Blue-green slime and red tide: An in-depth look at Florida's water crisis

- We have a crisis.  We see it on southwest Florida beaches in a rotting stew of dead fish caused by an explosion of a microorganism called Karenia brevis.  And we see it in the Caloosahatchee River and Lake Okeechobee in a brew of blue-green slime, caused by an infestation of cyanobacteria.

Both kill marine life. Both can make people sick. Karenia brevis algae, commonly known as red tide, can cause breathing problems when the toxin drifts in the air. And cyanobacteria emits a neurotoxin scientists have associated with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s Disease. 

"Long-term risks of these toxic algae, the most common one that actually has been studied and the research came out about two years ago, is end-stage liver disease, and that's actually deadly,” warned Dr. Parisima Taeb.

Both cyanobacteria in fresh water and Karenia brevis in salt water feed off nutrients from manure and chemical fertilizers. There lies a big part of the problem. Our state has a combination of leaking septic tanks and fertilizers seeping into our water from lawns, from dairy farms, and from sugar farms.  

Which brings us to the mess in Lake Okeechobee. 

THE ORIGINS OF FLORIDA’S WATER QUALITY CRISIS

Lake Okeechobee naturally flowed south into the Everglades. But nearly a hundred years ago, our government built a dike around it to prevent flooding for people who moved near the lake. The dike redirects the lake flow east into the Atlantic and west into the Gulf of Mexico.  Meanwhile, towns and sugar farms filled in to the south. 

Lake Okeechobee got polluted with fertilizer and pesticide because of runoff from towns and residential development, then from dairy farms to the north and from the sugar fields to the south. 

You may be thinking 'Wait a minute. Those sugar fields are south of the lake. Wouldn’t the runoff go south, away from the lake?’ Yes, it would, except the sugar farmers used to back-pump into the lake and the state continued to back-pump polluted water north into the lake -- again to prevent flooding.

In sunlight and heat, those nutrients cook up thick batches of cyanobacteria, which produces the toxic green sludge in fresh water. And it can feed the Karenia brevis organisms in salt water that cause the red tide fish kills.  

Scientists can't tie the flow of pollution from the lake to red tide, because red tide naturally occurs in the gulf. But they say it could be making it more intense. 

DIFFERENT GOVERNORS, DIFFERENT PLANS

Homeowners, boaters, and businesses that depend on tourism are livid.

“I’m angry,” dockside store manager Shawna Ulrich complained.  “We moved here for a reason. People come here for a reason. It's beautiful; the waters normally can be beautiful.”

We know we've had this crisis for decades. And in the 1980s, former governor Bob Graham took the lead in trying to fix it. He created the state agency to control urban sprawl and then launched and led the 'Save Our Everglades' campaign to restore the natural flow of Lake Okeechobee through the Everglades. 

Graham's successors tried to keep it going in different ways. But as legal battles and politics set in, plans sputtered and had a way of going south more than the water. 

For example, in the 1990s, voters passed an amendment to make polluters pay for cleanup.  But the legislature failed to implement it at first, then watered it down. 

Then in 2000, President Clinton and former governor Jeb Bush struck a deal called the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. The state and feds agreed to split the cost of cleaning up and restoring the Everglades through a series of water-storage projects. But Congress did not live up to its end of the deal.

Then Charlie Crist shifted to a much bolder plan to restore the ecosystem.  The governor struck a deal to buy out and shut down 187,000 acres of sugar farms for $1.75-billion. 

But the state scaled that back. Then Crist ran for Senate instead of seeing it through, and effectively left the option to buy much of the land to his successor, Rick Scott.

Governor Scott took a pass.  He wanted to spur business and development in a bad economy, so he relaxed environmental regulations and state controls on urban sprawl, and slashed funding for environmental protection. 

Then as the economy improved, he ramped up money for the environment.  He signed a deal to spend $32-million a year improving the Everglades through water treatment and storage systems.  

Environmentalists praise him for that, but rip him for the prior cuts and for slashing oversight.

THE STATE GOVERNMENT’S ROLE 

As state government faces an environmental nightmare from the Everglades to the coast, it should remember the tourist campaign it launched nearly 40 years ago with the slogan, “When you need it bad, we've got it good!”

That campaign worked because people come to Florida for the idea of Florida -- the rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, and natural gems from coast to coast. That’s remained the core of the state's marketing strategy. 

Florida Democrats and Republicans both have a green streak you don't see as much in other states. They know if they preserve our environment, our state economy will thrive.

