Drive to keep Kings Bay from being smothered by toxic algae treats symptom, not cause

Raking Kings Bay area algae blooms treats a symptom of pollution. The cause is unchecked.
Published December 17 2012
Updated December 17 2012

Last month, Florida's top environmental regulator took a boat tour of a Citrus County spring, joined by the chairman of the state Senate's Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee.

Sen. Charlie Dean and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard rode around Kings Bay and praised a project called "One Rake at a Time" that has so far removed an estimated 400 tons of toxic algae blooms from the spring-fed bay.

Afterward, Vinyard told the Citrus County Chronicle that he was delighted with the project: "I think the time for studies are over. We want to focus on helping with projects which hopefully can get the bay back to what it used to be."

There's only one problem, said Michael Lusk, manager of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, which includes Kings Bay: "It's a classic case of treating the symptoms and not the cause."

The man who everyone says has done the most to get the goopy algae out of Kings Bay, retired financial planner Art Jones, agrees with Lusk. Jones, who launched the "One Rake at a Time" project last year through his local Rotary Club, says he has talked the club into trying a new statewide program he called "One Gallon at a Time."

"We're going to ask people to stop irrigating their lawns," he said. "We should let them be green when Mother Nature decides to water them, and let them be golden when she doesn't."

In Crystal River, the health of Kings Bay is tied to the future of the town. Ever since Crystal River was featured in a 1972 Jacques Cousteau television special called Forgotten Mermaids, tourists have flocked from around the world to see and to swim with the manatees in its gin-clear springs.

But in recent years the water has turned dark, tainted by pollution. "You can barely see half the time," complained Doug Stamm, author of The Springs of Florida.

Some local residents have blamed the manatees for polluting the water.

"I am certainly not an expert on manatee poop," Lusk said, but pointed to other causes that are causing similar problems at springs throughout the state: excess fertilizer, leaky sewer and septic tanks, and domestic animal waste. The nitrates from those sources are fueling a runaway bloom of a type of alga known as Lyngbya that has become a human health problem at a number of springs.

Twelve years ago, a study of Kings Bay by the Southwest Florida Water Management District — commonly known as Swiftmud — noted that toxic Lyngbya had already spread to the point that it "dominated areas of Kings Bay causing habitat destruction, navigation and recreational use impairment and odor problems."

That 2000 study found that the nitrate pollution fueling the blooms originated "within 5 to 10 miles from the Crystal River/Kings Bay system, traveling through the groundwater system and entering Kings Bay through the springs system."

Of all the 135 named springs in the 16-county area that Swiftmud oversees, the 30 springs in Kings Bay have suffered the most from algae, Swiftmud officials say. But the DEP is not scheduled to set maximum limits on the pollution flowing into the bay until next year. During his visit, Vinyard also announced a $1.1 million reclaimed water project designed to trim local groundwater pumping and reduce the amount of treated sewage filtering into the aquifer by 16 percent.

Swiftmud has spent more than $2.5 million studying Kings Bay and teaching the public about cutting fertilizer use. So far there has been no decrease in either the pollution or the Lyngbya.

Local and state government agencies formed a "Kings Bay Working Group" to look for solutions, said Crystal River City Manager Andy Houston, with little success.

"It's been frustrating," Houston said. "They have met and they have studied and they have reviewed and hypothesized, but I don't think anybody has a clear answer on how to stop it."

In the mid 1990s, longtime dive shop operator Sam Lyons spearheaded a push to dredge the gunk from parts of Kings Bay.

"It cleaned up real well," he said. "But it just didn't stay that way."

Two years later the gunk was as bad as ever, he said, and the cost of dredging the system out on a regular basis proved too steep for the county and Swiftmud to continue it.

In 2009, Jones tried using volunteers with rakes to collect Lyngbya. That first cleanup barely made a dent. Last year Jones recruited Rotary volunteers to start a regular harvest.

"The idea was to get in there with rakes and kayaks and start cleaning it up," he said. "The sand bottom is still there under the algae."

The "One Rake" program has proved extremely popular. More than 300 people have participated, Jones said, including a couple who donated a diver vacuum. Dean tried to get the state to put $100,000 into expanding the program, only to see Taxwatch label it as a "turkey."

"They can go to hell!" Dean said of Taxwatch. "So I got vetoed, and I got very upset about it." He promised to try again in the 2013 legislative session.

But Dean — who led this year also led the charge to repeal a law requiring inspection and cleanup of leaky septic tanks, a law that was supposed to help clean up springs pollution — said he had no specific springs-protection legislation to pass.

That's the problem Lusk sees. The algae-raking is popular because it shows instant results — but "until we deal with the fact that less freshwater is coming out of the spring and the water that's coming out has nitrates in it, we won't fix the problem," he said.

Jones says Lusk is right. He's sure once people know the woe they're causing, they will want to fix it. That's why he thinks his ambitious new program targeting lawn-watering will work eventually.

But until it takes off, he said, he's got to keep raking.

"It's incremental," he said, "but at least we're doing something."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.