DATE: August 14, 2018
SNIP: Florida’s governor this week made official what residents of southwest Florida already knew: The bloom of toxic algae that has darkened gulf waters is an emergency. The red tide has made breathing difficult for locals, scared away tourists, and strewn popular beaches with the stinking carcasses of fish, eels, porpoises, turtles, manatees and one 26-foot whale shark.
Gov. Rick Scott (R) late Monday declared a state of emergency in seven counties stretching from Tampa Bay south to the fringe of the Everglades. Scott promised $1.5 million in emergency funding.
Citizens in retirement communities are reporting respiratory distress from the vapors of the microscopic red-tide organism called Karenia brevis. A recent study found a 50 percent spike in hospital visits due to respiratory problems during red-tide blooms.
Rick Bartleson, a research scientist with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, said water samples offshore show lethally high concentrations of algae.
“There’s no fish left. Red tide killed them all,” he said. “All of our concentrations of red tide are still high and would still kill fish if they were out there.”
[T]he incidences of red tides seem to have increased since the 1950s and 1960s. Climate change could be a factor; warmer waters, up to a certain point, are congenial to algal growth. The Gulf of Mexico’s surface temperature has warmed by about two degrees Fahrenheit since 1977.
There’s a more direct human handprint on the current crisis: Florida’s landscape and the flow of water have been radically altered by agriculture, canals, ditches, dikes, levees and the sprawling housing developments that have sprouted as the state’s population has boomed. Bartleson said Lee County used to be 50 percent wetlands and is now about 10 percent wetlands.
In the old days, he said, rainwater slowly filtered into the aquifer or seeped into estuaries. Now it rushes rapidly, unfiltered, into rivers and bays and into the gulf, typically loaded with agricultural nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, which feed the algae.
Hurricane Irma struck the state head-on last September, and the red-tide bloom began about a month later. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was forced to release massive amounts of nutrient-laden water from Lake Okeechobee to prevent the overtopping of the venerable Hoover Dike.
Those nutrients fueled green algae in the inland canals and rivers and flowed through the Caloosahatchee River into the shallow waters along the Gulf Coast. It is plausible that fueled the red-tide bloom.
Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds, a deputy district engineer for the Corps, addressed and took questions from a crowd of more than 300. She explained that when the lake’s water level approaches 15 feet above sea level, the Corps must release water. A major rain storm could lead to catastrophic flooding and the loss of lives and property.