As gloppy, green cyanobacteria overtake southern Florida’s waterways, a debate has erupted over who is to blame for the state’s algae bloom emergency.
It’s a perfect storm, really, and the sort of environmental nightmare that happens precisely when water management issues and inadequate infrastructure funding collide.
Florida has received an overabundance of rainfall this year. In June alone, it received 8.01 inches of rain, almost double what it saw in June 2015. The state has struggled to manage the excess runoff. And it’s not even hurricane season yet.
Typically, the state funnels water to Lake Okeechobee, the New York Times reports. As water levels in the lake rose this year, however, the Army Corps of Engineers had to increase the amount of water that it released from the lake in an effort to protect the almost 80-year-old Herbert Hoover Dike from rupturing.
The imbalance in salinity and polluted runoff from water discharged from Lake Okeechobee caused the odiferous, emerald gunk to flourish. While the cyanobacteria itself isn’t dangerous, the toxins that it releases as it dies, such as microcystin, can cause a variety of unpleasant conditions in humans including headache, nausea, sore throat, diarrhea, and vomiting. It’s also highly detrimental to marine life.
Some officials single out the federal government for not supplying sufficient funding to repair the antiquated infrastructure. Governor Rick Scott blames the Obama administration specifically for not providing the funding to reinforce the cement dam structure in charge of Lake Okeechobee’s water containment.
The dike—built in the 1960s after flooding in the early 1900s killed thousands of people—is in dire need of repair. The Corps of Engineers maintains water levels between 12.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level in an effort to minimize strain on it. Had the Obama administration provided the necessary funding, the governor said in an executive order, “the Corps would not have been required to discharge approximately 30 billion gallons of flood waters from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers and estuaries.”
Others attribute responsibility for the sludgy mess to state politicians for not following through on a 2015 deal to purchase 47,000 acres of land south of Lake Okeechobee to accommodate the water.
“The flow used to go south to the Everglades, and now this is a man-made, criminal disaster,” says Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society, “They, as in the state and federal government, say they can’t send the water south, but they can. This is an absolute atrocity that they are allowed to continue this in the name of agriculture,” Perry told the New York Times, explaining that the area south of the lake has been controlled by sugar farmers and agricultural lobbyists who fund state legislators’ re-election campaigns.
It’s important to point out that since the Governor’s declaration of a state of emergency, the Corps has reduced the amount of water it releases to 3,000 cubic feet per second into the Caloosahatchee Estuary, and 1,170 cubic feet per second into the St. Lucie Estuary. But whether or not this will have an immediate impact on the growth of the green slime remains unclear.
Regardless of who is responsible, the Army Corps of Engineers is faced with a delicate dilemma: control the inordinate amount of water and risk the dam’s failure, or release it downstream and upset the fragile ecosystem, polluting the water ways and damaging the area’s economy.What solutions do you propose?