Red tide and green slime: Florida faces epic statewide fight with algae
We may smell it first, warned environmentalist Rae Ann Wessel.
She was right. Along a wall of mangroves, the stench last week advertised of something to be buried. It was a greeting to Fort Myers’ algae horrors.
“It’s worse than anything I’ve seen in 40 years,” said Wessel, a Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation staffer.
Green slime and red tide are invading the Fort Myers region’s inshore and offshore waters, slaughtering marine life and threatening a more sinister outcome: Toxins produced by a green-slime variety may link to neurodegenerative illnesses, say some scientists who are investigating.
The algae outbreak has gotten headlines across the country, but water woes in Florida are nothing new.
For decades, Florida’s watery environment has been sickened by pollution from septic and sewer systems, storm water and fertilizer from landscaping and agriculture.
That “nutrient” pollution, in nitrogen and phosphorus flavors, is an unnatural feast for a bewildering array of naturally occurring algae. Different types have exploded in growth, smothering and poisoning Florida’s aquatic gems.
It hasn’t been without warning.
In 1981, Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition had Christie Brinkley posing at sunset on Captiva Island. A few pages later was a long, grisly report on Florida waters: “There’s Trouble in Paradise.”
In 1980, the Orlando Sentinel printed a 12-page section titled “Florida’s water: Clean it or kill it.”
In 1976, Florida officials published an investigation on the filling of Lake Okeechobee with nutrients.
“No amount of work would be too great to protect the health” of Okeechobee,” concluded top scientists four decades ago.
If what is happening at Fort Myers is a shock to anyone, it only reminds Wessel and other environmentalists that the state’s algae plague is profound and worsening.
“There are not enough resources or a big enough regulatory stick or the political will,” said Lisa Rinaman of the St. Johns Riverkeeper environmental group. “If you look at the additional stress of growth in Florida, we are fighting a losing battle.”
A tour of algae destruction from Orlando to Fort Myers and beyond tells this story: It is indisputably a monster killing the state’s most treasured waters.
Twice as large as Seminole County, Okeechobee is saturated with nutrients and is a factory of algae.
Through manmade channels, the lake drains east to Stuart and west to Fort Myers.
“I’m so sick of talking about algae,” said Paul Gray, an Audubon Florida science coordinator. “We’ve known for more than 40 years exactly what the problem is.”
“You can blame Rick Scott because he’s done nothing to change anything,” he added. “But he’s just the latest in a long line of people who didn’t do enough.”
Gray’s preferred office is an airboat with a 350-cubic-inch engine.
He often skims across “Lake O’s” open waters, plies its shore marsh and takes delight in the resilience of one of the nation’s largest lakes.
Most of the lake bed is layered with a mush that many describe as black mayonnaise. But parts of the lake are still healthy, thanks to the cleansing ability of the marsh.
Last week, Gray killed the engine and hopped off into shin-deep water with lush plants and a solid bottom.
He plunged his hand into nearly clear water and pulled out a glob.
“This is periphyton,” Gray said, a beneficial algae that is food for tiny creatures that are eaten by small fish, which in turn are eaten by wading birds.
“This is the Okeechobee nobody sees,” he said.
It was his opening to explaining the intractable challenges linked to the lake.
Urban and farm pollution from as far as Orlando continues to flow to the Kissimmee River and into the lake at an excessive rate.
To keep the lake from becoming overly full — it is contained by a suspect dike — polluted water is diverted through dams and channels east to the St. Lucie River and west to the Caloosahatchee River.
The water can’t go south through water-treatment systems and into the perennially thirsty Everglades. That’s because blocking the way is an expanse of sugar cane and other cropland nearly as big as the lake.
Farmers don’t pump nutrient-rich water from fields into the lake as they did for decades, contributing to the black mayonnaise.
But they draw much ire for forcing the unwanted diversion of polluted water to coastal estuaries.
