On June 29th,, 2016 Governor Rick Scott issued Executive Order 16-155 declaring a state of emergency in Martin and St. Lucie Counties following the presence of algae blooms in local waterways. On June 30th the order was amended to include Lee and Palm Beach counties also. The order mentions specific growth rates of 1200 cubic feet per second since May 27th 2016, where Lake Okeechobee discharges in to the St. Lucie River and Estuary.
Also mentioned in the executive order is how the Obama Administration failed to provide adequate funding for maintenance of the dikes and speedy rehabilitation of the blooms at the Herbert Hoover Dike which surrounds the lake. There is limited potential for dike failure when it operates at a lower level. If the US Government had provided sufficient funds to maintain the dike at a higher level, the United States Army Corps would not have been required to discharge approximately 30 billion gallons of flood water from Lake Okeechobee in to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers and estuaries. The discarding, intended to safeguard the lake’s dike, has produced toxic waters that have initiated an influx of controversy and headlines aimed at the states epidemic, leading to the Governors decision to declare this State of Emergency.
The majority of blooms remain in the waterways of the St. Lucie River near Stuart; however, other waterways have been largely affected as well, such as the Caloosahatchee River which serves as a western release of Lake Okeechobee waters. Coastlines on the east coast of Florida from Palm Beach to Fort Pierce have tested for toxic levels of algae, stemming from discharges. The green sludge is typically seen in stagnant, still water and not as noticeable in moving water, often causing a very unpleasant smell created by its accumulation.
How did the problem start in the first place? Algae bloom experts say the problem started much further north of the lake, in the greater Orlando area, central and north central parts of the state. Since 90% of the water Lake Okeechobee is fed comes from the north, the nutrients in the water it carry’s feed these breakouts. The nutrient filled water that is dumped in to the estuaries interacts with the S.t Lucie and Caloosahatchee River triggering algae growth up and down the river system and the states coastlines.
Although Inadequate infrastructure and the lack of funds to properly operate these dikes, as mentioned above, seems to be the biggest issue, many people want to blame the Sugar industries and the fertilizer being washed in to the lake. The truth is scientists haven’t quite pinpointed the exact cause of it. Warmer temperatures and heavy rain have a lot to do with fueling the bacteria.
What can we do to prevent it? Some prevention efforts are starting to take place. The United States Army Corps have plans to significantly reduce the amount of discharge in to the rivers. However, treating the waters better in the lake prior to discharge is one on the most vital steps they can take. Florida has the highest septic take numbers in the country and we are starting to see it is quickly becoming a big problem for fish and wildlife. Upgrading the areas septic system to a properly managed sewer system is a key element to preventing further issues, which could cost the state billions in taxpayer money to build out through the region. Local residents say this has been a problem for years. Thanks to social media and the internet, awareness has spread just recently to the topic bringing much of the urgency that we see today. The bottom line is we need to get to the source of the problem in order to reduce the algae’s continuing progression. Control and moderation plans must be put in to place, and for that to happen, legislation needs to be changed.
It’s a very difficult problem to predict. There are several different species of blue-green algae and each one of them grows differently based on the available nutrients as well as the existing temperature and sunlight. You might get one species of cyanobacteria domination one year, and another species dominating another year. Totally different bacteria’s can pop up in all different parts of the state. Much is to be done to reduce or even eliminate these blooms in the future.
The residents and local business owners are getting more and more involved with the issue, pushing for the change in legislation. The increase of awareness and impact of social media response is sure to bring much more attention to the matter and hopefully we can see some serious prevention efforts in the days to come. One thing is for sure, progress is now starting to be made and the continued efforts of the nation’s people and law makers must not stop so we can be free of this revolting goo blanketing the states gorgeous waterways.