The Beacon Investigates | Persistent Lake Okeechobee algae bloom threatens South Florida

May 9, 2017

Stuart, Fla. - With the summer of 2017 upon South Florida, businesses along the Treasure Coast are scrambling to prepare for another possible algae outbreak.


Jordan Schwartz, owner and operator of the family-owned Ohana Surf Shop, states that he has written “all commissioners,” but remains frustrated that little has been done by the state to take precaution and prevent the foul-smelling blue-green algae from making another appearance this year.


Last year’s algae bloom forced residents along the Indian River Lagoon to stay safely on land and out of the rivers and ocean nearby. Locals described the algae as “guacamole-thick” and putrid smelling.  


The damage proved to be devastating to many local businesses, such as Surf Ratz, Coastal Paddleboard, and Hobe Sound’s Tackle For Less, who have all been forced out of business since the discharges began.


Ohana Surf Shop, located on Hutchinson Island in Stuart, Fla., operates an eight-week surf camp every summer on the local beaches.


“We cancelled four weeks of camp, including [the week of] July Fourth,” explained Schwartz.


During the weeks Ohana actually held camp in 2016, only a quarter of the kids they normally would host ended up attending, according to Schwartz’s wife, Tara. Other local business owners, like John Bryan of Strawberry’s in Jensen Beach, Fla., are also frustrated and growing hopeless.


“Not much you can do but lobby for change,” Bryan explains. “The Indian River is treated like a sewer.”

Ohana Surf Shop hopes summer camps in 2017 won't be impacted by a return of toxic algae along the Treasure Coast 

The first discharge from Lake Okeechobee in 2016 happened in late January, after a particularly rainy winter caused the water level of the lake to rise.


Then a few months later in April - due to a mixture of “perfect weather conditions” and high phosphorous levels in the water - a massive 33-square-mile algae bloom on Lake Okeechobee grabbed the attention of the nation.


Social media and news outlets were swamped with videos of the slimy gunk, and the country watched mesmerized as the water down south turned green. Many had never heard of blue-green algae or cyanobacteria before.


According to John Burns’ “Cyanobacterial Harmful Algal Blooms: State of the Science and Research Needs,” toxic cyanobacterial blooms “represent a major threat to water quality, ecosystem stability, surface drinking water supplies, and public health.” The algae can cause nausea, vomiting, skin irritation, and was even reported to have worsened asthma for local resident Donna Marceau, who spoke with TCPalm last summer. 


The “perfect weather conditions” of 2016 that played a role in the algae bloom include warmer weather, overcast and cloudy conditions, and – especially – increased rainfall. Unfortunately, rainfall for 2017 is expected to be even more extreme than 2016. 


According to the Global Weather Oscillations (GWO) website, “2017’s Hurricane Season will be as dangerous and possibly more expensive than the 2016 season.” The GWO has correctly predicted hurricanes and weather conditions for years, including a prediction of the Atlantic Coast hugger, Hurricane Matthew - called nine months in advance.


Extreme rainfall from these storms calls for extreme measures to be taken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who ultimately decides to discharge water from Lake Okeechobee. Surprisingly, even clean lake water is dangerous when allowed to flow into the Indian River. These discharges alone have been killing the lagoon for years due to the amount of freshwater allowed in, which throws off the salinity in the estuary.


Environmentalists throughout the state have had all eyes on the dying health of the Indian River Lagoon due to its extremely uniquely bio-diverse ecosystem. In fact, it is the most bio-diverse estuary in North America. There are over 2,200 animal species and 2,100 plant species present in the lagoon, including manatees, dolphins, crab, and oysters, which are essential to cleansing the water naturally. 


Mark Perry, Executive Director of Florida Oceanographic Society, elaborates on the impact of heavy amounts of freshwater entering the estuary.


“We lost a significant amount of estuary resources,” Perry says. “99% of living oyster reef has been destroyed.”


Perry also displays concern for the Everglades, which, despite restoration efforts made by the State of Florida, continue to experience drought and dangerously high salinity levels. The man-made canals flowing out of Lake Okeechobee, the St. Lucie Canal and the Caloosahatchee Canal, have redirected much of the outflow to the east and west coasts, diverting the natural flow of the lake away from the Everglades down south.  


Pursuing a solution to the destruction of the Indian River Lagoon and the Everglades has been a political spotlight issue for years. Most recently, Florida Senator Joe Negron (R) has proposed the construction of a 60,000-acre reservoir, which would be located south of Lake Okeechobee in agricultural farmland.


This proposal acquired heavy media attention, as well as the attention of Treasure Coast residents and farmers south of the lake. The $2.4 billion project has faced opposition from politicians and farmers alike because of the amount of farmland needed to be bought out to build the reservoir.


