Harmful algal blooms are nothing new to Florida. The west coast of Florida has experienced red tide, also known as karenia brevis, as far back as 1844. But the culprit that hit the east coast in June is a blue green algae that has blanketed the Treasure Coast waterways with a guacamole like sludge. The massive bloom has hit four Florida counties covering its beaches in foul smelling muck and raising both health and environmental concerns.
The blooms are caused by discharges from polluted Lake Okeechobee and augmented by septic tank pollution. The New York Times explains:
“An aging dike system forces the Army Corps of Engineers to release controlled discharges through channel locks east and west from the lake to protect nearby towns from flooding. However, those discharges, which carry pollutants from agricultural lands that flow into the lake from the north, pour into rivers and lagoons downstream, which eventually dump into the ocean.”
But when there’s “too much polluted discharge,” the Times reports, “the blend of fresh and salt water creates giant phosphorescent plumes of algae, making the water unsafe for human and aquatic life alike.”
In late June, Gov. Scott declared a state of emergency in Martin, St. Lucie, Lee and Palm Beach counties in response to the presence of algal blooms in local waterways. The order allows state and local officials to take action to mitigate the spread of algal blooms in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries by redirecting the flow of water in and out of Lake Okeechobee.
Following the Governor’s declaration the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that they would reduce the amount of water flowing from Lake Okeechobee into local waterways and estuaries.
In July, Governor Scott announced that he would propose additional funding in his 2017-2018 budget to help clean up the Indian River Lagoon and Caloosahatchee River. The proposal will include new funding for a 50/50 matching grant program with local communities surrounding the water bodies affected by algae blooms resulting from the frequent discharges of Lake Okeechobee. If approved by the Legislature, this voluntary program will provide funding to encourage residents to move from septic tanks to sewer systems in order to curb pollution that is currently entering into these water bodies. This proposal will also support local communities to help build wastewater systems to meet the increased demand for wastewater services.
Additionally, Joe Negron, the Florida Senate’s incoming president announced a $2.4 billion plan to purchase 60,000 acres south of the lake, using it to store and treat water. This would drastically reduce the flow of untreated water from the lake into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.
The Senator’s proposal was hailed by many environmental groups. The Everglades Foundation said that Senator Negron’s proposal “emphasizes the urgency of critical Everglades restoration projects during this state of emergency. Floridians living on the Treasure Coast and in Southwest Florida cannot wait four more years to initiate planning for water storage south of Lake Okeechobee. We commend Sen. Negron for getting to work on this issue with scientists to create a viable action plan in response to the harmful discharges.”