If you happen to be in a large chunk of South Florida, you won’t be surfing. Or swimming. Or fishing. Or even going to the beach. Hopefully you won’t be stuck inside tending to a rash or a respiratory ailment. Or worse, a full-blown infection or neurological crisis. Hopefully, the same blue-green algae that closed Treasure Coast beaches earlier this year — Stuart, where the St. Lucie River empties into the Atlantic Ocean, seeing the worst effects — has made its way south into Jupiter, prompting the same result. Also called “cyanobacteria,” this stinking, foamy scum is defined by the Florida Department of Health as “tiny organisms naturally found in water, sometimes producing toxins… blooms can change the water color to blue, green or even orange and red. Swimming in the water can result in skin reactions or even hay fever or flu-like symptoms.”
One of the toxins produced in cyanobacteria, BMAA, has recently been linked to triggering neurological catastrophes like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease.Former CT competitor-turned-boat captain Shea Lopez happened to be fishing in Stuart when the latest algae bloom invaded the ocean. “The snook and all the smart fish were hightailing it for clean water,” he said. “I had a glove on my hand to keep a cut from being exposed to the filth. You know it’s bad when parents won’t allow their children to play in the water. And when there’s surf down there, we’re communicating with friends not about where the waves are best, but where the water is cleanest.”
Naturally, with the tourism-rich Fourth of July weekend approaching, South Florida businesses, environmentalists, politicians and beachgoers of all types, like surfers, are bumming. “We haven’t rented a paddleboard or surfboard since Friday,” Ohana Surf Shop co-owner Tara Schwartz told the Palm Beach Post on Monday. “We cancelled our surfing class, which had 200 children at $40 per person. Closing that beach hurts the entire economy — restaurants, hotels, retail stores, everybody. We’re a beach town.”
This is the first time Martin County has been forced to close its beaches due to algae, so on Tuesday, the Board of County Commissioners called an emergency meeting at their chambers in Stuart to discuss water conditions in the St. Lucie River and other local water bodies. Around the same time, a mass of blobs blanketed a park on the Intracoastal Waterway in West Palm Beach.
“They found green algae on Wednesday in Juno Beach, Jupiter, and even Delray because there’s another canal connected to Lake Okeechobee,” said Evan Miller, founder/president of Citizens 4 Clean Water (C4CW), a Stuart-based, public charity organization aimed at spreading clean water awareness. “Because they have so much to get rid of, they opened up the C-51, straight into Delray. Now it’s everywhere from Stuart to Palm Beach, every county.”
According to Condé Nast Traveler, the problem really started escalating last fall. Record rainfall between November and January caused Lake Okeechobee waters to rise a foot above normal, prompting the South Florida Water Management District to pump water into the lake to protect nearby communities from flooding. Meanwhile, industrial sugar production companies that use that freshwater to irrigate their fields before the excess is reintroduced into the lake grew nervous of the structural integrity of Lake Okeechobee’s dike, so officials diverted the excess into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers.“The algae comes with large amounts of nutrients in the water, like runoff from the farmland north of the lake,” Miller added. “That back-pumping they did in February was done illegally, opening up the C-44 and C-51 to close the hatch on the west coast of Florida. They dumped it out as quick as they could, even though the lake wasn’t at maximum capacity. It was actually a foot lower than what’s considered a dangerous level, so they didn’t need to open the gates. They did it by choice to get rid of that algae.”
David Guest, regional head of the environmental law firm Earthjustice, told Condé Nast Traveler that the chocolatey surge heading into the ocean is “equal to the flow of the largest river in Florida” and is a result of “lax or non-existent regulations of pollution sources in industrial agriculture.”
“Businesses that are water-dependent — commercial fishing, the guides, the hotels, the beaches — are being devastated,” Guest added. “Beyond tourism, the toxic run-off is harming the ecosystems that thrive off the state’s coasts, including seagrasses, oyster beds and fish populations, like the most recent visitors to the state’s Atlantic Coast. Residents, business owners and activists are using social media to call on Governor Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency.”
Guest delivered this statement back in February. It wasn’t until just yesterday that Governor Scott issued Executive Order 16-155 declaring an emergency in Martin and St. Lucie Counties, which allows state and local governments to take action against the spread of the algal blooms by redirecting the water flow in and out of Lake Okeechobee. Many residents, however, feel he acted too late and is doing too little. “We’re being poisoned and the director of this mess is the Governor of Florida,” asserted Stuart-based surf photographer Mark Hill. “Millions of gallons of agriculture run-off, fertilizer/nutrients, are being disposed of in a Third World method.”
While litigators, activists and environmentalists work their way up the political food chain, C4CW is spearheading efforts on the ground, rallying concerned citizens to Stuart Beach this Saturday, July 2nd, at 10am, where participants will spell out BUY THE LAND, hoping for a viral message via aerial photograph. At the very least, C4CW vows to spread understanding of the gravity of the situation; but ultimately hopes to convince the state to buy the land back from the sugar industry.
“We started protesting back in 2013, when we had our first toxic summer here in Stuart,” Miller continued. “This is now the third summer in a row we’ve had toxic algae in our lagoon. We’ve been trying to make as much noise as we can, and we’re getting people educated, but the real problem is a lack of political will. We need to get enough people fired up to hold these officials accountable to do their job and start making some permanent solutions to save Florida’s water. That starts with putting pressure on politicians to take action and push our governor, who can make an executive decision to purchase that land back, because it’s leased to government farmers who’ve never paid property tax or sales tax on it. Florida Atlantic University has done studies over and over again, and the best permanent solution would be to restore the natural flow of water through all that cattail and sawgrass of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), known as the ‘river of grass,’ where the plants naturally eat up the nutrients in the water, making it clean. It would only take a small percentage of the EAA, like 14% percent, and it wouldn’t put anyone out of business because it would create new jobs. But they keep ignoring the solution.”
There’s some big litigations going on right now between Earthjustice, the State of Florida and the Army Corps of Engineers,” Miller finished. “I also saw that Erin Brockovich had made some comments on Facebook, which is good for us. Because we’re really trying to get around big money. And the sugar industry is big money.”
Martin County has established a hotline, 772-320-3112, for the public to obtain daily information on water conditions at local beaches. In the meantime, visit C4CW at http://www.citizensforcleanwater.org/, https://www.facebook.com/citizens4cleanwater/ and https://www.instagram.com/c4cw/ to stay in the loop.