MIAMI—When Nadia Smart and her husband moved from Okeechobee to Stuart, FL, last fall, they were looking forward to spending the summer kayaking and swimming.
A year later, they haven’t been able to do any of that.
“We bought our house here because we like the beaches, we like the waterways, and we can't use them,” she said. “It's just been a dead summer, it's sad.”
For the Smarts and other residents on Florida’s Treasure Coast a few hours north of Miami, the summer has been marred by an infestation of cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae.
Algae blooms have been especially bad across the country this year, and harmful outbreaks have been reported in Utah, Idaho, and California. While blooms are natural, scientists believe they have become more common and more severe in recent years as nutrient pollution increases and climate change exacerbates heatwaves.
Florida’s Treasure Coast has seen the worst of the blooms this summer. The first signs of the bacteria began in the late spring, and by the Fourth of July weekend it seemed to explode, sending tourists and locals out of the water.
“We’re never in the river anymore,” said Kevin Cooke, a recreational fisherman from Stuart. “We used to go to the Stuart Causeway all the time, have the whole family out there and have a barbecue, play in the water.”
Cooke said he started seeing the blooms pop up a few years ago. Where he lives, closer to the ocean, the algae hasn’t been much of a problem. However, when he heads further inland to the rivers where he grew up playing, it’s a different story. In the Palm City area, he sees floating chunks of algae, as well as in Pecks Lake in Hobe Sound.
“It’s all everybody talks about, that’s it,” he said. “There’s green stuff everywhere.”
The blooms turn the water anywhere from a toxic, neon green color to a brown reminiscent of fecal matter, people have said. Others have described it as looking like mounds of guacamole floating on the river. On top of that, the scent is a pervasive, swampy smell, like rotting plants and fish in still water.
Not only are the algal blooms smelly and unsightly, they can cause health problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, harmful algal blooms in freshwater can lead to respiratory illness and irritation in the eyes, skin, nose, and throat when people are exposed by swimming in or even breathing the toxins. People who eat contaminated fish and shellfish can experience diarrhea, vomiting, muscles aches, numbness, and more.
Florida officials recently said toxins from the blue-green algae have also been found in the air nearby.
The algae is even more harmful to marine life.
“It’s not just the people, it’s the ecosystem, it’s the animals, and the wildlife that has to really suffer for it,” Cooke said. “It was theirs before it was ours, that’s for sure, and then we ruined it.”
Dr. Brian LaPointe, a research professor at the Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, explained that when algae dies, it sinks to the bottom of the water and creates a “dead zone.” This can result in mass fish die-offs, and birds, sea turtles, manatees, and dolphins can also be impacted.
“The entire aquatic food web, even birds that would ordinarily prey on fish or invertebrates or whatever are going to be affected,” LaPointe said.
At the end of June, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for St. Lucie, Lee, Martin, and Palm Beach Counties. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has been monitoring the algal blooms, and most recently from July 19 to 21 took samples from 14 known algae sites. None of them had any toxins present—but on July 5, a sample from St. Lucie had as much as 86 micrograms per liter of microcystin toxin.
Florida's large algae blooms occur during especially warm, wet weather, which leads to more water runoff into Lake Okeechobee. With that water comes unwanted nutrients and pollution from urbanization, cattle farms, and sewage. When the lake gets too full, the Army Corps of Engineers drains it, sending the water into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers.
Down the canals the nutrients and pollution go, eventually ending up in estuaries, where nutrient levels are already elevated.
“The bloom actually, it kind of explodes, it's like Miracle-Gro once it gets into that estuary,” LaPointe continued.
According to LaPointe’s research, as much as 50% of the blooms can be attributed to sewage, and a large portion of that coming from septic tanks. Scott has proposed a 50-50 matching grant program to encourage residents in algae-impacted communities to move from septic tanks to sewage systems—a costly procedure—which would help curb the amount of pollution going into the water.
“This is one of those ecological indicators telling us we're not doing enough,” LaPoint said. “It's not going to happen overnight. The Legislature does need to make a long-term commitment to cleaning up a number of nutrient sources, but definitely wastewater is a priority and that means septic sewer, and it means nutrient removal from the sewage treatment plant.”
“People just thought out of sight, out of mind," he said.
One solution involves storage facilities to house water, eliminating the need to release it from Lake Okeechobee. The Army Corps is scheduled to begin a study on water storage in the Everglades agricultural area in 2021—legislators, including Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-FL), have urged the corps to move up the date.
“I must reemphasize the need for water storage and treatment both north and south of Lake Okeechobee,” Murphy wrote in a letter to the corps in late July. “Identifying and planning for water storage both north and south of the lake will demonstrate a true and thoughtful commitment to reducing devastating discharges and restoring the Everglades.”
Many people along the Treasure Coast are angry about the state having failed to buy the land south of Lake Okeechobee, which could have been used for water storage.
Scott places blame at the feet of the federal government for not providing enough funds to create water storage facilities. According to a release Scott's office, the feds are $880 million behind in financing their share of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. After Florida voters overwhelmingly approved it, the state recently signed into law a plan that will guarantee $200 million annually to the Everglades through 2024.
Locals are also upset that the state legislature failed to follow through on its promise to purchase the land in the Everglades Agricultural Area from U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystal, i.e. “Big Sugar.” If the state had gone through with it, the land could have been used for storage and helped return the ecosystem to its more natural runoff.
U.S. Sugar has donated $200,000 to Scott’s Let’s Get Back to Work campaign, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Dr. Rachel Silverstein, the executive director of the Miami Waterkeeper, said that the state’s decision to not purchase the land was a “missed step.”
“We’ve known that this is a risk for a while,” she said. “It’s a shocking amount of algae.”
Activists are fighting back, she said, by circulating the Now or Neverglades Declaration petition, which would put the Everglades' funds towards sending Lake Okeechobee’s water south. Currently, the water runs out east and west, where scientists are finding the algal blooms. Naturally, the water flows south.
“We have to learn lessons from what’s happening in the center of the state,” she said, before blooms start popping up in Miami’s Biscayne Bay.
For now, Cooke has been careful where he fishes. His nieces, he said, haven’t been in the water for a long time—their parents are too scared of them getting sick.
“I'm definitely concerned about it getting worse. I would like for them to do something about it, but I still go out there and fish everyday and I just try to avoid it” he said.
Christiana Lilly is a full-time freelance journalist based out of South Florida, covering the gamut in content from national politics, LGBT news, Florida’s restaurant and bar scene, to Miami society.