FORT MYERS, Fla. – Florida is living through an unprecedented environmental crisis that’s devastating tourism, recreation and wildlife along the state’s southwest coast.
Two kinds of toxic algae are blooming, one in freshwater, one in salt, creating a red tide along the Gulf of Mexico and blanketing rivers and canals inland with goo.
The election-year crisis has set incumbents and candidates to scrambling, squabbling over who’s the biggest champion for residents desperate for solutions. Forums, town halls and public meetings happen nearly every week; protesters march over bridges and through downtowns as social media picture posts run rampant and action groups multiply. But solutions remain elusive.
Here’s what we know about the mess:
The culprits are natural
The single-celled organisms that cause both red tide (Karenia brevis) and the blue-green algae bloom (cyanobacteria) can photosynthesize like plants and move through water: Karenia with a whip-like tail, cyanobacteria with bubbles of gas. Both occur naturally in the ecosystem, but like cockroaches or cattails, a population explosion spells trouble. As the human footprint on the Florida peninsula has increased, so have the inputs of nutrients that feed the blooms from farm fields, lawns, golf courses and septic systems.
Why the proliferation?
Algae blooms and red tide have been documented for centuries. What’s different about the current situation is the size, persistence and intensity of the blooms – plus, they’re occurring simultaneously. Usually, blue-green algae is a summertime phenomenon; red tide happens in winter. But this year’s red tide started last October, and neither bloom shows signs of going away any time soon. Some suspect last year’s Hurricane Irma is to blame, since the September storm churned up nutrients in Lake Okeechobee that have fertilized the algae, which in turn, may have fed the red tide.
States of emergency
Each bloom has triggered its own state of emergency declaration from Florida Gov. Rick Scott. In July, he targeted the blue-green algae crisis, temporarily cutting flows of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee down the St. Lucie River on the state’s east coast and the Caloosahatchee to the west. The order also increased manpower for testing and monitoring and provided grants to hard-hit businesses.
This month’s order focuses on red tide and provides $1.5 million, plus personnel, for cleanup and wildlife rescue; $500,000 went to the state’s tourism agency to help affected communities woo back visitors. The governor also activated the Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan Program for companies in algae-affected counties that were hurt by either crisis.