After a rough couple of years for Florida waterways, during which red tide infiltrated both coasts and blue-green algae grew to unhealthy levels in Lake Okeechobee, here comes another burst of color: green.
In May, the federal government approved $200 million to spur the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, and in late June, the Florida legislature signed off on roughly $680 million for additional improvements, cleanup and research. Now that the funds are in place, Floridians need only agree on two small matters: the problem and the solution.
There’s a lot at stake. Florida is home to 918,255 boats, the most of any state, and the marine industry contributes $23.3 billion to the state economy, according to 2017-18 data from the National Marine Manufacturers Association. And the most recent algal blooms caused economic pain beyond the marine industry, leading to soup kitchens for hospitality workers, scuttled real estate deals and some hospitals suffering from a lack business.
Perhaps the recent experience accounts for the renewed sense of urgency. Gov. Ron DeSantis was sworn in Jan. 8, and two days later, he signed an executive order directing “state agencies to take immediate action to combat” the water issues. The executive order also called for the state to appoint its first chief science officer (a title bestowed on the University of Florida’s Thomas K. Frazer on April 1) and to establish a blue-green algae task force (whose six members were named April 29).
“What’s most exciting is that all the members of the task force are scientists,” says Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida. “We’re hoping for serious recommendations that are not part of the political process.”
The executive order also asked for the money, which was approved for the fiscal year starting July 1. Of the total, $417 million is for Everglades restoration, $25 million is for blue-green algae and red tide research and remediation, and about $100 million will go to general water-quality improvement projects, including raising parts of the Tamiami Trail to improve water flow through the Everglades.
Moreover, the executive order calls for $2.5 billion in spending on water restoration over four years. “As we’re getting resources, financial resources to bear on the problem and making good choices, we want to make sure that those choices are informed by the best science and the best research available,” DeSantis said in April.
The task-force scientists held their second meeting in Fort Myers on July 1. “The focus of this task force isn’t what pot of money we have to spend,” Frazer told FloridaPolitics.com. “It’s about identifying solutions. We’ll find out from there where the money comes from.”
The algae that causes red tide, karenia brevis, and blue-green algae occur naturally and have been around forever, but when they are fed an abundance of nutrients and warm water, they can multiply wildly, often causing visible blooms. Even worse, in such concentrations, these normally harmless aquatic plants emit toxins that can be fatal to marine life and harmful to humans. Such outbreaks are known as HABs, or harmful algal blooms.
The most recent red tide, which lasted from November 2017 to February 2019 — the fifth-longest bloom on record — struck both coasts and led to the deaths of thousands of fish, 227 manatees, more than 500 turtles and more than 170 bottlenose dolphins, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection reported several measurements of blue-green algae in Okeechobee that had reached toxic levels, although people who live and work on the lake contested, and continue to contest, those assessments.
“There’s no problem eating the fish. We eat a lot of speck and bluegill. I don’t know anyone who’s gotten sick,” says Leif Garrard of Garrard’s Tackle Shop in Okeechobee. “The lake is perfect. People are catching their limit on bluegill every day. The only thing wrong with it is the media telling everyone to stay away.”
Are the two forms of HAB connected? The short answer is no. Red tide generally originates 10 to 40 miles offshore and works its way in toward the coast. Blue-green algae exists in many freshwater bodies, and blooms have occurred in other parts of Florida, most notably the St. Johns River. In Okeechobee, nutrients from agricultural, commercial and residential runoff have fed the blooms. The proportion of those contributions is an ongoing source of discord.
“There’s a lot of talk all of a sudden about septic tanks as the source of nutrients,” says Maverick Boats CEO Scott Deal, who follows water issues closely. “In my opinion, that’s just a way to distract from the real cause.”
Wraithmell says some people point only to agriculture as the cause, “but there are other sources of nutrients in the lake and in the estuaries, and there are local sources on the coasts. We need to address all of them.”
Scott Watson, who owns Indiantown Marina near Okeechobee, agrees. “The animosity and finger-pointing are hurting the process,” he says. “We need to stick to the facts and not scare people with the hysteria. Stay the course, work on the plan, get it done and see how that improves things.”
