By Michele Dargan, Special Report from the Civic Association.
When foul-smelling blue-green algae coated Treasure Coast waterways just days before the Fourth of July holiday, Florida officials scrambled to respond.
Although the slime surfaced in parts of Palm Beach County, including the island, it wasn’t close to the magnitude suffered by Martin and St. Lucie counties.
State and federal officials scrambled trying to rectify the situation.
The algae in Palm Beach was seen from the south end of town to the Lake Worth Inlet, said Deputy Town Manager Jay Boodheshwar.
“The highest concentrations were in the Ibis Isle/Sloans Curve area, which is in close approximation to C-51 canal discharge point,” Mr. Boodheshwar said.
Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in four counties, including Palm Beach, and the Army Corps of Engineers decreased the flow of water out of Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries to try and stop the spread of the algae blooms, which thrive in fresh water containing nutrients phosphorous and nitrogen.
This year was the perfect storm for a widespread bloom to occur, scientists say. Large amounts of winter and spring rain combined with the nutrients in the lake formed blooms; while, at the same time, the water rose so high from the rain that the water needed to be released in order to prevent the dike from bursting.
Last weekend, the Corps further reduced the amount of water flowing from Lake Okeechobee.
Image: Blue-green algae polluting waters up and down the Florida coasts.
“As a result of water releases, drier conditions and decreased inflows, the lake level has started to recede,” Col. Jason Kirk, the Corps Jacksonville district commander said in a statement. "Although the lake is still high for this time of year, current conditions are providing us with the opportunity to further reduce discharges and bring some degree of relief to the estuaries experiencing above normal seasonal algal blooms."
The Corps must keep water levels in the lake down, while it continues to reinforce areas of the aging 143-mile aging Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee. Since 2007, the Corps has spent more than $500 million in improvements to prevent the dike from bursting, according to the Corps’ website.
The South Florida Water Management District authorized storing additional water in the Upper Kissimmee Chain of Lakes north of the lake and in Florida Power and Light’s cooling pond at the Martin Clean Energy Center.
Last weekend, the Corps further reduced the amount of water flowing from Lake Okeechobee.
Susan Gray, an ecologist with the South Florida Water Management District, said algae blooms remain in Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie Estuary. There are small patches of algae - off and on - in the Lake Worth Lagoon, she said.
“The initial bloom in the lake was 33 square miles and now it’s about a hundred square miles, but it’s patchy and streaky now as opposed to a continuous mass,” she said. “On a body of water as large as Lake Okeechobee you can’t treat it or move it around. If this is the type producing toxins and you break it up, it releases toxins into the water.”
Measurements from the algae in Palm Beach County show little or no toxins, she said.
The Lake Worth Lagoon is less likely to see an algae breakout of a large magnitude because the lagoon has “more tidal exchange” and less amounts of freshwater coming into it, Ms. Gray said.
Lisa Interlandi, a senior staff attorney with the Everglades Law Center, spoke at the July 12 meeting of the Palm Beach Town Council.
Ms. Interlandi asked the council to draft a resolution that would move up the timetable for building a water storage facility south of Lake Okeechobee.
Council members directed staff to work on a resolution that would be ready for review at the August meeting.
Peter Antonacci, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, also spoke at the council meeting.
“There’s no silver bullet,” he said.
Many factors, including the amount of nutrients in the water, the rate of water flow into the estuaries, and the hot weather, contribute to outbreaks of algae blooms, Mr. Antonacci said.
The district owns 105,000 acres of land north of the lake, but is waiting for agreements to be inked to determine a schedule for building reservoirs, he said
The district has a schedule of approximately 50 different projects that will help with keeping Florida’s waterways clean, but it will take anywhere from 25 to 50 years and cost $8 to 12 billion, Mr. Antonacci said.
Gaston Cantenz, vice president of corporate relations for Florida Crystals, responded to environmentalists who are calling for the state to buy more land, south of the lake, in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). Since the mid-1990’s, 107,000 acres of farmland in the EAA have been acquired for Everglades restoration, Cantenz said.
“We just lost 42,000 acres three short years ago,” Cantenz said. “Now they want 15 percent of the entire farming basin on top of the 107,000 we’ve already lost. Two sugar mills have already shutdown over that time and those jobs and that economic activity in the Glades region has been lost.”
There are five storm water treatment areas that are operational in the Everglades Agricultural Area and are built on former farmland, Mr. Cantenz said. Those areas have treated more than 16 million acre-feet of water and reduced phosphorous in the water by more than 80 percent, according to the South Florida Water Management newsletter.
In 2014, there was a breakout of algae blooms without any water releases from Lake Okeechobee, according to a June 2016 fact sheet from the South Florida Water Management District.
