This article first appeared in Bloomberg Environmental.
The Florida toxic algae crisis that’s dampening tourism isn’t likely to get an easy fix from Washington, but a combination of technology, protecting swamps, and limiting fertilizer might provide solutions.
The state’s southern coasts are suffering a two-pronged outbreak of algae that is the worst Florida has seen in recent years, according to Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida.
Much of state leaders’ attention is being spent on speeding up construction of a reservoir and repairs to the dike around Lake Okeechobee—projects that many agree will help but won’t be completed for at least a few years.
In the meantime, technologies like a robotic sensing platform that IBM Corp. plans to use on New York’s Skaneateles Lake to measure and monitor water quality and other environmental data could prove useful.
The plan is a four-month pilot project—announced Aug. 16—designed to combat algae growth through a data-intensive approach.
For environmental advocates such as Wraithmell, the keys to battling the algae lie at the source, namely the nitrogen and phosphorous that run off from septic tanks, farmland, and even lawn and golf course fertilizer into Lake Okeechobee and other waterways.
One way to do this, she said, is to focus on protecting and expanding the capacity of wetlands, which naturally slow the flow of runoff and filter out nitrogen and phosphorous before it creates algae in rivers, lakes, and the ocean. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should ensure Florida provides wetlands protections as the state prepares to assume authority for dredge-and-fill permitting, she said.
State, Local Focus Despite EPA Visit
The algae outbreaks come in two forms: blue-green algae from Lake Okeechobee discharges into rivers and estuaries, and red tide comes from warm near-shore sea water with high nutrient levels. The outbreaks are killing aquatic and marine life, hampering the fishing industry, threatening drinking water supplies, and stunting tourism, which is one of the state’s largest industries.
A study commissioned by the state’s tourism department found out-of-state visitors spent more than $100 billion in Florida in 2016, generating 9.5 percent of the state’s GDP and 17 percent of its employment.
Gov. Rick Scott (R) has been pressuring Congress to approve funding and accelerate the timeline for an Everglades-area reservoir to store and filter Lake Okeechobee discharges. Scott is also seeking resources to fund repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around the lake to potentially let it hold more water. The dike got a funding boost from Congress earlier this year to accelerate construction.
Beyond that, his administration has ordered state actions including water quality sampling and algae cleanup, in addition to longer-term strategies, spokesman McKinley Lewis told Bloomberg Environment.
The governor’s office and state environmental department told Bloomberg Environment Aug. 15 they haven’t requested a response from the EPA or the Interior Department, even as officials from those and other agencies toured algae-affected areas.
Outbreaks of blue-green algae and red tide this year are more severe and lasting longer than in previous years, Wraithmell said.
The state hasn’t compiled estimates yet on the economic impacts of the algae outbreaks, but its Department of Economic Opportunity is beginning to survey businesses, according to spokeswoman Tiffany Vause.
So far, 125 businesses have responded and 92 percent say they’ve suffered economic injury or loss of revenue due to the algal blooms this summer, Vause told Bloomberg Environment Aug. 15.
Long-Term Projects Pending
Scott has criticized Congress for being too slow to approve and fund the projects many see as long-term solutions for the recurring algal blooms. The criticisms are a fixture of his campaign for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D).
In particular, the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir, which would provide overflow storage for nitrogen- and phosphorous-rich Lake Okeechobee waters during the rainy season, is awaiting inclusion in the Senate’s version of a Water Resources Development Act bill. Nelson and Sen. Marco Rubio (R) sent a letter Aug. 16 to Senate leadership urging them to bring the bill to a Senate vote as soon as possible, citing Florida’s algae problem.
But neither the reservoir nor the dike will be finished for at least a few years, and there’s little if anything the EPA or other federal agencies can do to prevent algal blooms from returning next summer, Wraithmell said.
“There’s nothing they can do to make the red tide go away,” except to give it time to dissipate, she told Bloomberg Environment.
Members of Florida’s congressional delegation have called for help from the federal government on a number of fronts. Nelson has called on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the long-term health effects of the algal blooms.
And U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney (R),—who organized the Aug. 15 visit by EPA and Interior officials—also wrote President Donald Trump asking him to make a federal disaster declaration in Florida’s Lee and Collier counties. A federal declaration would make emergency funding available to help local governments clean up the algae, according to Rooney’s letter.
Beyond that, Rooney told reporters on Aug. 15 he is focused on getting Congress to approve funding for the Everglades-area reservoir and accelerate that project.
Higher Lake Level Disputed
Even from a long-term perspective, there’s disagreement about the best solutions.
Scott has pressed the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages Lake Okeechobee, to limit the discharges of nitrogen- and phosphorous-rich water that lead to blue-green algal blooms in rivers and estuaries. The governor has urged the Corps to update the manuals that dictate how lake levels should be managed in light of repairs and upgrades being made to the dike.
The Corps plans to update its manuals for the lake over “the next couple of years,” Col. Jason Kirk, a commander for the Corps, told reporters during the Aug. 15 tour by federal officials.
In the meantime the Corps is focused on public safety, he said, with a priority of preventing the kind of severe flooding south of the lake that killed 2,000 people in 1928. This means the Corps will continue to discharge water from the lake into rivers and estuaries to prevent lake overflows, Kirk said.
Wraithmell questioned the wisdom of holding more water in Lake Okeechobee, even if the dike is strengthened sufficiently to prevent flooding. The northern part of the lake’s footprint includes marshes that would be flooded if lake levels get too high, which would only add more algae-feeding nutrients to the water, she said.
Experiment in New York
Other states are experimenting with new information-intensive approaches to address algal blooms. IBM's technology is being used to control harmful algal blooms on a lake used for recreation in central New York that also serves as a drinking water source for 200,000 people.
The project will use a robotic sensing platform to measure and monitor water quality and other environmental data on Skaneateles Lake, one of the state’s 11 Finger Lakes.
The sensing platform and related technology are described by IBM as using advanced sensors to collect data on dissolved organic matter, chlorophyll, chloride, conductivity, temperature, and pH. There also is a weather station, a Doppler instrument for measuring lake currents, and a surface sensor to detect harmful algal blooms near the lake’s surface.
The technology was developed for use on Lake George in northern New York, where IBM and its partner, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, store and analyze an estimated 9 tetrabytes of data each year, according to the company. The project also receives support from The Fund for Lake George.
“We are confident our technology can be applied to waterways around the world including Florida,” Harry Kolar, an IBM fellow and associate director of the Lake George project, told Bloomberg Environment in an email. “We have created an intelligent real time system that can help us better monitor, understand, and help manage the health of freshwater and marine systems.”
But the project has skeptics. Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting Inc., an Ithaca, N.Y., environmental database company, criticized the effort as an “endless, study-the-problem-to-death without solving it” approach.
“This does not eliminate the pollution problems,” he told Bloomberg Environment in an email. “The critical challenge for Skaneateles Lake and all other impaired waterbodies is to determine where the pollutants that cause water quality impairments originate in the watershed so that those contamination sources can be cleaned up ASAP.”
Hang is spearheading a coalition of environmental groups who are urging New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) to clean up harmful algal blooms in severalof the state’s lakes.