Several parallels exist between the putrid algae that has sickened South Florida and the green goop that has appeared in western Lake Erie nearly every summer since 1995.
Florida’s Lake Okeechobee and western Lake Erie are both huge, but shallow, bodies of water. That shallowness keeps Lake Okeechobee warm year-round. It allows western Lake Erie to warm up relatively quickly each spring.
Both are especially prone to algal growth because of heavy agricultural runoff that gets into their tributaries.
In Lake Okeechobee’s case, the Kissimmee River south of Orlando carries a large influx of nutrients, many from cattle ranches where nutrients flow off land much as they do off corn fields in northwest Ohio, where a combination of synthetic fertilizers and soil soaked with animal manure gets into the Maumee River, the Sandusky River, and other area streams during heavy rains.
Both areas have problems from housing subdivisions, strip malls, and other forms of urban sprawl added to their soupy messes, including sewage overflows, street runoff, and releases from bad septic systems. Florida environmental groups also claim there’s a huge impact from the state’s powerful sugar industry near Lake Okeechobee.
Experts see parallels between Lake Okeechobee and Lake Erie in terms of missed warning signs, delayed action, and a political tug-of-war that has pitted the powerful agricultural industry against the tourism and recreation industries.
“In the grand scheme of things, it’s all the same: fertilizers,” says Bill Mitsch, an Ohio State University professor emeritus who now serves as Everglades Wetland Research Park eminent scholar and director. Mr. Mitsch is on faculty at Florida Gulf Coast University, holds appointments at the University of Florida and the University of Notre Dame, and is widely viewed as one of America’s top wetlands scientists.
The planet itself has become too nutrient-rich, underscoring the need for more wetland restoration, Mr. Mitsch said.
“Now more than ever we need ecological engineering on our agricultural landscapes,” he said. “Putting excess nutrients in lakes, reservoirs, and rivers that flow directly to coastlines is nuts. Wetlands can adapt much better and serve as a natural sink.”
The most dominant form of algae in both locations is microcystis, one of the world’s most notorious actors behind events that scientists and policy makers commonly refer to as harmful algal blooms, or HABs.
Technically, HABs are cyanobacteria, which is toxin-producing bacteria with a blue-green hue that acts so much like algae it’s hard to distinguish the two. Microcystis isn’t the only algae that produces microcystin, a toxin that killed dozens of people in Brazil years ago and is more lethal than most naturally occurring substances other than dioxin. But it’s the most common.
At 3.5 billion years old, microcystis is not just one of Earth’s oldest-living organisms.
It’s also one of the planet’s most toxic.
“You don’t even want to breathe the air with these toxic blooms,” Brian LaPointe, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, said. “Parents have been keeping their kids indoors.”
South Florida has been wrestling with its latest algae problem for months.
Mark Perry, Florida Oceanic Society executive director, said the toxin concentration in St. Lucie Estuary water was still 86 parts per billion recently, more than eight times the World Health Organization recommended threshold.
Several news articles have cited it at 300 ppb or more in recent weeks, 30 times greater than the WHO’s 10 ppb guideline.
Experts agree climate change and poor land-use practices are underlying reasons why microcystis has been on the rise throughout the world the past two decades, from thousands of small ponds across North America to massive Lake Taihu in China, Lake Victoria in Africa, and virtually any major freshwater body from the Arctic to South America.
Microcystis needs freshwater, sunlight, nutrients, and stagnant air to bloom.
El Nino effect
So how did South Florida’s algal bloom get so big and divert attention away from Lake Erie this summer?
The quick answer: El Nino.
Backtrack to last winter and think about how unusually mild it was.
Climatologists have said the most recent El Nino weather system — the first major one since the winter of 1997-98 — was one the strongest on record.
Although last winter’s El Nino made temperatures pleasant and produced little snow in the Great Lakes region, it caused monsoon-like rain in South Florida during what is normally the Everglades’ dry season.
Much of South Florida got 9 to 12 inches of rain in January, more than any single month in the entire 2015 rainy season.
That part of Florida usually gets less than an inch that month.
As a result, Lake Okeechobee — which is mostly man-made — was holding far more water than it should have.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers greatly expanded the lake to a massive 448,000 acres decades ago, to manage it like a reservoir and protect the region from hurricane-induced flooding, according to Rick Stumpf, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oceanographer and algae researcher in NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science in Silver Spring, Md.
The Corps continues to manage it like a reservoir, Mr. Stumpf said.
With the 2016 rainy season on the horizon, the Corps had to release billions of gallons to local canals and estuaries or risk the collapse of its man-made dike, he said.
“If the water gets too high, there’s a danger the dike will fail,” Mr. Stumpf said.
The Corps needed to avoid what happened in New Orleans in 2005, when the Crescent City’s levees burst because they couldn’t hold back rising water from Hurricane Katrina, he said.
Critics claim the agency didn’t manage the release well enough.
“They got caught flat-footed,” Mr. Mitsch said, claiming the Corps failed to plan ahead and heed El Nino warnings by other federal agencies, such as the National Academy of Science. “We had one storm after another.”
John Capece, director and secretary of an environmental group called the Caloosahatchee River Citizens Association — Riverwatch, said the Corps wasn’t so much caught flat-footed as it was politically driven to cut costs and remain in denial of how much algae would grow once the surplus water was released.
“It was on their radar completely,” Mr. Capece said. “They just thought they could get away with it.”
John Cassani, an aquatic biologist who chairs the Southwest Florida Watershed Council, said the unusually large outbreak demonstrates how “the duration and frequency and magnitude of cyanobacteria is changing” across the globe.
“It just seems like a time bomb,” Mr. Cassani said.
In a statement, Col. Jason Kirk of the Corps said dry weather and the state’s reduction of water flowing into the lake creates an opportunity to “bring some degree of relief to the estuaries experiencing above normal seasonal algal blooms.”
On June 30, Colonel Kirk conceded 2016 has been “a challenging year” for South Florida.
Corps water managers “have dealt with such large quantities of rain and runoff entering the lake that it would cover the entire state of Delaware in two feet of water,” he said.
About three-quarters of the water has been sent toward the Atlantic Ocean; the other quarter toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Water released from Lake Okeechobee has carried algae-growing phosphorus and microcystis seeds, making waterways such as the St. Lucie Estuary a breeding ground for algal blooms.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency and has implored the Obama Administration to declare a national disaster.
Algae is not new in Lake Okeechobee or many of Florida’s 30,000 other-plus lakes, though.
It took on a much higher profile because Lake Okeechobee releases have allowed it to bloom smack in the middle of densely populated areas with upscale housing and popular tourist destinations.
Mr. LaPointe said the St. Lucie Estuary inside the Indian River Lagoon system has received discharges from Lake Okeechobee for decades.
But he also said microcystis wasn’t found in great abundance in that estuary until 2004, and said there has been “an uptick in a variety of HABs” there since 2011.
Mr. LaPointe said South Florida’s “rise in slime” adds to the growing body of evidence that microcystis is proliferating across the world because of climate change and poor land use.
“This is clearly the biggest bloom we’ve had yet in the estuary,” Mr. LaPointe said. “It’s horrible. It’s really affected businesses and home sales.”