Months After Algae Blooms Invade Martin County, We Explore What’s Being Done To Ensure This Doesn’t Happen Again
It hasn’t been long since a bloom of algae washed onto Treasure Coast shores, resulting in local concern and national coverage. Writer Ike Crumpler talks with scientists, politicians and U.S. Sugar in order to tap into what can and will be done to stop the ooze from contaminating our waterways in the future.
Now this was something new.
And even for all the damage—environmentally and economically—Martin County residents and business owners have seen affect the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon during the decades, this was particularly horrifying.
Green, gooey waves rolling ashore on Martin County beaches.
“Visually, it makes a big impact on people,” says Jordan Schwartz, owner of Ohana Surf Shop in Stuart. “Even in 2013 we still had positive numbers because the water outbreak didn’t affect the beaches. Once it made it to the ocean, every high school kid that I know who would pack the beaches here would go to Jupiter.”
The onslaught of blue-green algae—spotted in a 33-square-mile bloom in Lake Okeechobee in May—was first reported in Martin County waters in June. Images and quotes about “guacamole-thick” algae blooms amassing in our waterways made national, then international, headlines.
In June, hundreds of enraged citizens packed an emergency meeting held by the Martin County Commission.
“This year was a real wake-up call,” Schwartz says. “To see the businesses and the homeowners and the retirees and everyone angry together, you knew this really affected the entire community.”
Much of the anger was directed at the sugar industry, which owns and farms land in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of the lake. This property is widely viewed as vital for public purchase or usage to move excess water from Lake Okeechobee south. Instead, the water is discharged through canals west into the St. John’s River, and east into the St. Lucie River, Indian River Lagoon and—evidenced this time like never before—onto some beaches.
“Our employees, many who live in Martin County, were saddened to see the algae blooms that affected the local waterways,” Judy Sanchez, senior director of corporate communications and public affairs for U.S. Sugar, wrote in an email.
The farms didn’t experience any algae blooms, Sanchez says, even though “half of Lake Okeechobee’s discharges have been sent south.”
The sugar industry, Sanchez adds, has worked hard to reduce the levels of nutrients associated with its fertilizers and farming activities and achieved significant results.
“Through best management practices—which were developed working with the University of Florida—farmers south of the lake have reduced phosphorus by an annual average of 55 percent over the last 21 years,” she says, “far exceeding the state requirement of 25 percent.”
BLAME FOR BLOOM MISPLACED—SOMEWHAT
The nutrients that caused the algae bloom didn’t originate on the sugar farms south of the lake, says Dr. Zack Jud, director of education at Florida Oceanographic Society.
“A lot of people really want to blame Sugar for everything, but those nutrients don’t come from Sugar,” he says. “Those are coming from points north, central farms, urban areas.
“However,” Jud continues, “those sugar farms south of Lake Okeechobee are standing in the way of meaningful solutions.”
The proposed solution drawing the loudest public support involves purchasing or partnering on the usage of land south of the lake to move mass amounts of water south.
In August, Sen. Joe Negron, president-designate of the Florida Senate, unveiled a proposal to set aside $100 million of documentary stamp revenue during the next 20 years to acquire and construct reservoirs on land south of the lake, pledging to make securing the funding a priority of his term.
At a workshop in Jensen Beach on the Lake Okeechobee watershed, the South Florida Water Management District hosted informative charrettes with scientists, fishermen, engineers, government employees, advocates and concerned members of the community.
“You can store one acre-foot of water on one acre—and we have to store 25,000 acre-feet of water,” says Bob Verrastro, lead hydrogeologist with the district. “There are above ground features. Another option we have is to store water below ground.”
Options include Aquifer Storage and Recovery, where water is injected to recharge the upper region of the Florida aquifer 1,000 feet below ground. At this depth, the water can be retrieved later during drought periods. The other option is deep-well injection, 3,000 feet below the earth’s surface for permanent disposal.
“We’re always interested in knowing more about the various innovations and initiatives that can help put an end to the discharges,” says Jim Chrulski, director of community services for the city of Stuart, who attended the workshop.
Stuart remains assertive in its water quality efforts, completing restoration projects in 17 watershed basins, leading the state in its comprehensive use of baffle boxes, providing incentives that prompted more than 50 percent of its residents to transition from septic tanks to sewers and passing one of the region’s first fertilizer ordinances.