Much of the misunderstanding and distrust emerge because, periodically, the dikes that contain the lake are opened, allowing water to flow to both coasts and south through the Everglades. As water flows, nutrients from the lake combine with nutrients that have run into the connected estuaries, creating greater concentrations.
So are red tide and blue-green algae connected? The long answer is, a little bit. Blue-green algae — and, more significantly, the nutrients it feeds off — can’t cause a red tide, and karenia brevis doesn’t like fresh water. But if a red tide is already present, the additional nutrients become fodder. Or as Wraithmell puts it: “Blue-green algae is just more fertilizer for red tide.”
Wraithmell agrees that the hype and finger-pointing are unnecessary but adds, “I think people are rightfully asking questions about what this all means to my health and how do we fix it. That’s the starting point.”
Feeling the Impact
Coastal waters and the lake were declared largely clear of HABs through this past spring and early summer. Marine businesses were catching up after tough times, when fish kills and visibly tainted water along large sections of coast kept people away from beaches, bays and boats.
“There was a massive impact on the boating and fishing industries,” says Chris Whitman, co-founder of Captains for Clean Water, an environmental advocacy group based in Fort Myers. “It hurt the community as a whole.”
John Giglio, president of Freedom Boat Club, which has locations throughout Florida, says his company felt the pinch in the fourth quarter of last year. “A lot of snowbirds just didn’t come down,” he says. “Our membership sales dropped, and we had a 25 percent increase in cancellations. People weren’t confident it would ever go away.”
TowBoatUS near Boca Grande had it worse. Owner Kyle Potts says business was down 50 percent from early June through December 2018. “It hurt our business tremendously,” he says. “It pretty much halted boating in our area altogether.”
On Okeechobee, Garrard says, “it hurt us real bad.” He estimates that “everybody” was down somewhere around 35 percent in 2018, although he contends that “the media hurt us worse than anything.”
In previous generations, Lake Okeechobee flowed through the Everglades, working its way slowly through natural marshes where aquatic plants and organisms cleaned the water by feeding on the nutrients. Over the years, many of those marshes were converted to private property and filled in, and a lot of the water was diverted into ditches, canals and rivers.
The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan aims to re-create the original process through a system of pumps, levees and canals, as well as basins and reservoirs containing man-made scrubbers and aquatic organisms that will clean the water before it is allowed to flow onward. The plan incorporates water north of the lake, south of the lake and in the estuaries funneling off in both directions. The plan would directly address problems with blue-green algae south of Okeechobee and would indirectly affect the occurrence of red tide, since it would lead to fewer overall nutrients in the water in and around Florida.
The original plan consisted of more than 50 individual projects that together would make up a complete system. The U.S. Congress passed it in 2000, and 19 years later, zero of those projects have been completed. The two that are closest — a new dike on the south side and the C44 canal — are slated to finish in 2022. Others are underway. “More of these projects have started up in the last three years than in the 15 years prior,” Whitman says.
That’s why he and almost every knowledgeable source extols patience. “There’s no silver bullet or short fix,” he says. “We have to be proactive and focus on the long-term solutions that will prevent outbreaks in the future. Everyone should know, for this to work, we have to stay diligent and engaged for the next decade or more.”
Some argue that red tide and blue-green algae are natural phenomena that have always occurred and always will, and that the effort to address them is a waste of time and money that hurts businesses. But there are more nutrients in the water than ever, and as sea temperatures rise, the conditions for HABs are primed, which means toxic blooms will likely become more frequent, more harmful and longer-lasting if the conditions aren’t altered.
For its part, the governor’s blue-green algae task force has determined that even if no more runoff enters Okeechobee, enough nutrients have built up that the HAB threat would persist, meaning the lake must be not just protected, but cleaned. Part of that process includes keeping the water level in the lake low this year, a tactic designed to help regrow and strengthen nutrient-eating plants on the lake bottom that Hurricane Irma damaged.
The low water creates some navigation issues on the lake and could lead to water shortages if not enough rain falls, but Wraithmell says the effort is worth it. “Is it a long-term solution? No,” he says. “But in the short term, the science backs it up.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue.