News of toxic blue-green algae fouling waterways on the Treasure Coast has gained more widespread attention. Audubon’s Julie Hill-Gabriel described the visual and physical impact of the bloom as overwhelming while touring the bloom with international media.
As this ecological tragedy continues, burning questions remain: What caused the algae to form? What can prevent it from happening again? Blooms appear to be growing, but how much? Is it safe to hold more water in Lake Okeechobee?
By now, many people have seen the startling satellite image of the algae blooms on Lake Okeechobee. How did a world class fishery and Important Bird Area turn so green that the color can be seen from space?
Some state politicians continue to place the blame for blooms on the shoulders of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by claiming that holding more water in Lake Okeechobee could prevent or end these problems. But rather than providing a solution, holding more water in the Lake would create new problems- threatening human health and safety and worsening water quality issues.
As Dr. Paul Gray explained when interviewed by the Palm Beach Post:
“One big storm would be a bad situation, really bad,” said Paul Gray, a scientist with Audubon Florida and Lake Okeechobee expert. “We are nearing the heart of the tropical season and the corps knows they are one storm away from levels they are not comfortable with.”
Col. Jason Kirk of the Army Corps defended the need to move water out of the Lake in an editorial in the Miami Herald, saying:
"We’ve seen numerous instances over the past 20 years of tropical systems producing enough rain to cause a three- to four-foot rise in the lake. A five-foot rise in the lake from this point takes us into uncharted territory."
In light of these serious threats, federal agencies cannot be expected to manage Lake Okeechobee as a deep reservoir where sugar companies can store irrigation water at the expense of coastal waters and the Lake’s bird’s and fish – not when a breach could kill millions and disrupt the water system 8 million people depend on.
Audubon scientists also warn that a deeper Lake is a dirtier Lake. The Lake’s bloom is a demonstration of water quality problems.
Dr. Gray put it this way:
“Cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae, has gorged on the phosphorous- and nitrogen-heavy lake water, building massive algae blooms in Treasure Coast waterways that are already weakened by local stormwater runoff and septic tanks."
Gray said the phosphorous goal for Lake Okeechobee is 40 parts per billion, but recent phosphorous levels have been between 100 and 200 parts per billion, which “make cyanobacteria blooms a constant threat.”
The Role of Water Storage
Polluted water is not the only problem. The real challenge is increasing the options for moving Lake Okeechobee water south, where it can be cleansed in constructed filter marshes and continue a more natural flow.
A Sun-Sentinel column on the issue reported:
“Audubon [of] Florida Executive Director Eric Draper agrees that the state has kept Everglades Agricultural Area fields as dry or wet as the farmers want them, and when.”
The article went on to reference Audubon’s continued effort to accelerate planning for the EAA Reservoir project which has been delayed until 2020.
During a meeting of the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force last week, citizens directed a call for “EAA planning now” to Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy and state leaders.
In an article in Politico today, Secretary Darcy responded to these calls:
"We will look at every option for storing more water, including southern storage," Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy said in a statement. She said the Corps is also "ready" to work with the South Florida Water Management District, an agency controlled by Scott's appointees, "to look at accelerating the Everglades Agricultural Area storage study timeline."
Audubon Florida will continue to ask Governor Scott and the South Florida Water Management District to work with federal restoration partners to take action on moving water south.