Governor Rick Scott has expressed that he would rather follow a 20-year plan to restore Florida’s waters and hold onto Florida’s credit ratings, whereas building the reservoir immediately would require the State to borrow $1.2 billion to complete the massive project.


Despite the heap of borrowed cash required to build the reservoir, Stuart and Jensen Beach locals have been fighting for Negron’s idea, begging for the state to go through with the project by organizing a number of rallies. Treasure Coast locals even gathered by the thousands to spell out the words “BUY THE LAND” on Jensen Beach last July.


On the other side of the debate, Florida Farmers Bureau (FFB) is “not in favor of the State buying any more agriculture” for fear of losing jobs. Gary Ritter of the FFB explains steps already being taken to control and regulate the water. There are ways other than a reservoir to promote better water quality, he says.


Ritter mentions that there are “over 20 projects, and about three times as many subprojects” that the State has been working on to restore water quality and restore the Everglades. He adds that with the help of Governor Scott’s $880 million Everglades water quality plan and the Legacy Bill of 2016 offering continuous funding for restoration, South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) has been taking steps toward restoration for years. 


SFWMD has many projects dedicated to Lake Okeechobee restoration, Everglades restoration, and estuary restoration, organized and updated on their website regularly for public access. According to their website, SFWMD has been implementing a long-term plan that promotes the health of the Everglades by treating the water flowing down from the north at Stormwater Treatment Areas, expanding Best Management Practices, and continuing the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Projects (CERPs).


In addition to these projects, there are programs in place to regulate water before it ever flows into Lake Okeechobee. According to Ritter, nineteen dairy farms north of the lake have converted to consignment farms, which collect and recycle their runoff. Farms north of the lake are regulated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.


Otherwise, farm-landowners have the option of signing off on a Best Management Program. These Best Management Practices (BMPs) are defined in Florida Statute 373.4595:


               “‘Best management practice’ means a practice or combination of practices determined by the coordinating                         agencies, based on research, field-testing, and expert review, to be the most effective and practicable on-                         location means, including economic and technological considerations, for improving water quality in                               agricultural and urban discharges. Best management practices for agricultural discharges shall reflect a                             balance between water quality improvements and agricultural productivity.”


Landowners who refuse the BMPs are required to regulate their own water.


The State of Florida and the South Florida Water Management District have stated that they regularly perform tests.

In a June 2016 Myth vs. Fact sheet, SFWMD reported that “The South Florida Water Management District samples water.”


While most regulations are in regards to phosphorus levels and salinity, a major factor of the algae bloom is the toxic cyanobacteria. However, The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) is lacking in cyanobacteria regulation.


The FDEP releases an Integrated Report every couple years that summarizes the overall quality of Florida’s waters and overall environmental progress. On pages 50-51, under “Monitoring Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs)”, it is stated:

“There are currently no federal or state water quality criteria or guidelines for cyanobacteria toxins. Public outreach regarding cyanobacteria blooms is based on minimizing risks—i.e., if the water is green, stay out, keep pets and livestock out, and do not use bloom water to spray irrigate lawns.”


When asked specifically to explain the lack of cyanobacteria regulation, the FDEP responded with a thorough description of restoration projects and the algae itself, but did not comment on the lack of regulation.

Foul smell from massive sponge-like toxic algae spread along the St. Lucie River caused people to be sick.

Photo courtesy: J. Israel Balderas

The response also included an explanation of a kind of “bloom response team,” consisting of “DEP, the five water management districts (WMDs), the Florida Department of Health (DOH), the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS),” who work together to respond to blooms.


It was also stated in the response that, “The World Health Organization considers toxin levels under 10 micrograms/liter to represent a low-level risk for adverse health outcomes from short-term recreational exposure; however, certain sensitive populations (e.g., children, the elderly and immunocompromised populations) may still be at risk even at low concentrations and should avoid any exposure.”


Currently, regulation of the specific bacteria does not exist, but its response is based on reported fish kills and visible blooms.


In the closing days of the 2017 Florida Legislature Session, State Senator Negron carefully maneuvered through legislation that commits nearly $800 million for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee aimed at curbing damaging water discharges.


According to the Naples Daily News, now comes the federal two-step: the Army Corps of Engineers must get on board the plan by changing the Central Everglades Planning Project. Then the federal agency has to convince Congress to cough up its share of funding.


While federal support for the project has been committed on principle, Julie Hill-Gabriel, deputy director of Audubon Florida told the Naples Daily News it has been Florida that needed help coming along.


“We’re pretty optimistic. It has a very challenging timeline, and a lot of those things will have to be worked out, but that overall federal support for the project will follow,” said Hill-Gabriel.


This first-phase should come fairly soon as the South Florida Water Management District will request by July 1 the Corp to accept the revised plan. The federal agency must do so by August 1, 2017.







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