Calls to strengthen the dike so the lake could hold more water would be a disaster, Gray said.
Deeper water would kill thousands of acres of thriving marsh that provides habitat and water filtration.
“A deeper lake would be a dirtier lake,” Gray said.
Wessel, of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, emerged from the mangroves to a finger of the Caloosahatchee River, which gives Fort Myers extensive waterfront.
She paused at glistening-green algae that blotched and swirled across an inky surface. It was mesmerizing.
But Wessel briefly clasped a blue bandana across her nose. The algae festered under the sun, and she did not want to be near it.
From the rising protests of anglers, boaters, homeowners and others, the Caloosahatchee may be a 21st century Cuyahoga River.
That Ohio waterway blazed with pollution-licking flames in 1969, helping to propel a national push for environmental reforms.
Wessel pointed out that the Florida algae disaster has coincided with election season and a deluge of politicians’ soundbites.
A few days earlier, she had escorted Republican candidate for governor Ron DeSantis on a tour of the region’s misery.
The Fort Myers area is no stranger to the green slime and red tide of the Caloosahatchee and the Gulf of Mexico.
We are going to have to work two or three times harder to get back.
Rae Ann Wessel
But the severity this year, including the health threats posed by toxic algae, is a new era, Wessel said.
“Now we are squandering something we took for granted,” she said. “We are going to have to work two or three times harder to get back.”
ST. LUCIE RIVER
The south end of the Indian River Lagoon meets the St. Lucie River at Stuart.
It was in this region where an algae plague in 2016 was likened to rotting “guacamole.”
Waterfront owners joined boaters, anglers, surfers, restaurateurs and others in the most vociferous environmental protest seen in the region.
The central villain was a flood of Lake Okeechobee’s polluted water directed into a canal that drains into the St. Lucie River.
Another algae outbreak is occurring this summer.
If they could, many in the region would permanently close the Okeechobee canal and tackle local pollution.
But the canal is a manmade drain for Okeechobee. The lake’s natural drainage is blocked by sugar cane.
Replumbing Okeechobee’s drainage to prevent harm to the St. Lucie is an enormous goal long delayed.
We are having absolute economic and ecological disasters because of ‘Lake O’ discharges.
“In 18 years, not a single project has been completed,” said Zack Jud, education director at Florida Oceanographic Society, a coastal-conservation advocacy organization in Stuart.
“We are having absolute economic and ecological disasters because of ‘Lake O’ discharges,” he said.
BLUE CYPRESS LAKE
This summer, a green slick spread across the coffee-dark surface of Blue Cypress Lake, 65 miles southeast of downtown Orlando.
The Ocean Research & Conservation Association of Fort Pierce confirmed the presence of toxic algae.
“I am all about fishing and eating fish,” said Don Buhr, who lives at the lake and with his wife, Barbara, runs Blue Cypress Lake Tours. “We’ve been warned not to eat the fish.”
Blue Cypress, as big as Winter Park, had seemed magical in its pristine remoteness, surrounded nearly entirely by a curtain of cypress trees. It also is at the start of the St. Johns River, which flows through the Orlando area to the Jacksonville area.
Blue Cypress had faced nearly none of the usual pollution threats.
But in recent years with state approval, sewage-treatment byproduct called “biosolids” has been disposed of as fertilizer on a ranch that drains to Blue Cypress.
Rich in nutrients, tons have come from South Florida.
Indian River County officials temporarily banned biosolids to give investigators time to confirm the source of Blue Cypress’ distress.
On a breezy day last week, the algae had dispersed. Buhr found some by steering his tour boat into a hidden cove.
He would like for a storm to sit over Blue Cypress and rinse away the algae.
But he worries the biosolids could be a source of pollution for years to come.
INDIAN RIVER LAGOON
The Indian River Lagoon hugs the Atlantic from Volusia to Palm Beach counties.
Its startling collapse has been recent: fish kills, manatee die-offs and seagrass exterminations.
