What happens when it rains nearly every day for more than a month during the hot, summer months?
Last July in Central Florida it meant an overflowing Lake Okeechobee and the dumping of millions of gallons of polluted freshwater into the region’s rivers and estuaries. The rain also helped spark toxic algae blooms that have some calling for a $220 million water conservation and clean-up plan Florida lawmakers could take up next session.
What Happens In 'Lake-O' Doesn't Stay In 'Lake-O'
“It’s a little bit different flavor for every estuary and every system in South Florida, including the Everglades.” --Steven Davis, Everglades Foundation
Everglades Foundation scientist Steven Davis' Miami office sits in the former headquarters of Burger King, overlooking the clear, sparkling blue waters of Biscayne Bay. But last summer those pristine waters looked more like a green cesspool, and smelled equally as bad. The Florida Department of health put up advisory notices telling people to stay away. The cause of the algae bloom that enveloped the bay, described as one of the worst the waterway has seen, is still unknown, but Davis says the answer could lie with Central Florida’s Lake Okeechobee.
“We’re discharging large volumes of water down the Caloosahachee and St. Lucie [Rivers] and that water is polluted, said Davis. " It creates two problems. It’s too much freshwater for those estuaries, but it’s also too much polluted water as well that leads to algae blooms."
Adding to the water runoff problems, are Central and South Florida's plumbing systems-- the network of canals and dams running throughout the regions in order to make the areas habitable for humans. Lake Okeechobee is connected to the Kissimmee River, which carries water to the Everglades. But there, a series of canals and dams have also caused problems.
"In the Everglades, it’s a lack of freshwater, and what freshwater it does receive is polluted," Davis said. The diversion of water in the Kissimmee has taken away a natural water filtration system for the Everglades.
From North To South, Toxic Algae Hits Everywhere
Many of the water bodies that saw the worst algae blooms this summer originate at a single source: Lake Okeechobee. The Caloosahachee and St. Lucie Rivers run to the East and West of the Lake. Both saw algae blooms. But the St. Johns River, which flows north from Central Florida, also experienced a bloom so toxic the Florida Department of Health issued advisories.
Even today, there are signs of algae spotting the St. Johns River. While touring the river with St. Johns River Keeper Lisa Rinaman, a man walk off his dock and dumps something into the water. Rinaman says humans, or more importantly, human waste, are a big part of what is ailing the St. Johns. That waste comes from some 16,000 septic tanks, many which are failing:
“That’s been a major issue that we’re not happy with the city of Jacksonville right now," she says, "because they’re diverting millions and millions of dollars from phasing out septic tanks on our waterways, to buying water quality trading credits.”
Much of the pollution-reduction work in Duval County has fallen to the county’s waste management program, called JEA. The utility has met and surpassed its reduction goals, allowing it to sell credits to other groups trying to do the same. The City of Jacksonville has purchased some of those credits to count toward its goals. It’s also trying to get rid of those failing septic tanks along the river. But decreasing the amount of pollution in the St. Johns, says City of Jacksonville Director of Public Works Jim Robinson isn’t just a matter of cleaning up the nearby water:
“Over 60 percent of the nitrogen loading in Jacksonville comes upstream [ the river flows north from Lake Okeechobee]. We start with 60 percent bad when it gets here. It’s more than a local issue. It’s a state issue.”
The St. Johns River got lucky this year. Although “luck” in this case is relative: unlike previous years, there were no massive animal die-offs from the algae. That’s not the case for Central Florida’s Indian River Lagoon, an offshoot of the St. Lucie River.
The Lost Summer
“One hundred percent of them died. All of them died," says Florida Oceanographic Society Scientist Vincent Encomio describing the fate of the St. Lucie River oysters.
The Indian River Lagoon is East of Lake Okeechobee, cushioned between the city of Stuart and the Atlantic Ocean. Resort hotels and coastal homes line Hutchinson Island, where tourism is the local economy. It’s also where the Florida Oceanographic Society is located. This summer’s algae blooms were a big problem.
“In Stuart, we’re considering this the lost summer," said Society Spokeswoman Meghan Roberts. "The water had been deemed toxic by the health department for five months. What brings us to the areas, it was toxic. Do not come in contact with this water. People were experiencing rashes and sicknesses like flu and lung infections—all from the breakdown of the algae.”
Florida Oceanographic Society researchers are now trying to rebuild the decimated oyster beds by collecting shells from nearby seafood restaurants.
On the pathway down to the river, there are three massive piles of empty shells, and they smell like the rotting seafood they are. Encomio explains there are more than 140 acres of habitat to replant, and the piles of empty oyster shells are just a drop in the river.
"It’s still going to be less than an acre, but we’re getting into several hundred square feet of reef for sure," he says about the piles of shells the group has gathered.
State Lawmakers Take Interest
The causes of excess phosphorous and nitrogen in the water bodies vary, but the summer of 2014 was bad enough to catch lawmakers’ attention. Among them, Republican Senator Joe Negron, whose home district is in Stuart.
“I like to vote for/against people who can raise my taxes or lower my taxes, who can make decisions that affect my life, and who can decide when to flood my community with water," Negron said during a November committee hearing on the region's water woes.
Throughout the summer, Negron and other state lawmakers held a series of meetings to address Florida’s water quality problems—many which stem from the polluted Lake Okeechobee discharges. In November, the senator unveiled a $220 million list of projects, including asking the federal government to give Florida control of the Lake Okeechobee discharges, and restoring natural water flow routes throughout Central and South Florida.
“My message to the Treasure Coast and Southwest Florida is that more help is on the way," he said.
But that plan will have to compete with others for funding. By the March start of the 2014 legislative session, Florida’s 2013 summer water woes will be nearly a year old and may not be top-of-mind for the lawmakers Negron hopes will wake up and smell the oysters.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the headwaters of the St. Johns River as Lake Okeechobee. The St. Johns begins in a marsh in Indian River County. Also, the Kissimmee River feeds Lake Okeechobee, not the other way around.