“Republicans bragged of their coastal and environmental protection records, just like Democrats,” explained Darden Rice, a St. Pete City Council member and former Florida director for the Gulf Restoration Network.

To understand the water pollution crisis and the blame game right now in state government, you need to look back at our history of how big development has fed the pollution and how that big development suddenly took off after World War II. 

We had a national lag in home construction, a baby boom, and a game-changing invention: The expansion of modern air conditioning.  Meanwhile the creation of the interstates drove sudden mass migration south to the promise of Florida -- and its natural gems and higher quality of life. 

That drove rapid development of shopping centers and cheap subdivisions.  

It just kept going and, by the 1980s, that continuous building boom caught up to us in a mess of clogged roads, water issues, and pollution.

"We had a lot of people on board on both sides of the aisle -- environmentalists, business owners, and everybody -- saying wait a minute, if we don’t protect what we have, we’re not going to continue to attract people here,” said Lisa Vanover of the Florida League of Women Voters.

Governor Bob Graham created a system to restore the environment and control the sprawl.  He created what we call state growth management through an agency called the Department of Community Affairs.

“When a new development project was being proposed, you needed to take into account what is the impact on water," recalled the Sierra Club’s Frank Jackalone.

The Department of Community Affairs reviewed big building projects to make sure they were needed, and did not compromise natural resources.  The next five governors kept it going.  Until the legislature and Governor Rick Scott dismantled it.

THE RICK SCOTT ERA

Scott rode the Tea Party movement into office, which focused on the reducing the reach of government.
He said the state was reaching too far into local affairs, stifling big development deals that fuel jobs. 

To that end, Scott and his allies in the legislature dismantled the department of community affairs and state growth management.

The new philosophy was that local governments know what's in the best interests of their communities, and that state bureaucrats should not get in the way. 

Of course, many environmentalists beg to differ. 

"These larger projects overwhelmed the resources that many of these smaller cities and counties or less-populated counties have, where they don’t have scientists, they don’t have hydro-geologists," explained Darden Rice.

“They will make a decision that they see that benefits their jurisdiction, but they don’t think about what’s going to happen in the bordering community,” Jackalone added.

Meanwhile, the state also made it harder for citizens to challenge major building projects, by shifting the burden of proof over whether they could harm natural resources.  Again, the goal was to jumpstart growth and bring back jobs after the great recession. 

As more development spread across the state, so has the use of fertilizer. That’s how the decision to dismantle growth management relates to the water crisis. 

When rain washes that fertilizer into our drainage systems, the nutrients that feed grass can also feed the blooms of bacteria that foul up our lakes and rivers.  At the same time, aging septic tanks also leak and feed the blooms.

The legislature had passed a law requiring septic tank inspections every five years.  But in 2012, Governor Scott and the legislature got rid of those inspections to save homeowners from paying for them.  So based on estimates, more than 2.5 million tanks across the state are not getting checked for leaks.

And while cutting septic state inspections and dismantling state growth management, the governor also slashed funding for the offices that monitor water quality.  Numbers from Florida International University show we went from 350 monitoring stations down to 115. 

"It's harmful for our ability to respond and to say a crisis is coming," Frank Jackalone continued.

Meanwhile, the state’s water management districts are directly responsible for protecting water quality and natural resources. But in 2011, Governor Scott bragged about slashing all of their budgets, by hundreds of millions of dollars. 

The governor now says the water districts set their own budgets -- but he approved them and signed the law reducing their funds. 

As all of this was playing out, Governor Scott also cut funding at DEP, the agency that polices and cracks down on polluters.  Environmentalists at a group called PEER tracked the number of enforcement cases to show the nosedive under the Scott administration: From opening around 1,500 cases a year under Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, down to around 250 a year under Scott -- which the Scott administration explains by citing a high compliance rate, suggesting there aren't many bad actors to crack down on. 

DON'T SAY "CLIMATE CHANGE"

Environmentalists tie the toxic algae blooms in our fresh water to climate change because the organisms that cause those blooms need nutrients and heat.  And as water gets hotter, it creates a better climate for the organisms to grow. 

So for years, environmentalists have ripped Governor Scott for not taking a position on climate change and dodging our questions about it. 

“Look, I’m not an expert in this,” the governor famously said while avoiding one of many such questions.

Scott has also taken heat for his admitted lack of a plan to address the gas pollution scientists say is causing our climate to change.  In fact, after the governor reportedly banned his staff from even saying “climate change” and his top natural disaster manager could not say it, lawmakers from both parties laughed in his face. 

