Only One Symptom of Much Larger Issues
By GERRY BARKER
North Palm Beach Life/ firstname.lastname@example.org
It's not every day that algae tops the news. But when the algae is potentially toxic and causing havoc on Florida's normally pristine beaches, that's news.
Such was the case earlier this month when a gooey mass of blue-green algae invaded the beaches around St. Lucie and Martin County, and for a brief time, closed some beaches in Palm Beach County as well.
The fallout was immediate. Businesses and residents alike demanded action; Gov. Scott requested a state of emergency from the federal government; national and local media filed reports (see the video on the right for example).
The source of the problem? All fingers pointed at Lake Okeechobee, the second-largest freshwater lake in the nation. Nutrient-rich water discharged from the lake, flowing into the Indian River Lagoon, combined with the abnormally high temperatures to create ideal conditions for the dreaded algae to bloom and multiply.
So, just turn off the water coming out of the lake, right? Problem solved. If it were only that simple.
To the contrary. "It's very complicated," said Chuck Collins, Executive Director of the Marine Industries Association of Palm Beach County, Collins should know. For 10 years he was the South Regional Director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, with oversight for a 10-country area, including the Everglades. Prior to that, he spent 20 years as an investigator in maritime law enforcement.
Basically, Collins said one of the major issue is water flow, and how over the decades man has "altered the natural system" that channeled water from the north and central regions of Florida down to the Everglades.
Part of that alteration was the channelization of the Kissimmee River, which feeds into Lake Okeechobee. In response to flooding from hurricanes, the Corps of Engineers straightened out the river, resulting in a faster flow of water into the lake.
"Think about it," said Collins. "When it rains heavily, instead of the water meandering slowing down the Kissimmee River like it used to, now it just drains down real quick. You have Lake Okeechobee, which used to expand and contract. Now it fills up like a glass of water when all that water comes into it quicker.
"The submerged aquatic vegetation can't capture the sunlight if the water rises too fast. It dies and adds to the nutrients, not to mention all the nutrients that wash down from Central Florida, via fertilizer from lawns, the diary industry, other types of agriculture.
"Lake Okeechobee used to saucepan out and that muck would get transferred south ... the black rich soil of the sugar lands -- that was muck from the lake."
Collins pointed to other factors as well:
-- Increasing water demand for the growing population in South Florida and associated flood control measures have resulted in Lake Okeechobee being used as a reservoir. Then when the lake gets too high the Army Corps of Engineers has to lower the lake and does so by forcing water flow east and west.
-- The Lake Okeechobee dikes, built after the deadly hurricane of 1928. "With the dikes, the muck can't get out and replenish the lands," Collins said. "You also have water hyacinth in the lake. It has to be controlled. They spray it, it goes to the bottom, and forms more muck."
-- Of the water going into the Indian River Lagoon, only 30 percent comes from Lake Okeechobee. "The rest is local storm water runoff," including runoff from septic systems.
As you might expect, the man-made disruptions have had a major environmental impact as well.
"Everglades National Park has been drier and the Everglades Wildlife Management Area has been too wet because of compartmentalization. This has severely limited the flow South," Collins pointed out. "The entire Everglades area used to be twice as big and it can't take as much water as it did historically. Many of the 67 endangered species there evolved over the millennia based on the natural cycles of the water.""
Closer to home, "too much freshwater going into the lagoons and inlets negatively impact our reefs which could in turn negatively impact the boating industry, a $2 billion industry in Palm Beach County alone, accounting for about 20,000 jobs. So we are very concerned with the environment. We support projects that improve the environment."
So what is the answer?
There are a number of projects already under way, including buying back land in the affected areas and restoring it to its natural state. Voters approved money for land purchase, but the state has been slow to spend it.
"You have to buy this land now. It will be a lot more expensive in the future," Collins said.
Another major need is water storage. "You need more storage north of the lake," he said, as well completing new reservoirs around the lake and encouraging large landowners to do water farming (capturing and retaining water so it doesn't flow to ecologically sensitive areas). Also, building sediment traps in the canals.
One effort already in motion is restoring the Kissimmee River to its natural state and slowing the flow into the lake.
But even with all the planned improvements in place, Collins said "the most water they can send south is about 200,000 acre feet. That's still not enough."
You could say the blue-green algae fouling the water is Nature's way of reminding us what happens when Man upset the natural order of things. As Collins notes:
"Best agriculture practices have already reduced the nutrient load, but there is so much buildup. It's a mess. We couldn't have designed a more screwed up system if we tried."
Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection
To report a bloom in Lake Okeechobee or the St. Lucie or Caloosahatchee rivers, call the toll-free hotline at 855-305-3903 or report online at www.reportalgalbloom.com.
To report illnesses or symptoms, please contact the Florida Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222
Report fish kills to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: 1-800-636-0511
To report any other wildlife injuries, call FWC’s Wildlife Alert at 1-888-404-3922
1208 US Highway 1, Suite B
North Palm Beach, FL 33408
Office (561) 863-0012