Brink: Toxic algae blooms from Lake Okeechobee are a stain on Florida

A boat sails through a deepening algae bloom across the Caloosahatchee River last week. Miami Herald
A boat sails through a deepening algae bloom across the Caloosahatchee River last week. Miami Herald
Published July 3, 2018

Dark green ooze is not good for the state's image.

It's the antithesis of clear blue waters. It screams health risk. You know it smells even if you only see it in photographs.

It's also bad for business.

Once again, the communities along the waterways that flow out of Lake Okeechobee are dealing with toxic algae blooms. This isn't an out-of-sight problem, easily ignored. Blooms started popping up weeks ago on the state's east coast, near Stuart, Palm City and the other towns around the St. Lucie River. The Caloosahatchee River, which flows west from the lake towards Fort Myers and Sanibel Island, is also loaded with the slime.

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As the blooms build up near the coasts, expect a steady stream of aerial shots showcasing this environmental black eye. If it gets bad enough, the Weather Channel will report on it daily. CNN could do a live stand-up from a dock covered in the green mess. Fox News might do a fly over. The BBC could blast it around the world. Even without the pros, amateurs armed with drones will fill social media with sweeping panoramic photos and videos, often with commentary dripping with indignation.

This is now the state's recurring public relations challenge, like hurricanes, but preventable and smellier. A massive bloom hit the same areas in the spring of 2016 and lingered into the summer, slamming the door on the tourist season before it could really get started. Many smaller outbreaks have also struck in the past two decades.

The blooms suffocate estuaries and canals. They kill fish, oysters and sea grass. The turquoise bays — once postcard ready — turn black.

The carnage seeps into the local economies, even if it's hard to measure exactly how many tourists get put off coming, or don't return. Anglers go elsewhere, idling fishing guides. Hotels don't get booked. Restaurants can't turn as many tables. Gas stations aren't as busy. The local grocery store doesn't sell supplies.

"We're hearing from our customers that this is it," Ryan Markosky, manager of a bicycle-rental store in Sanibel Island, told the Tampa Bay Times after a massive bloom in 2016. "They're not coming back."

The algae appears to incubate in Lake Okeechobee, which contains too many nutrients. Heavy rains then force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release the toxic brew into nearby waterways.

Blame is abundant: over development, poor planning, bad design, intractable politics, the governor, the Legislature, Big Sugar, leaky septic tanks, runoff from ranches, storm water from cities.

Finding a bogeyman doesn't matter as much as solving the problem.

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Last week, the Army Corps said it would stop releasing water to the east for nine days, in hopes that the tides would flush the algae. That could help in the short term, as long as it doesn't rain some more, which could force more releases from the lake. And it does little to prevent an outbreak next year or the year after that.

The ongoing work to fortify the dike should help keep more water in the lake, and allow the Army Corps to release water in smaller amounts. But that won't control all the waster water coming into the lake.

So far, we've taken too many baby steps, too many temporary fixes. This is not going away on its own. In fact, given the state's ever-growing population, it's likely to get worse without a comprehensive solution.

For a state so dependent on tourism, it cannot keep playing so loose with its reputation. This is a stain, one that the whole world can see.

Florida's three certainties cannot become Disney, sunshine and toxic algae blooms.

Contact Graham Brink at (727) 893-8406. Follow @GrahamBrink

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