Now, Scott touts his increases in environmental funding since the economy improved, and he blames the pollution crisis on the federal government. 

"It’s all caused because the federal government didn't do their job,” he insisted.

THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT'S ROLE

The federal government has indeed failed Florida in a couple of ways. Eighteen years ago, the feds agreed to share costs of Everglades cleanup.  Then federal money dried up during the George W. Bush administration. 

Also, the federal government is responsible for maintaining the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee. That dike has been in disrepair for years, which means they can't contain as much of the polluted water within the lake. They have to discharge more of it east and west, fouling up more of the rivers and estuaries so the ailing dike won't fail.

"The algae is caused because the federal government has not done their job,” Scott insisted. “The federal government’s job responsibility is to fix the dike at Lake Okeechobee. That’s a 100-percent a federal project."

To his credit, Governor Scott pushed for -- and got -- a huge financial commitment from the federal government to work on the dike. That includes more than $500-million this year to speed up repairs. 

“By 2022, the dike will be able to hold a lot more water. So hopefully at that point we won't see the algae blooms,” he continued.

Scott's strategy is to – first – contain pollution within Lake Okeechobee by fixing the dike so it can hold more water. Then, speed up construction of a new deep-water reservoir that can hold more water until they can treat it and release it south. 

Environmentalists support the concept, though they say the dike should be repaired for flood control, not storing polluted water.

"He’s talking about creating two giant bathtubs in the everglades,” Jackalone observed.

And they want that new deep-water reservoir to be wider and more shallow so it will be less likely to fail as it ages.

"How do you control that structure, prevent it from cracking and releasing like a dam? They’re predicting wave action in that giant reservoir,” continued Jackalone.

THE LOCAL GOVERNMENTS' ROLE

The governor is right about the dike problems and the lapses from the feds. But clean water advocates like the League of Women Voters say the pollution crisis goes well beyond the that.

“I think all parties have some culpability, but this is not a situation where you can say you can pass this buck,” Vanover stated.

To that point, local governments across the state have also contributed to the mess by not maintaining their sewers. Heavy rains swamp their systems and flush wastewater that's not fully treated into our natural waters – which, again, feeds the organisms that foul up the water.   

St. Petersburg is a striking example of a city that neglected its systems for decades -- until they failed in 2015, releasing a flood of wastewater into the bay. 

"We see this trend across the country where local governments chronically underfunded replacement and maintenance of our infrastructure,” St. Pete’s Darden Rice said.  “We deferred maintenance, deferred maintenance, deferred maintenance."

St. Pete has finally committed to a long-term fix. Many other local governments have not. 

"They have other priorities that they want to spend their money on. So until a crisis comes, they put the blinders on,” Jackalone offered. “You know -- see no evil."

RESEARCH COSTS MONEY

We've shown you how this feeds the toxic bacterial blooms in fresh water. Scientists cannot say it's also causing the red tide outbreaks in salt water because red tide regularly occurs in nature.  But scientists also say the pollution we pump into the water can make the red tide worse.  

"We should not ignore the impacts that human activities do have in exasperating the red tide events,” stated Dr. Michael Crosby of Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.

That's how scientists relate fertilizer runoff and leaky septic tanks and wastewater to red tide. 

"By controlling the inputs of nutrients from human activities, we will get a better handle and ability on getting our ocean ecosystems back into balance,” Dr. Crosby continued. “But you will not get rid of red tide." 

Researchers at Mote are working on ways to fight red tide.  An experiment in Boca Grande showed how they could pump water through a system that kills the toxic bacteria, then releases the cleansed water back into canals. 

“We’re studying red tide. We're trying to understand what causes it. I mean, we know it's natural. It's been around for thousands of years. But what can we do about it?” wondered Mote’s Richard Pierce. “That’s the big question.”

As they try to answer that question, their funding has gone down through the years.  A Politico budget analysis also showed how state funding for red tide research has gone down by millions of dollars the past 10 years.

The state cut funding during the Great Recession and did not restore it to what it was as the economy improved. 

The Politico analysis showed, on average, Florida spent nearly $4-million a year under then-governor Crist.  Then it dropped to $2.5 million on average in the last seven years under Governor Scott. 

Scott's team says funding has been more consistent under his administration and it's making a greater commitment to red tide now.  

That would also appear to follow a bit of a pattern. Mote Marine sent us stats through the last 20 years, showing how state and federal funding tend to go up after a red tide outbreak, then funding dwindles when red tide clears and fades from the daily news cycle. 

LINK: FOX 13 local red tide coverage

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