Let me start by saying that nothing…I mean nothing can prepare you for the way this stuff smells. The sheer putridness of it makes every cell in you scream for you to get away from it. In areas where the wind and currents break the surface tension it is a bright neon green, varying in thickness. When it collects in stagnant areas it grows into thick mats and takes on an ashy light blue and green tint, with small pillars reaching above the surface spewing light tufts of powdery toxins that keep growing, multiplying and amassing on the surface. It grows so quickly at times you can actually watch this process happen. The stench gets into your sinuses and throat, you can taste it for hours later.
Toxic algal blooms are becoming a regular occurance in Florida, with recent outbreaks in the Santa Fe River near Gainesville, and by far the most notably in Lake Okeechobee, and with it the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers after contaminated lake waters are released into the two river systems to each coast. These algal blooms are not isolated to Florida either, but they all happen in conjunction with high levels of nutrients and pollutants in freshwater bodies.
Cyanobacteria are some of the most ancient organisms on the planet and are present naturally in most aquatic and terrestrial freshwater environments. When conditions are right they become the culprit underlying the guacamole thick blue-green algae mats that have been smothering Lake Okeechobee dating back to the mid 80’s. While cyanobacteria as a group have many strains, in higher temperatures and nutrient rich environments the more toxic strains like microcystins and BMAA can out compete for dominance over aquatic systems. BMAA is also one of the toxins proven to retain it’s toxicity once the host bacteria organism dies, settling into the silt and lake bottoms, and on seagrass beds. So far, no testing of this accumulation is being done, but after Tuesdays Emergency meeting in Stuart, thankfully that process will finally begin even if it is a few decades late. The research that has been done is alarming enough.
In 2016 the USGS (United States Geological Survey) did a study and tested the algae in Lake O and found 26 different strains of cyanobacteria in high concentrations. Some were hepatotoxins, which can cause liver damage, even acute liver failure and death if ingested. Other strains like BMAA are potent neurotoxins, linked to diseases like dementia, Alzheimer’s, ALS and Parkinson’s disease. When the BMAA neurotoxin is ingested it accumulates in the the blood-brain barrier and is slowly released over time. Symptoms often do not appear for years. In a study done by researchers at the University of Miami School of Marine & Atmospheric Study, BMAA was found in high concentrations in the brains of dolphins that were sampled, suggesting BMAA toxins have found their way into the food chain in high enough concentrations to accumulate in marine mammals, although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact environmental sources and more research needs to be done regarding this bioaccumulative effect.
“It’s not just a single organism out there that has the potential to cause a Harmful Algal Bloom. There are a multitude of species, each with their own ability to create blooms, all of which can cause oxygen deprivation in water that can kill fish, and many with the ability to create toxins harmful to wildlife, or people.”
-Barry Rosen, USGS Biologist and lead author of the study.
Toxic blue green-algae is a freshwater phenomenon, yet interestingly enough, on my visit to Stuart this week the algae was not only present in the salt water areas of the river, it was growing. In Cape Coral on the west coast, I spoke to homeowners who live closer to the coast along the river, in more salt than brackish areas of the river, who are surprised to be experiencing the blue-green algae for the first time this year.
During the emergency meeting of the Martin County Commission in Stuart on Tuesday, you could tell the commissioners and the citizenry of Martin county were worn down, having been dealing with this crisis year after year for over a decade now. The consequences have been accumulating. The St. Lucie River and it’s pristine estuaries once had thriving seagrass beds, today they are all but reduced to sandbars and mud from the constant assault of toxic waters from Lake O. Fish kills and manatee deaths are commonplace. Fish stocks have not recovered. No one, including representatives from the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection), disputed any of that. This year the west coast experienced one of their largest algae outbreaks on record, and with it came one of the most devastating fish kills on record when it combined with the red tide already lingering along the coast.
The bottom line on all this is that these pollutants and toxins are accumulating in higher and higher concentrations in Lake Okeechobee. Water that is loaded with excess nutrients and a wide range of cyanobacterias which are present throughout the water column, not just on the surface during an active bloom, are being released regularly into our rivers and estuaries in an effort to maintain water levels within the lake for the sole purpose of flood prevention to the areas surrounding Lake Okeechobee with seemingly blatant disregard to the damage it causes to the coasts. The ACOE (Army Corps Of Engineers), who is charged with maintaining flood levels at the lake through a series of locks, simply has nowhere else to send it. The South Florida Water Management District along with the DEP are in charge of regulating the amount of nutrients entering the lake. The only real way to try and control these numbers is through monitoring how much water is back pumped into the lake by farms in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) to the south, even though this only accounts for 30% of the nutrients entering the lake. The rest flows in from the north via the Kissimmee watershed and the C38 canal. I know we all love to blame big sugar, but runoff from the north includes cattle and dairy farms, urban overdevelopment, and lets not forget one of the largest polluters in the state, Mosaic, whose main mining operations are concentrated in central Florida, north of the lake. There is plenty of blame to spread around. There is not just one place that holds the blame nor the key to fixing this. It is multifaceted and mind-bogglingly complicated.
One lesson we can take from this meeting was the commitment made by the commissioners and the citizens of Marion County to not let efforts or dialogue about the water quality issues facing them and all of Florida to abate once the releases stop and we enter the dry season. They are adamant about keeping the conversation in the forefront as the river settles down, catches it’s breath and tries to recover. They know better than anyone that the releases will begin again, and the cycle will continue. Hopefully by then the Commission will have successfully implemented one of it’s goals….to convince the ACOE to lower the lake levels in the dry season. The only reasons they are kept high are these: to supply on-demand water to farms in the EAA during the dry months and to replenish drinking water supplies to counties to the south by one of two means, via canal or by recharging the aquifer. Yes, you heard that correctly. They inject Lake Okeechobee water directly into the aquifer. Think about that for a bit.
This is not just a story about Lake Okeechobee, a handful of counties on each coast and their problem with water quality. This is Florida’s story. This is a story of 100 years of water mismanagement. This is a story about layers upon layers of government entities and agencies, all with conflicting agendas, guidelines, standards and practices that they all hide behind to kick the proverbial can into the next election cycle without getting anything meaningful accomplished. This is the story of pollution coming from agriculture and the state subsidies and favoritism that allows it to continue. This is the story about rampant growth and over development. This is about stormwater runoff and residential use of fertilizer. This is about statewide crumbling sewage infrastructure. This is about all of those things and more, each as relevant to the problem as the next, and each will have to be addressed to repair Florida’s water quality. The health of Lake Okeechobee is the canary in the coal mine to the state of our drinking water supply, all of our wetlands, our estuaries and our coastal waters. We had better take heed. There is much work to be done. It is also about stronger and more frequent red tides, and that is the next installment in this series. Stay tuned.
CLICK HERE for Part 1 of Rose’s story.
Photos courtesy of Rose Lipke.