It’s been quite a year, environmentally. Along with a devastating hurricane in Northwest Florida, red tide affected a huge chunk of the Gulf Coast, from Clearwater down to Naples. Businesses along the beach got hammered. Fall even saw red-tide bacteria blooming in the Atlantic Ocean off Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties. I was probably typical of many Floridians; I usually spend some time each summer at the beach, but this year I just stayed away.
Meanwhile, in June, other algae began blooming, massively, in Lake Okeechobee — some 258 square miles of the lake was still covered in algae in mid-October — and along the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. The goo left nearby residents disgusted and nauseated. Tourism-related businesses took big hits.
Elsewhere, ignored amid the algae, was news that the once-clear waters of Wakulla Springs — the world’s largest a freshwater springs, 14 miles south of Tallahassee — were turning brown. So much clear groundwater has been pumped from the aquifer for human use that undiluted, organic-rich brown water from a nearby forest is coloring the springs. That development highlighted another issue: Supplying water to a population that’s growing at the rate of adding another Tampa every year.
Collectively, the environmental mess created a different kind of toxic growth — politicians and interest groups flinging blame, touting fixes, etc., ad nauseam. The sugar industry, everybody’s favorite environmental scapegoat, took a predictable round of whacks, even though it’s responsible for almost none of the pollution going into Lake O.
The truth lies north of the lake. The remaining dairies and cattle farms there have significantly curtailed the nutrients that leach into soil and waterways. But the wetlands, creeks, rivers and soil north of the lake are full of 50 years’ worth of phosphorus and nitrogen that will be there even if we could stop adding any more. Likewise, the muck at the bottom of the lake — chock-full of nutrients and toxins. And for all the best practices by ranchers and farmers, an average of some 500 metric tons of phosphorus continues to flow into Lake O each year, mostly from the north. Compare that to the lake’s “mandated target load” of 105 tons.
Hurricane Irma, followed by unusually heavy rains this spring, washed about twice as much of the northern nutrients into the lake as usual and stirred up the lake bottom in the process — creating the second-highest phosphorus load into the lake in 45 years, say water management district scientists.
Now throw in a hot, sunny June. And also, this year, a species of algae that lives longer because it can suck nitrogen out of the air rather than consuming it from polluted water … and there’s your pea soup.
The same dynamic — stored-up nutrients+rain+heat — dictated the blooms that erupted along the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. Some groups want to blame algae there on water that was diverted from Lake O. They’ve insisted that water be diverted south rather than into the estuaries. Congress has authorized (but not funded) a $1.6-billion reservoir south of the lake that — if built — will spread the pain, but it won’t be a silver bullet for the estuaries. They get 60% of their freshwater not from Lake O, but from local watersheds, many of which are polluted by septic tanks, suburban runoff and other sources. “Conditions supportive of blooms existed in both estuaries before” water from Lake O was discharged into the canals that feed the two rivers, say UF scientists.
The algae from Lake O and the estuaries didn’t cause red tide, which originates 40 miles out in the Gulf. Scientists say the algae in the freshwater discharges may have stimulated growth of the red tide bloom after currents brought it close to shore. But they don’t fully understand why some red tide blooms are more intense and longer lasting than others. Seven other red tide events since 1953 have lasted about as long as 2018’s. Longer term, scientists predict that climate change will warm Gulf waters, producing more frequent red tide outbreaks that will be even harder to control.
Managing all this — it can’t be “fixed” — starts with limiting nutrients. That will involve restricting fertilizers and the dumping of biosolids (processed human waste). Septic tanks will have to be replaced with sewer systems. Polluted water will have to be stored and/or cleaned. It will involve even more massive public spending — and time. The plans that already exist will take decades to complete even if funding materializes.
One positive glimmer, cited by UF’s Sea Grant Florida, is a program at Taylor Creek on the lake’s northern edge. There, discharges of nutrients, despite Irma and the spring rains, were below average. “It’s important to note that this slough has experienced the most intensive agricultural nutrient control program by the state and industry,” Sea Grant observed.
I don’t know whether this environmental morass is getting better, worse or just more complicated. Nature’s funny: Remember that a similar algal eruption happened, if somewhat less severely, in 2005. Two years later, a drought had shrunk Lake O water levels to the point that water managers didn’t have to consider diverting any water to the estuaries. They even spent several million dollars dredging out a bunch of polluted muck.
The biggest difference between now and then may be that there were 3 million fewer Floridians paying attention back then — and about 20 million fewer tourists visiting us.
It’s always tempting when writing something like this to end with a Grand Pronouncement — “Florida’s environmental debts are finally coming due” or something to that effect. The truth is that they’ve been coming due for a long time. The interest on the balance is just compounding.
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