“By understanding how these options work, we’re better prepared to focus on the ones we want to support with our legislative initiatives,” Chrulski adds.
On the disaster-recovery side, a compelling approach to removing the algae bloom made a massive splash on social media when Ecosphere Technologies Inc. of Stuart deployed at Outboards Only Marina in Jensen Beach.
“We were doing two things: Disinfecting the water and increasing the oxygen levels in the body of water so that algae can’t survive,” says Corey McGuire, marketing director for Ecosphere Technologies.
About the size of a football field, massive clumps of coagulating algae, even topped with dead fish, crusted over the surface of the water at Outboards Only. The conditions proved too dangerous for the marina staff to work.
“The density of the algae was 10 to 12 inches think,” says Stephen Leighton, a partner in Ecosphere who broadcasted, using Facebook Live. “The smell was overbearing. The burning sensation to your eyes was alarming. Hundreds of dead fish on top of the water. Nobody (at the marina) was working.
“We got a call from Outboards Only: ‘What can we do? How can we get back open? I have 30-plus boats sitting that need to be repaired, and we’re going to go out of business,’” Leighton recalls.
Using technology often used to cleanse nutrient-laden cow ponds on agricultural lands, Ecosphere—deploying at their own costs—encountered water at Outboards Only with oxygen levels as low as the Dead Sea, Leighton says, something studies later confirmed. The company pumped water into a tractor-trailer apparatus and through its patented advanced oxidation process that works free of filters and chemicals.
The water returned to the marina cleaned, something the Ecosphere team believed so heartily at the end of the effort, they all jumped off a marina dock and into the now-clear water.
Although some critics raised questions about unintended consequences associated with the technology, Leighton says Ecosphere is garnering public and political support with hopes of eventual it securing funding to clean water in the Okeechobee Waterway before it makes its way through the St. Lucie Locks.
ALGAE’S POTENTIAL HEALTH HAZARDS
Other toxins potentially associated with the algae alarm experts, Jud says.
“The state was only testing for a very limited number of toxic compounds,” Jud says. “ß-Methylamino-L-alanine, or BMAA, which was ignored by the state of Florida, is a chemical linked to neurodegenerative disorders. The scary thing about BMAA is that it’s believed to persist in the environment for a long time. It’s not ephemeral. It’s not transient. It can be absorbed in the food chain. There’s not a lot of good data out there, but the data that is out there is very compelling. BMAA might linger in the environment long after the algae is gone.”
The parents of a 16-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter, Jordan and Tara Schwartz, opened their surf shop 10 years ago.
“We started when kids were 6 and 4 to show them that we could be a small family business that makes a big impact in our community,” Jordan Schwartz says, “We could make a living and provide for our community, but always give back to our community.”
They started Surfers for Autism, a now nationally recognized surfing program for the Special Olympics.
“In 2013, we started to realize, Wow, there’s some huge environmental issues that are going to affect our business, the wildlife, our kids’ abilities to use the water,” says Schwartz, who once orchestrated a petition to get local grocery stores to stop stocking certain Sugar products.
Even after the “Lost Summer” of 2013 and this year’s invasion of blue-green algae, business steadily recovered for Ohana Surf Shop, Schwartz says. But he knows of other small businesses dependent on the water that struggled to get by, as well as a couple that closed down.
“I’ve talked to so many people who are moving—who are done with Martin County, and who are moving. We’re going to lose an awesome generation of fisherman,” Schwartz says. “I think every rain freaks people, and one more of these summers, and I think you’ll see a lot of business go.”
The best hope for a solution, Schwartz says, is to involve the sugar industry, which may mean a two-way shift—in how the public assigns blame and how much responsibility the industry accepts.
“We need to get them to the table—not to blame them, but there has to be a point where they accept some responsibility,” he says. “Even if they would just give in a little, then people would relax. But instead, they take zero responsibility.”
Although she stopped short of citing any specific proposal, Sanchez of U.S. Sugar provided this: “We are committed to working with all fellow stakeholders in finding science-based solutions that will reduce discharges into the coastal estuaries,” she writes.