Scary green monster attacks South Florida

July 9, 2018 8:00 am
Caloosahatchee river algae in a mason jar

Caloosahatchee river algae. Credit: Captains for Clean Water

The “Green Monster” is back – a fluorescent toxic algae outbreak that’s been sliming Florida’s east and west coasts, sparking bad-news headlines and leaving ruined beach vacations in its wake.

Since this is political season, Florida candidates are formally expressing Grave Concern as people living in pricey waterfront homes understandably wail about their lost property values and a wrecked way of life. Paradise this is not.

You don’t want to boat, swim, paddle board or do anything aquatic around this bad-acting algae.  In the short-term, you can get respiratory and intestinal distress. In the long term, studies link toxic algae to cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s disease and ALS. Plus, it can kill your pets.

The swill that sparks the outbreak comes from fertilizer, manure and sewage, heated up by summer sun. Florida has always had natural algae outbreaks, but increased pollution makes them more frequent and worse. Giant Lake Okeechobee in South Florida is a perfect incubator, and algae outbreaks there these days are so severe you can view them from space satellites.

When the lake level gets too high, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gets nervous about the safety of the lake’s 1960s-era earthen dike and opens floodgates to send water east through the St. Lucie River to the Atlantic and west through the Caloosahatchee River to the Gulf.

Lake Okeechobee has long been a giant reservoir for Big Agriculture’s waste – for years, the government let the sugar growing corporations south of the lake pump water from Okeechobee, flood their fields with it, and then “backpump” the polluted water into the lake. A hard-fought court case by citizen groups who rightly pointed out that the public should not be required to accept private swill into our public lake – stopped that practice, thankfully.

Lake Okeechobee has decades’ worth of agricultural pollution in its bottom sediments, and that’s part of the problem. More fertilizer, sewage and manure comes in every time it rains in Florida from fertilized turf, sewage systems, and huge agricultural operations (industrial-size dairies, massive row-crop operations, etc.) in the lake’s basin, particularly from the north and west.  Big Ag has been engaged in a public relations campaign to blame it all on septic tanks, but those of us who’ve been around a while know that’s not the story.

I’ve sat through hours and hours of mind-numbing water management presentations about the Problem of Lake Okeechobee. All the talk is about moving water around. The solution du jour is a massive reservoir located in the Middle of Nowhere, FL. which we will all pay billions to build. The plan is to pump the pollution that’s now in Lake Okeechobee to this new reservoir at our expense. In the end, it will have the same problem that Lake Okeechobee has – it will be filled with sewage, manure and fertilizer, and it will heat up, and it will turn to bright green slime. If it rains a lot, water managers will have to let that water out…somewhere. Just as long as it’s not in front of million-dollar homes like what’s happening now.

Hardly anyone talks about the real solution, which is to clean up the pollution at the source.

“It costs less to keep it from going into the (natural) system than it does to take it out of the system,” says St. Lucie County Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky.

Caloosahatchee River algae
Photo by Captains for Clean Water

In Florida, all that Big Agriculture operations have to do is say they follow a voluntary program called “Best Management Practices” – which involves things like fencing ponds so cows don’t’ defecate in the water and other common-sense actions to run a responsible farming facility. That’s all well and good, and it is important to try to tweak operations to lessen pollution. But we need more than a voluntary program – we need real laws with real penalties to solve this giant mess.

Gov. Scott, now running for U.S. Congress,  has spent eight years eviscerating pollution laws and the staffs of our state environmental agencies. Aliki Moncrief was deputy for enforcement in the Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of General Counsel when Scott was elected, and she watched the devastation unfold.

“He hobbled the agency’s ability to do enforcement and continue its regulatory work,” she said, adding that the enforcement division went from twenty attorneys to zero today.Moncrief, now with the Florida League of Conservation Voters Action Fund, calls Scott’s environmental record “one long eight-year period of bad policies.”

Scott has been touting the millions of taxpayer dollars he’s budgeted to shore up the Lake Okeechobee dike and build the reservoir. Maybe he’s betting that Floridians will overlook the fact that their money won’t be used to actually stop the pollution.

My social media feeds right now are filled with scary pictures of bright green Florida water. This makes the powerful very nervous. They don’t want to be scaring tourists away.

One area that’s been hard-hit by toxic algae over numerous summers is the affluent Treasure Coast community in Martin County (Stuart, Jupiter Island) on the Southeast coast. This area made its reputation as a sport-fishing and boating mecca, with clear waters in the Indian River Lagoon and in the Atlantic beyond. Now, planes fly over with cameras to document the nasty, spreading green plume that comes down the St Lucie River and out to the coast. Pranksters outraged about the pollution recently filled a local icon – the Stuart Sailfish Fountain – with bright green food dye as a form of public protest.

Local officials, wrote Treasure Coast-Palm Coast newspaper columnist Gil Smart, “have to walk a fine line between alerting the public and alarming the public. Scare people away, and the business community takes a hit.

Then again, that was the argument used by the mayor to keep the beach open in the movie ‘Jaws.'”

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Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman

Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.