The great stink on Florida waters

Marinas on the St. Lucie cope with another ‘lost summer,’ as algae bloom deposits a thick, putrid slime
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Thick mats of reeking algae clogged the water at Outboards Only in Jensen Beach, Fla., bringing business to a near standstill at peak season.

Thick mats of reeking algae clogged the water at Outboards Only in Jensen Beach, Fla., bringing business to a near standstill at peak season.

The toxic cyanobacteria bloom began as a slime green, turned bright blue, then brown and eventually transmuted into a mass of black rot as the stench hanging over the water at Central Marine ripened from the smell of rotting garbage to putrid carcasses to feces.

It took five weeks for the blue-green algae bloom to run its course, and during much of that time business at the Stuart, Fla., marina was at a near standstill, says manager Mary Radabaugh. Carried by wind and tide from the St. Lucie River into the marina basin, the algae piled up in a mat 4 to 8 inches thick from seawall to seawall.

The soggy mess clogged engine intakes on boats. Its toxic smell gave employees headaches, irritated their eyes and throats and caused some to vomit.

“The mat was so thick we couldn’t get the Travelift strap into the water,” Radabaugh says. “We couldn’t haul boats for a couple of days. As far as business, nobody came. There were signs all over: ‘Don’t touch the water. Don’t get near the water.’ ”

Central Marine and Outboards Only, both on the north side of the St. Lucie River east of the Roosevelt Bridge, bore the brunt of the problem as southerly winds pushed the massive bloom into their basins, making it the worst, though not the first, in memory.

An unusually wet winter filled Lake Okeechobee faster than usual, requiring the Army Corps of Engineers to open floodgates and pour billions of gallons of nitrogen- and phosphorous-laden fresh lake water east and west into the brackish St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee river estuaries. The water release is intended to ease pressure on Okeechobee’s old and weakened dikes, which hold the water in check and prevent the flooding of nearby communities.

A perfect storm of unseasonably heavy rainfall, big storm-water runoffs into the lake carrying nutrients from sugar fields, dairy farms and residential developments, and lake water warmed during a very hot summer generated a blue-green algae bloom that grew to 200 square miles on Lake Okeechobee and migrated to the rivers in the dam releases.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” says Phil Norman, a partner in Outboards Only, an outboard repair yard. The “lost summer of 2013” was from a particularly virulent algae bloom. Now there’s the “lost summer of 2016.” He fears it will only get worse.

“This has been going on for 20 to 30 years,” he says.

Ecosphere Technologies spent eight days cleaning up at Outboards Only. Phil Norman, a partner in the business, holds before and after samples.

Ecosphere Technologies spent eight days cleaning up at Outboards Only. Phil Norman, a partner in the business, holds before and after samples.

The cycle is well understood: The Corps of Engineers releases lake water into the rivers. Algae blooms in the brackish Indian River lagoon on the east coast and Pine Island Sound on the west, where the rivers empty. Fish and oyster kills follow. Then seagrasses die. It’s attributable to too much fresh water in the estuaries, loss of sunlight under the miles of algae mats and oxygen depletion when algae cells die and bacteria eat them.

Norman noticed the algae on June 23. It would come in and go out with the tide. Then the south wind picked up and started pushing the algae down a 200-foot canal into his football field-size basin, which soon was clogged with the thick blue-green mat.

He says he usually is inundated with calls to service engines before the July 4 weekend. “I got just five phone calls,” he says. “And I didn’t get a single boat in here before the lobster mini-season (July 27-28). Nobody’s using their boats.”

The marinas weren’t the only ones that suffered economic damage during the algae bloom. Many paddleboard and kayak concessions closed because of concern about toxins in the water, Norman says.

A client who works at Publix, the grocery store chain, says its Martin County stores felt the hit from declines in summer tourism. Hundreds of waterfront homeowners suffered from the same stinky mess at the marinas. Two of Norman’s customers told him they were selling their houses on the St. Lucie and moving to Cedar Key on Florida’s northwest coast, “where they don’t have to deal with this,” he says.

Norman was fortunate. Ecosphere Technologies Inc., a local company that cleans wastewater used in fracking at oil drilling sites and other kinds of industrial water, came in to clean the algae out of his basin — free — as a demonstration project.

He says the Ecosphere crew spent eight days at the marina. They pumped the water and algae out of the basin at a rate of about 4,000 gallons a minute and cleaned the toxic cocktail in a mobile containment trailer with ozone, acoustic and hydrodynamic cavitation and electrolysis, which together break the cyanobacteria down at a cellular level. Then they pumped the water back into the basin — over and over again.

“Twelve hours after they shut down the operation, I went out to the boat ramp, and I could see four feet to the bottom,” Norman says. “I saw mullet, jack, snook. It was the cleanest I’d seen it in eight months.” Two weeks later the water was “dirty-looking” again from the tides moving river water back into the basin, but the bloom was still gone.

“The technology works,” Norman says, but if he had to pay for it, he couldn’t have afforded it. “It’s not cheap,” he says, and it’s a temporary solution, at best. The long-term answer: Everglades restoration, which is supposed to restore the flow of water from the north part of the state to Florida Bay through the Everglades, reduce the amount of water impounded in Lake Okeechobee and filter out the bloom-causing nutrients in shallow impoundments south of the lake that are now used for growing sugar cane.

This fix has been poking along for 16 years — mostly for lack of money and political will to make it a high priority — at the state and federal levels. Norman says it has to be fast-tracked. Otherwise he and others might have to fold their tents and go elsewhere.

“I’m very, very lucky that these guys decided to choose our location and show how this technology works, or we’d still be down,” he says.

But he and partner Chris Hope can’t afford to go through many more of these blooms.

“We make all our money in summer to make it through the winter,” he says. “When we get our summer cut short like this year, it leaves us in a hard spot. We’re considering what we’re going to do.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue.

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