Nobody Wants to Swim in This

July 19, 2017

Just over a year ago, I wrote about the algae blooms that were driving residents away from some sections of Florida’s Atlantic coast. They’re back. And what was once considered an unusual situation could become a permanent summer ritual. “Could the situation that occurred last summer be the new normal? Absolutely,” the executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society, Mark Perry, says in this article.

The situation is hurting the state’s $109 billion a year tourist industry, and there are potentially more serious consequences as well. The blue-green algae—technically cyanobacteria—that’s invading the beaches and waterways is killing marine life. The article reports that in the St. Lucie estuary, about half the sea grass, which is a food source for many marine animals, died off during last year’s algae blooms. Among humans who’ve been exposed to the algae, there has been an increase in antibiotic-resistant staph infections. Florida’s governor has declared a state of emergency in four counties.

The phosphorus and nitrogen that fuel the algae blooms have several sources, but most agree that the main one is the release of nutrient-laden water from Lake Okeechobee, which receives runoff from agricultural lands. A total maximum daily load (TMDL) for phosphorus was established for the lake in 2001, but in some years, the lake still receives more than four times its targeted phosphorus level. This New York Times article, written during last year’s event, explains in detail the reasons the Army Corps of Engineers must release water from the lake to relieve pressure on an aging dike system, and it also covers some of the debate over who’s to blame; state and federal officials tend to blame each other.

The state has in the past considered purchasing agricultural land south of the lake to serve as a reservoir for some of the water that’s being released, and a similar proposal is once again on the table. Three months ago, the Florida legislature approved a bill that includes plans to capture and treat the discharges and to send that water into the Everglades. However, although the federal government had previously agreed to pay half of the approximately $2 billion cost for such a project, locals are concerned that the funding may no longer be forthcoming under the new administration.

In the meantime, water from Lake Okeechobee will continue to be released to the estuary systems—more following strong El Niño seasons.

About the Author

Janice Kaspersen

Janice Kaspersen is the former editor of Erosion Control and Stormwater magazines.