The toll has been linked to algae outbreaks, including an unexpected emergence of “brown” tide, a choking mass of algae that leaves water with the color and clarity of a paper grocery bag.
The lagoon had been lauded as among the most biologically diverse in the nation: it is fresh, salty, brackish and a refuge for an encyclopedia of sea life.
But even with mounting rescue efforts, including Brevard County upping its sales tax in 2016 for lagoon recovery, the outlook is daunting.
The 35-year-old lagoon-protection group, Marine Resource Council, published last month what it billed as the first comprehensive health report on the lagoon.
Dating to 1996, it shows overall health plummeting from 2010 through 2016, the most recent year of data.
Leesa Souto, council executive director, said nitrogen pollution is trending down, thanks to reduction efforts. But, surprisingly, phosphorus pollution is rising.
That might be what’s triggering these major algae blooms.
Leesa Souto of phosphorus increases.
“That might be what’s triggering these major algae blooms,” she said. “Some scientists have said the lagoon has reached a tipping point. But a tipping point of what? It could be phosphorus.”
Wekiwa Springs, 13 miles northwest of downtown Orlando, may be the region’s most beloved natural place. It gushes to the surface of a pool at the bottom of a grassy slope. What you hear there are chirping birds and the laughter of children trying to swim into the springs’ current.
Wekiwa is also one of the region’s natural treasures most jeopardized by nutrient pollution.
A citizens group, Friends of Wekiva River, fears a state proposal for cleaning springs may worsen matters.
Most of Florida’s major springs are polluted and smothered with algae.
Proposed cleanups by the state were to take effect this summer but were delayed under protest.
“They are setting out with such low goals that they are not going to see results within five years or 10 years, and then they are going to have to take more stringent actions,” said Friends of Wekiva River member Mike Cliburn. “We feel like they have just kicked the can down the road for another 20 years.”
The group is studious and not prone to confrontation. Cliburn is a retired utility engineer. He and his wife raise service-dog puppies.
But the group is considering a costly legal battle with the state.
At issue, in the group’s view, is the state’s overestimation of pollution-reduction so far, underestimation of what must be done in the face of population growth and use of poorly explained science.
“We believe the Wekiva will continue to decline,” Cliburn said.
When it’s not the rainy season, much of Lake Jesup shrivels into “green, putrid” goo that may look like water, but isn’t, said Robert King, former chairman of Friends of Lake Jesup, a group mostly dormant for the past decade.
With this summer’s rains, Lake Jesup’s legacy isn’t immediately apparent. But it rivals Lake Apopka as a travesty.
“I watched it die,” King said.
The largest lake in Seminole, Jesup was undone by a one-two punch.
Bridge construction and channel dredging several decades ago severed life-giving flushing from the St. Johns River.
Over time, nutrient pollution from as far as Orlando had contaminated the lake.
“It was like they designed Jesup to nutrify,” King said.
Officials occasionally raise and drop talks of dredging a canal from the St. Johns to the lake.
King lauded cities’ effort to reduce pollution: “They understand their relationship to the lake but their goals are minimal.”
Something that nobody has an answer for, he said, is the green, putrid goo. It contains a monstrous amount of nutrients.
Lake Apopka’s opaque waters under sunlight appear syrupy, radiant and weirdly green like antifreeze. The lake bubbles with decomposing algae.
A dozen miles west of downtown Orlando, Apopka has changed little in overall appearance for the past half-century. The lake has been an epic statement on the difficulty of recovering from an algae infestation.
As the state’s fourth largest, it was crippled decades ago through nutrient dumping by farms, sewage plants and citrus processors.
It collapsed from being one Florida’s most spectacular natural places, attracting sports and film stars, to one of its worst.
The state has spent nearly a quarter-billion dollars since the late 1990s to close the farms and employ restoration measures.
Officials do not have a timeline for when — or if — Lake Apopka will recover.