Red tide, al­gae: Get used to it

Epic fight will be long, statewide

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Kevin Spear Or­lando Sen­tinel

We may smell it first, warned en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Rae Ann Wes­sel.

She was right. Along a wall of man­groves, the stench last week ad­ver­tised of some­thing to be buried. It was a greet­ing to Fort My­ers’ al­gae hor­rors.

“It’s worse than any­thing I’ve seen in 40 years,” said Wes­sel, a Sani­bel-Cap­tiva Con­ser­va­tion Foun­da­tion staffer.

Green slime and red tide are in­vad­ing the Fort My­ers re­gion’s in­shore and off­shore wa­ters, slaugh­ter­ing marine life and threat­en­ing a more sin­is­ter out­come: Tox­ins pro­duced by a greenslime va­ri­ety may link to neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive ill­nesses, say some sci­en­tists who are in­ves­ti­gat­ing.

The al­gae out­break has got­ten head­lines across the

coun­try, but water woes in Florida are noth­ing new.

For decades, Florida’s wa­tery en­vi­ron­ment has been sick­ened by pol­lu­tion from sep­tic and sewer sys­tems, storm water and fer­til­izer from land­scap­ing and agri­cul­ture.

That “nu­tri­ent” pol­lu­tion, in ni­tro­gen and phos­pho­rus fla­vors, is an un­nat­u­ral feast for a be­wil­der­ing ar­ray of nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring al­gae. Dif­fer­ent types have ex­ploded in growth, smoth­er­ing and poi­son­ing Florida’s aquatic gems.

It hasn’t been with­out warn­ing.

In 1981, Sports Il­lus­trated’s swim­suit edi­tion had Christie Brink­ley pos­ing at sun­set on Cap­tiva Is­land. A few pages later was a long, grisly re­port on Florida wa­ters: “There’s Trou­ble in Par­adise.”

In 1980, the Or­lando Sen­tinel printed a 12-page sec­tion ti­tled “Florida’s water: Clean it or kill it.”

In 1976, Florida of­fi­cials pub­lished an in­ves­ti­ga­tion on the fill­ing of Lake Okee­chobee with nu­tri­ents.

“No amount of work would be too great to pro­tect the health” of Okee­chobee,” con­cluded top sci­en­tists four decades ago.

If what is hap­pen­ing at Fort My­ers is a shock to any­one, it only re­minds Wes­sel and other en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists that the state’s al­gae plague is pro­found and wors­en­ing.

“There are not enough resources or a big enough reg­u­la­tory stick or the po­lit­i­cal will,” said Lisa Ri­na­man of the St. Johns River­keeper en­vi­ron­men­tal group. “If you look at the ad­di­tional stress of growth in Florida, we are fight­ing a los­ing bat­tle.”

A tour of al­gae de­struc­tion tells this story: It is in­dis­putably a mon­ster killing the state’s most trea­sured wa­ters.

Lake Okee­chobee

Twice as large as Semi­nole County, Okee­chobee is sat­u­rated with nu­tri­ents and is a fac­tory of al­gae.

Through man­made chan­nels, the lake drains east to Stu­art and west to Fort My­ers.

“I’m so sick of talk­ing about al­gae,” said Paul Gray, an Audubon Florida sci­ence co­or­di­na­tor. “We’ve known for more than 40 years ex­actly what the prob­lem is.”

“You can blame Rick Scott be­cause he’s done noth­ing to change any­thing,” he added. “But he’s just the lat­est in a long line of peo­ple who didn’t do enough.”

Gray’s pre­ferred of­fice is an air­boat with a 350-cu­bic-inch en­gine.

He of­ten skims across “Lake O’s” open wa­ters, plies its shore marsh and takes de­light in the re­silience of one of the na­tion’s largest lakes.

Most of the lake bed is lay­ered with a mush that many de­scribe as black may­on­naise. But parts of the lake are still healthy, thanks to the cleans­ing abil­ity of the marsh.

Last week, Gray killed the en­gine and hopped off into shin-deep water with lush plants and a solid bot­tom.

He plunged his hand into nearly clear water and pulled out a glob.

“This is pe­ri­phy­ton,” Gray said, a ben­e­fi­cial al­gae that is food for tiny crea­tures that are eaten by small fish, which in turn are eaten by wad­ing birds.

“This is the Okee­chobee no­body sees,” he said.

It was his open­ing to ex­plain­ing the in­tractable chal­lenges linked to the lake.

Ur­ban and farm pol­lu­tion from as far as Or­lando con­tin­ues to flow to the Kis­sim­mee River and into the lake at an ex­ces­sive rate.

To keep the lake from be­com­ing overly full — it is con­tained by a sus­pect dike — pol­luted water is di­verted through dams and chan­nels east to the St. Lu­cie River and west to the Caloosa­hatchee River.

The water can’t go south through water-treat­ment sys­tems and into the peren­ni­ally thirsty Ever­glades. That’s be­cause block­ing the way is an ex­panse of sugar cane and other crop­land nearly as big as the lake.

