If you thought that the Sunshine State was the perfect spot for your next vacation, you may need to think again. The summer of 2016 has proved a hazardous time to be a beach-goer in certain parts of Florida. Even the residents have found themselves fleeing south for a swim that won’t leave them waist-deep in toxic algae most accurately described as “watery guacamole”. This environmental crisis is just another casualty of unfulfilled promises from Florida politicians. Without intervention, it will continue to wreak ecological havoc on the state landscape.
Historically, wetlands covered the land south of Lake Okeechobee. As the people moved in, however, the marsh had to move out. Engineers built canals running east and west, diverting Lake Okeechobee’s natural drainage south into where once lay the Everglades. Nowadays, the area around Florida’s largest lake is mostly agricultural. This farmland, however, cultivates more than just sugar cane. The agricultural runoff provides all the nitrogen and phosphorous required for a thriving algal bloom. This eutrophication, or excess of nutrients, might not be a huge problem if it weren’t for Okeechobee’s predictable overflows. The excess water from tropical storms, hurricanes, and even normal rainfall drains out through the man-made canals, dumping freshwater and all that comes with it into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.
The natural drainage direction of Lake Okeechobee versus its current, artificial drainage directions.
The blue-green algae in question, known as cyanobacteria, poses serious health risks for humans and wildlife. Florida is home to many at-risk marine groups. All six sea turtle species are listed as endangered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the West Indian manatee has only just this year been downlisted from endangered to threatened. Can we expect these already struggling populations to survive habitat degradation such as this? And unfortunately, while in the past these bouts of algae have subsided, this one may be here for a longer stay. The high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous continue to persist in Lake Okeechobee. One solution has been offered by a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection– to reduce the amounts of these nutrients in the lake. It’s a viable option. Aquatic Ecology confirmed this in its special issue on cyanobacterial blooms, where the authors of one journal article noted that “it has been widely demonstrated that eutrophication can be most efficiently reversed by the reduction of phosphorous” (Fastner, Federal Environment Agency Berlin, Aquatic Ecology). This seems ideal; to dredge the lake and be done with it. Unfortunately the South Florida Water Management District does not agree. In a 2003 study they found that not only would it cost $3 billion, but also require an unreasonable amount of time to dredge the estimated 200 million cubic meters of sediment. Our world’s changing climate only adds to persistence of the bloom. As water gets warmer, algae get happier. In fact, the journal article above referenced a hypothesis that the nutrient load in lakes will need to be reduced even further than before to compensate for the planet’s warming. So what can be done?
We have to reopen Florida’s history of environmental issues that fell through the cracks. Sixteen years ago, US Congress approved the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in response to the plight of the Everglades ecosystem. Due to factors that included the recession and Florida’s need to keep its sugar industry at maximum production, progress has been sluggish at best. The government has a chance now, in a single act, to tackle the cyanobacterial blooms and finally follow-through on reclaiming the Everglades. As long as Okeechobee continues to house these algal blooms, the US Army Corps of Engineers cannot continue to pump the excess lake water into the ocean. The only solution remains to redirect the water back to its original southward flow. In 2008, then-governor Charlie Crist struck a deal to buy the majority of US Sugar’s Everglades holdings for $1.75 billion. If Florida’s current politicians follow through on this, in place of sugar cane fields we could soon have a viable wetland ready to accept this freshwater flood. Not only that, the purchase of this farmland means that Lake Okeechobee will no longer be victim to such high volumes of nutrient-rich runoff. The second largest lake in the USA could be healthy once again.
The ecological benefits are massive. The economic benefits are massive. It may take an initial payout, but let’s be honest – can Florida’s tourism-dependent economy really stay afloat while its beaches look more like pea soup than salt water? While its iconic sea creatures suffocate in blue-green muck? Giving up just the southern portion of the sugar lands can’t compare to the preservation of Florida’s ecology. These are just the small-picture benefits. Reclaiming a larger part of the Everglades restores the natural balance of the land and its water flow. We can start to mitigate the footprints we’ve left, and strive to tread lighter in the future.