“The nutrients and fresh water that can fuel growth of naturally occurring blue-green algae also comes from local storm water runoff and septic tanks,” according to the district’s fact sheet.
Mr. Cantenz pointed to information from Martin County’s Comprehensive Plan, which cited a 2013 breakout of algae blooms in the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon and attributed it to – in part – “on-site sewage treatment and disposal systems.”
Gov. Scott has proposed new funding for a 50/50 matching grant program for communities that are affected by the algae blooms. If approved by the legislature for the 2017-2018 budget, the voluntary program will provide half the funding to residents who agree to change from septic tanks to sewer systems and the state will pay the other half.
Image: SFWMD Everglades Projects
There are an estimated 300,000 residential septic tanks along the Indian River Lagoon, said Brian LaPointe, an environmental scientist with Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce.
“Ninety-six percent of the water coming into Lake Okeechobee comes from the north,” Mr. LaPointe said. “The watershed from Lake Okeechobee reaches all the way up to Orlando and water flows downhill. Major rainfall transports the nutrients from urban areas and farms to the lake.
“In May, when we began to see the green algae form blooms in Lake Okeechobee and the water levels were very high, the Army Corps had to release water into the estuary,” Mr. LaPointe said. “As the water moves into the estuary, the bloom continues to grow. It can double its biomass in less than a day if the nutrients are there.”
Most of the solutions need to be done long term, he said.
“We must clean up the nutrients at the source and we need more water storage both north and south of Lake Okeechobee so we won’t have to release so much water,” Mr. LaPointe said. “A lot of these are big projects that are underway and some are awaiting funding from the federal government.”
Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, said he spent three days visiting with local officials and members of the business community in Martin County.
“This is our Flint Michigan,” Mr. Eikenberg said, referring to Flint’s polluted drinking water. “It’s heartbreaking to actually see the toxic algae in the marinas. What’s most impactful is the smell – it literally takes your breath away. The people working in the marinas are all wearing industrial masks. It’s a health hazard, an ecological disaster and an economic hit. It has to stop. How many more outbreaks do we have to tolerate?”
Four projects from the Central Everglades Planning Project are part of the solution, he said. Building a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee is one of those projects, Mr. Eikenberg said.
The four projects will connect Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Keys, clean up the water and significantly reduce the amount of water that goes east and west, he said.
“There’s no solution to stop the damage you’re seeing today, but if we don’t start on these projects, it’s going to be another 15 to 20 years. People are tired of toxic algae ruining their real estate and impacting tourism. The lake continues to fill and we’re in the middle of the rainy season and God forbid if we get a hurricane that goes over Lake Okeechobee.”
All sides agree that moving forward with Everglades restoration is the solution, but it won’t be solved in the short term.
According to the South Florida Water Management District:
The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) is a 50-50 cost sharing between Florida and the federal government. To date, the federal government has spent approximately $1.1 billion on design and construction of CERP projects; while the state has outspent the federal government by investing approximately $2 billion in land acquisition, project design, and construction. As federal funding has lagged, the district has stepped in to expedite construction of key projects. Congress could expedite completion of authorized CERP projects by appropriating enough money to erase the difference between state and federal CERP spending.
Fast Facts on Blue Green Algae
- Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, can multiply in rivers, lakes and canals. An overabundance of nitrogen and phosphorous create algae blooms.
Algae blooms are most common in the summer when growth conditions are ideal - the water is warm and the weather is calm.
- The nutrients and fresh water that can fuel growth of naturally occurring blue-green algae also comes from local storm water runoff and septic tanks. Algae blooms have occurred in past years, such as 2014 when there were no lake releases.
Many cyanobacteria species are capable of producing harmful toxins. Cyanobacteria can cause taste and odor problems in public water supplies and can kill domestic animals, pets, and fish and wildlife that drink or are otherwise exposed to untreated contaminated water or toxic biota.
Although a major focus for public health officials is cyanotoxins in drinking water supplies, increased concern for the possible risk for human illness through recreational exposure is on the rise.
There is no effective large scale treatment method that exists to remove blue green algae blooms. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission does not recommend any form of treatment because it may release toxins.
No proven connection has been found between cyanobacteria and neurodegenerative disease.
The South Florida Water Management District is holding more water in the Upper Chain of Lakes north of Lake Okeechobee. The district took extraordinary measures to decrease lake releases, including storing billions of gallons of lake water in the A-1 Flow Equalization Basin.
The district advises the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but the Corps is solely responsible for authorizing and conducting lake releases to coastal estuaries for flood protections.
Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife, South Florida Water Management District, Florida Department of Health and Florida Department of Environmental Protection.