Photo: Sanders
Photo: Sanders

South Florida’s Toxic Summer

Coastal communities brace for another algal bloom while local activists are changing the political tide

Last summer, Florida's Treasure Coast found itself under siege by an unusual enemy: a noxious, guacamole-like cyanobacterium, more commonly known as blue-green algae, which had overrun waterways and contaminated many local beaches.

The invasive algae showed up after a particularly rainy El Niño winter, when billions of gallons of water from Lake Okeechobee were released into the Indian River Lagoon System, eventually entering the St. Lucie River Estuary en route to the Atlantic. Fresh nitrogen- and phosphorous-rich water coupled with increasingly warm summer temperatures created the ideal conditions for algal growth. Within months, putrid-smelling slime was washing up onto Treasure Coast beaches, prompting Florida Governor Rick Scott to issue an executive order declaring an emergency in Lee, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Martin counties.

Aside from emitting an atrocious smell, blue-green algae created a human health catastrophe for the area. Residents of the affected counties reported increased cases of MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staph infection linked to algae exposure. And while scientists believe exposure has the potential to cause any number of issues in humans, from skin rashes to respiratory problems to neurological disorders, the algae is even more harmful to marine life. It's estimated that nearly half of all sea grass in the St. Lucie estuary — which serves as a lynchpin to the local aquatic ecosystem — was killed during the 2016 crisis, causing a chain reaction up the food chain.

In an area where summertime beachgoers serve as a cornerstone of the economy, beach closures also had a tremendous impact on local businesses. Weeks of surf camps — which represent a large revenue source for local surf shops — were cancelled. Fishing charters never left the marinas. Bait-and-tackle shops, as well as paddleboard rental companies, were shuttered.

"These coastal communities have been sacrificed by the state of Florida for over 90 years, but 2016 was the worst," says Dr. Gary Goforth, an environmental engineer who has testified in front of the state legislature about the need to stop water releases from Lake Okeechobee into the surrounding estuaries. A longtime Martin County resident, Goforth raised his children in Stuart, diving and snorkeling the area's offshore reefs and surfing the local breaks. He has 30 years of experience working on large-scale ecosystem restoration projects, including a stint as the chief consulting engineer for the South Florida Water Management District, a state agency that manages water resources in the area.

"The actual releases from the lake into the St. Lucie River totaled just about 220 billion gallons of polluted water," Goforth says. "It pushed out most of the saltwater in the estuary, bringing salinity very close to zero. It also brought with it nearly 50 million pounds of sediment, over 2.5 million pounds of phosphorous and over 300,000 pounds of nitrogen."

On a map, positioned in the south-central region of the state, the nearly 30-mile-wide Lake Okeechobee looks like the eye of Florida's zoomorphic turtle head. Despite being the largest freshwater lake in the Lower 48 states, Okeechobee is a mere 12 feet deep, and its propensity to overflow has both confounded environmental engineers and threatened the surrounding agricultural lands and estuaries for nearly a century.

Photo: Thurlow-Lippisch

In the early 1900s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) began construction on a system of canals meant to divert Okeechobee's natural southward overflow to the west or east into the Caloosahatchee or St. Lucie estuaries, respectively. The lake is surrounded by land used for agricultural purposes, which means that rain pushes chemicals from pesticides and fertilizers into the lake, causing contamination. Still, if the water in the lake rises above 15.5 feet, the ACOE opens the floodgates.

Algae outbreaks following discharges are nothing new — there were toxic blue-green algae outbreaks in 2004 and 2013 — but the scope and scale of last year's crisis was unlike anything previously seen in the area. Experts like Goforth say large-scale blooms could potentially become the new normal.

"With global temperatures rising and the frequency of heavy storms increasing, you have this combination of meteorological and political conditions that will create more detrimental outbreaks," Goforth says. "The lake is likely to need more releases, and that places a greater urgency on the need to act."

In April, the Florida legislature approved Senate Bill 10, which includes a nearly $2 billion project to build a reservoir to capture discharges south of the lake, treat the water and send it into the Everglades. The bill was proposed by Senate President Joe Negron (R-Stuart) and garnered a broad coalition of support, from environmental advocacy groups like the Indian Riverkeeper to public health institutions like Martin County Memorial Hospital. But SB-10 would likely not have earned such widespread backing if it weren't for grassroots activism from Treasure Coast surfers like Evan Miller, whose non-profit organization Citizens for Clean Water staged massive rallies to raise awareness for the issue.

"All the surfers in Martin County have become experts on the discharges," Miller says. "Surfers, fishermen and the people who spend the most time in the water understand the situation better than anybody else."

Miller started C4CW after the algae outbreak of 2013, using social media and his connection to the local surf community to raise awareness about how the lake discharges were hurting the region. At a C4CW rally this winter, an aerial shot was taken of a group of several thousand Treasure Coast activists spelling out "Buy the Land" — a reference to the SB-10 proposal to purchase acreage south of Lake Okeechobee for a reservoir.

"Ultimately, I feel like we are protecting our way of life," Miller says. "We are nothing without clean water."

A successful approval of SB-10 offers a path to solving the toxic-algae problem, but it won't be a simple overnight fix. Construction will take years and won't be completed without financial assistance from the federal government, which previously committed to pay half of the necessary $2 billion for the project. Residents are concerned, however, that the funding may be more difficult to obtain under the new, less environmentally friendly Trump administration.

In the meantime, many climate models are predicting another El Niño cycle to develop in late 2017, and if Lake Okeechobee waters reach 15.5 feet or higher, discharges will occur. If that happens, scientists like Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society, say that the Treasure Coast should brace for the worst.

"Could the situation that occurred last summer be the new normal? Absolutely," says Perry. "What we need is good leadership in our state. We have a lot of work to do. For those of us who surf or spend a great deal of time in the water down here, the situation hits particularly close to home. But everyone should be concerned. We have over 8,000 miles of tidal shorelines and estuaries. Our fishing and tourist industries generate over $109 billion a year. The water is our future and we have to protect it."

[Featured Image: Photo by Sanders]

[This feature originally appeared in SURFER 58.4, “Life & Death of Waves,” on newsstands and available for download now.]