Oozing Green and Blue Algae Takes Over South Florida’s Beaches

algae-takes-over-fl-beaches

A rancid smell penetrated the front of Marisa and Duncan Baskin’s one-story house, which rests less than 100 feet from an inlet of the St. Lucie River in this tourist hamlet just inside the Atlantic coastline that bills itself as “America’s Happiest Seaside Town.”

But the Baskins — whose 22-month-old daughter, like Ms. Baskin, suffers from asthma — and their neighbors are not so happy these days. In the water of the inlet of their subdivision in Northriver Shores, an inch-thick layer of bubbling ooze and slime emits a stench so overwhelming that none of the neighbors go outside.

In fact, the Baskins were preparing Friday to stay with friends across town for the weekend just to get away from the green and blue algae bloom that has overtaken their small neighborhood marina, from which most neighbors have moved their boats.

“Our lives revolve around the water; we have a boat, surfboards, and there’s nothing really to do here without the water,” Ms. Baskin, 31, a lifelong resident of Stuart who works as a social worker at a local hospital, said Friday. “And I think our governor and local politicians are to blame. This isn’t the first time this has happened, but it’s definitely the worst.”

At play are many of the forces that define modern Florida: competing environmental, residential and agricultural interests, a failure by state officials to invest in managing the demands of growth, finger pointing between state and federal officials. The result has been an environmental nightmare playing out here, about 35 miles from the source of the problem in Lake Okeechobee.

There, an aging dike system forces the Army Corps of Engineers to release controlled discharges through channel locks east and west from the lake to protect nearby towns from flooding. However, those discharges, which carry pollutants from agricultural lands that flow into the lake from the north, pour into rivers and lagoons downstream, which eventually dump into the ocean. When too much polluted discharge from Okeechobee hits areas downstream like the St. Lucie River estuary in Stuart, for example, the blend of fresh and salt water creates giant phosphorescent plumes of algae, making the water unsafe for human and aquatic life alike.

This week, Gov. Rick Scott declared states of emergency in Martin, St. Lucie, Palm Beach and Lee Counties, and Senators Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and Marco Rubio, a Republican, both visited the scene, expressing concern.

The Corps of Engineers is dealing with a dike nearly 80 years old with structural problems. It was originally designed during a time when environmental preservation was not an issue. Engineers also have to balance the concerns of environmentalists with the need to safeguard area residents — more than eight million people are affected by the water system, according to a corps spokesman, John Campbell.

“We’re constantly having to balance the potential of an environmental impact from releasing water against the very real public safety hazard of containing the water and the hazard that poses by putting pressure on the dike itself,” Mr. Campbell said by telephone Thursday from Jacksonville, Fla. “The system is so constrained that everything that was low-hanging fruit has been done so far. We are left with few options or constraints to work with.”

He said the water levels the Army Corps gauges to determine how to react to discharges are between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet. The lake is currently at 14.9 feet, roughly a foot higher than it was during the last crisis at the same time of year in 2013, Mr. Campbell said.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Les Neuhaus