Green Goop Threatens Florida Waters

A view of the green algae bloom that’s destroying some of Florida’s water resources. Photo from bullsugar.org.

A couple years ago, January 2016 to be exact, I took a trip to Florida for a winter board meeting of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. The Lee County convention and visitor bureau (The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel) invited our group to have our meeting there. One of the added attractions, besides meeting space, was a day of fishing or other recreation on the watery paradise of southwest Florida. A Florida outing right after a snowy and subzero Christmas week also had some modest appeal!

On our play day, along with a writer friend from Texas, I went flyfishing with a local guide on the shallow, calm waters of the big bay that’s protected from the Gulf of Mexico by the barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva. I caught a couple fish that day, a snook and a snapper, fish I’ll never find in Montana.

A snapper I caught in Fort Myers’ Bay. In Montana you find them only in the frozen foods section.

Our friends at the Lee County CVB were happy to show off the aquatic resources of their area, and it was fun to take advantage of the opportunity. At the least, it was way more fun than shoveling snow.

While Florida has a lot of fishing and other water recreation, there are major problems, and these problems have grown to a crisis of major proportions, and it’s gaining a lot of national attention.

It’s a complex puzzle, and to be frank, I have trouble getting my head around it all, but central to the issue is the Everglades, the so-called river of grass and a complex of rivers and lakes that work their way from Orlando, south through the Florida peninsula to the Everglades in the south, eventually draining into Florida Bay in the south end of the state.

The Okeechobee River runs south, emptying into Lake Okeechobee, which then moves south to the Everglades. Over the past century, much of the Everglades have been drained for agriculture and urban development. Drainage canals, dikes, dams, and loss of wetlands have altered the natural systems of drainage and flow.

Going back to 1986, a recurring problem with south Florida’s waters has been algae bloom. A major cause for algal bloom is fertilizer runoff, particularly phosphorus, from the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). The major agricultural industry in the EAA is sugarcane. The sugarcane industry, also referred to as Big Sugar, is a powerful (with a capital P) political force in Florida.

The fertilizer runoff works its way into Lake Okeechobee and from there into waterways feeding to both the Atlantic and Gulf sides of Florida.

This past month, there has been a major outbreak of green algae that was dumped, following heavy rains, from Lake Okeechobee into waterways, primarily the Caloosahatchee, which goes to the Gulf, and the St. Lucie Canal, which heads to the Atlantic. The algae bloom is a thick, soupy mess of toxic green slop. It’s fouling beaches, killing fish and wildlife.  Local residents are complaining of headaches, respiratory issues and rashes. Florida’s governor has declared a state of emergency on four counties on the Atlantic coast.

On the Gulf side of Florida, there is a “red tide,” caused by another organism, Karenia brevis, which feeds on other organisms that explode on the enriched water from Okeechobee, as well as runoff from phosphate mining. Red tide is a phenomenon that goes back to Spanish times, but it now happens more frequently and is more intense and lasts longer. When red tide occurs, there are major fish kills, impacting sport fish such as redfish, snook, and tarpon.

To repeat, this whole south Florida water mess is a complex problem that is creating disaster. It’s killing fish and wildlife, and impacting the fishing and tourism industries. It’s not the only problem, either. Florida has major issues with mercury pollution from incinerators and fossil fuel power plants. Then, there are invasive species that are thriving in Florida’s semi-tropical climate, and Burmese pythons are just the tip of the iceberg.

In spite of all the problems, according to Wikipedia another thousand people still move to Florida every day.

 

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