Farm­ers don’t pump nu­tri­ent-rich water from fields into the lake as they did for decades, con­tribut­ing to the black may­on­naise.

But they draw much ire for forc­ing the un­wanted di­ver­sion of pol­luted water to coastal es­tu­ar­ies.

Calls to strengthen the dike so the lake could hold more water would be a dis­as­ter, Gray said.

Deeper water would kill thou­sands of acres of thriv­ing marsh that pro­vides habi­tat and water fil­tra­tion.

“A deeper lake would be a dirt­ier lake,” Gray said.

Caloosa­hatchee River

Wes­sel, of the Sani­belCap­tiva Con­ser­va­tion Foun­da­tion, emerged from the man­groves to a fin­ger of the Caloosa­hatchee River, which gives Fort My­ers ex­ten­sive wa­ter­front.

She paused at glis­ten­ing­green al­gae that blotched and swirled across an inky sur­face. It was mes­mer­iz­ing.

But Wes­sel briefly clasped a blue ban­dana across her nose. The al­gae fes­tered un­der the sun, and she did not want to be near it.

From the ris­ing protests of an­glers, boaters, home­own­ers and oth­ers, the Caloosa­hatchee may be a 21st cen­tury Cuya­hoga River.

That Ohio wa­ter­way blazed with pol­lu­tion-lick­ing flames in 1969, help­ing to pro­pel a na­tional push for en­vi­ron­men­tal re­forms.

Wes­sel pointed out that the Florida al­gae dis­as­ter has co­in­cided with elec­tion sea­son and a del­uge of politi­cians’ sound­bites.

A few days ear­lier, she had es­corted Repub­li­can can­di­date for gov­er­nor Ron DeSan­tis on a tour of the re­gion’s mis­ery.

The Fort My­ers area is no stranger to the green slime and red tide of the Caloosa­hatchee and the Gulf of Mex­ico.

But the sever­ity this year, in­clud­ing the health threats posed by toxic al­gae, is a new era, Wes­sel said.

“Now we are squan­der­ing some­thing we took for granted,” she said. “We are go­ing to have to work two or three times harder to get back.”

St. Lu­cie River

The south end of the In­dian River La­goon meets the St. Lu­cie River at Stu­art.

It was in this re­gion where an al­gae plague in 2016 was likened to rot­ting “gua­camole.”

Wa­ter­front own­ers joined boaters, an­glers, surfers, restau­ra­teurs and oth­ers in the most vo­cif­er­ous en­vi­ron­men­tal protest seen in the re­gion.

The cen­tral vil­lain was a flood of Lake Okee­chobee’s pol­luted water di­rected into a canal that drains into the St. Lu­cie River.

An­other al­gae out­break is oc­cur­ring this sum­mer.

If they could, many in the re­gion would per­ma­nently close the Okee­chobee canal and tackle lo­cal pol­lu­tion.

But the canal is a man­made drain for Okee­chobee. The lake’s nat­u­ral drainage is blocked by sugar cane.

Re­plumb­ing Okee­chobee’s drainage to pre­vent harm to the St. Lu­cie is an enor­mous goal long de­layed.

“In 18 years, not a sin­gle project has been com­pleted,” said Zack Jud, ed­u­ca­tion di­rec­tor at Florida Oceano­graphic So­ci­ety, a coastal-con­ser­va­tion ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion in Stu­art.

“We are hav­ing ab­so­lute eco­nomic and eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ters be­cause of ‘Lake O’ dis­charges,” he said.

In­dian River La­goon

The In­dian River La­goon hugs the At­lantic from Vo­lu­sia to Palm Beach coun­ties.

Its star­tling col­lapse has been re­cent: fish kills, man­a­tee die-offs and sea­grass ex­ter­mi­na­tions.

The toll has been linked to al­gae out­breaks, in­clud­ing an un­ex­pected emer­gence of “brown” tide, a chok­ing mass of al­gae that leaves water with the color and clar­ity of a pa­per gro­cery bag.

The la­goon had been lauded as among the most bi­o­log­i­cally di­verse in the na­tion: it is fresh, salty, brack­ish and a refuge for an en­cy­clo­pe­dia of sea life.

But even with mount­ing res­cue ef­forts, in­clud­ing Bre­vard County up­ping its sales tax in 2016 for la­goon recovery, the out­look is daunt­ing.

The 35-year-old la­goon­pro­tec­tion group, Marine Resource Coun­cil, pub­lished last month what it billed as the first com­pre­hen­sive health re­port on the la­goon.

Dat­ing to 1996, it shows over­all health plum­met­ing from 2010 through 2016, the most re­cent year of data.

Leesa Souto, coun­cil ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, said ni­tro­gen pol­lu­tion is trend­ing down, thanks to re­duc­tion ef­forts. But, sur­pris­ingly, phos­pho­rus pol­lu­tion is ris­ing.

“That might be what’s trig­ger­ing these ma­jor al­gae blooms,” she said. “Some sci­en­tists have said the la­goon has reached a tipping point. But a tipping point of what? It could be phos­pho­rus.”

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