difficult to breathe, harm skin, and further pollute fresh water sources communities rely on. As the algae grows and emits these gasses, it in turn adds more nutrients into the water, allowing the algae to grow more and more.
How Did This happen?
Florida is more than beaches and swamps, it’s also a major agricultural state, particularly in the arenas of iconic oranges and sugar. Sugar in particular requires a lot of fertilizer and water to grow successful crops. For the last several years, state regulations surrounding how agribusiness drains their run off have been greatly diminished. Sugar and other large agricultural cash crops have been letting their nutrient and fertilizer rich runoff go into waterways that connect to Lake Okeechobee.
Just north of where we’re seeing this severe algae bloom is Lake Okeechobee, the largest fresh water lake in Florida and the second largest lake in the United States. The Army Corps of Engineers actually manages the flow of water out of the Lake. In recent weeks, there has been an extensive amount of rainfall, which forced the Army Corps of Engineers to pour water out of the Lake. That polluted and nutrient rich water found its way to the South Florida counties of Martin, St. Lucie, Palm Beach and Lee; where it could seriously damage local wildlife, fisheries, and pollute drinking water.
Politics and Policies
On a state-level, previous Republican Governor Charlie Crist pushed forward a policy to buy sugar croplands and use it to store and naturally filter nutrient rich polluted water as a part of a broader water resources management bill. Present Republican Governor, Rick Scott did not move this legislation forward. Governor Scott has actually pushed back against the federal government on Florida’s clean water standards, or lack there of. Governor Scott has also not called on Congress to alter US subsidies and incentives that allow big sugar to deal with their polluted and toxic runoff that is flowing into Lake Okechobee and the Everglades – a UNESCO Heritage Site.
Clearly, something has got to give. We have the tools and the policies ready to go to address this toxic runoff issue and protect Florida’s freshwater from algae blooms. All that we need is serious motivation to conserve and protect these unique spaces before they reach a point of no return.
Image: Miami Herald