A nauseating cocktail of toxic algae that is suffocating significant stretches of Florida’s coast has put it in a state of emergency.
We’ve turned the heart of the Everglades — Lake Okeechobee — into a toilet, causing its veins to course neon green with deadly poison that’s then flushed onto our coasts. That toxic blue-green algae from Lake Okeechobee, combined with the red tide — also a toxic algae — from the Gulf of Mexico, create a murky death scape that kills almost everything in its wake. Now there’s even a brown algae that’s feeding on the carrion from the other two algae.
The debate about the role natural forces play, i.e. “naturally occurring” red tide, in the alarming escalation of Florida’s environmental crisis is a dangerous red herring that distracts from the systemic, ongoing failures that have led to these chronic algae blooms.
This “emergency” didn’t happen overnight; it’s been decades in the making. The second largest lake entirely within the contiguous United States, Lake Okeechobee, is the lifeblood of the Everglades. Water from the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes makes it way south before being temporarily captured by the great lake.
From there, a series of locks and dams pulse the water through the mighty River of Grass, in a crude effort to mimic what Mother Nature once did so perfectly before we drained the Everglades and dammed the lake nearly a century ago.
The land just south of the lake is rich in peat — ideal for growing crops. The water that for centuries flowed slowly south after ebbing over the lake’s lip is now trapped in what is more like a reservoir. As a result, and at great taxpayer expense, the land south of the Lake, known as the Everglades Agricultural Area, is now used for farming.
The water that sweeps from the north toward the lake collects fertilizers, pesticides and animal waste from farms. Combined with urban runoff and decades of back-pumped water from nearby sugar fields, these chemicals concentrate in the lake, where they feed anything willing to grow, but especially blue-green algae.
Today, more than 90 percent of the lake’s surface is covered with the toxic green goo. When lake levels get too high for the aging Herbert Hoover Dike to be entrusted to hold its trillion-gallon load, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flushes the noxious waters into the beleaguered Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. By then the water is thick with phosphorous from fertilizers and toxins from the blue-green algae.
It’s not hard to imagine how these rich nutrient discharges from the lake help strengthen the red tide, which experts warn will continue into 2019. One wonders what the long-term effects of exposure to red tide and blue-green algae will do to human health and the environment. Red tide emits brevetoxins, which can cause paralysis in fish, and gastroenteritis and respiratory irritation in humans. Blue-green algae produces the neurotoxin BMAA which has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
These toxic tides are killing our wildlife and crippling our coastal economies: Thousands of tons of dead animals have already been collected and millions of dollars in tourism revenue have been lost.
Floridians’ quality of life has been significantly diminished. We’ve canceled scallop counts, issued health advisories, rescued stranded whales and restricted fishing to catch-and-release. We don’t let our kids go in the water. We’re furious, and things need to change, right now.
Commonsense solutions have been within our grasp for quite some time, but the will to implement them has been lacking.
For example, years ago then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist locked in a proposal to purchase land from sugar companies south of the Lake to provide water storage and take pressure off of the estuaries. But last year, Republican Gov. Rick Scott walked away from that deal and let the option to buy the land expire. Despite that missed opportunity, the government could still acquire land south of the Lake, if it really wanted to.
The state could also be doing more to lower the lake’s level going into the wet season, reducing the need for toxic releases. Instead, year after year, the water management district deprives the coasts of water from the lake during the dry months, only to pummel those same communities with unwanted, disgusting water during the wet months.
The state hoards the water in the lake during Florida’s dry season for fear that it won’t be able to deliver water for agricultural uses. Likewise, the state’s enforcement of best management practices that are supposed to limit polluting runoff into the lake is deficient, in part due to massive cuts to those departments. The lake is polluted with phosphorous two to three times higher than target limits.
Meanwhile, the Corps claims it has no choice but to pump the lake’s polluted water into the estuaries, but that’s simply not true. The Everglades Agricultural Area spans 700,000 acres and before we dammed the lake, it once made up more than a quarter of the Everglades.
But these days one of the nation’s most complex and expensive public plumbing projects keeps 500,000 acres dry enough to farm sugar. More than any other locale in south Florida, the Everglades Agricultural Area must equitably share the burden of this morass.
The toxic waters ebbing at our shores is a tragedy. Finger pointing to score cheap political points instead of taking immediate action to change the way we manage flows into and out of Lake Okeechobee is not fair to Florida or its environment. We must demand action. Our children may not forgive us if we fail.