Summertime in Florida is typically associated with blue water and beach vacations. But during the summer of 2016, Florida residents and tourists were surprised to see the coast overrun with a dangerous swath of green algae. The July bloom blanketed the ocean in a thick layer of algae that caused widespread water contamination, suffocated marine life, stifled tourism, and sparked a health epidemic that drove the state to declare a state of emergency across four counties.
While the July 2016 toxic algal bloom was among the most dangerous and long-lasting on record, it was not Florida’s first —the state has experienced eight severe algal blooms since 2004.
A form of blue-green algae called cyanobacteria cause most algal blooms, which can occur in any warm, stagnant body of water. While some algal blooms occur naturally, others are a symptom of polluted or nutrient rich water. Algal blooms have been documented around the world, with some regions more prone to blooms than others. In Florida, a predisposition to algal blooms can be traced to water management decisions made centuries ago.
When early white settlers began developing Florida, they dredged swampland and inadvertently altered hydrological patterns. This created lakes such as Lake Okeechobee, which is now isolated from the Everglades and is surrounded by farmland. Agricultural runoff from these areas makes its way into the lake, contributing to high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous. This creates ideal conditions for algal growth.
Lake Okeechobee is also prone to flooding, and city planners are often left with no choice but to drain excess water into several estuaries. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency responsible for such public works projects, is actively engaged in efforts to prevent lake discharge from reaching the coasts without some level of filtration provided by wetlands, such as the Everglades. But residents are concerned that the Army Corps’ efforts to prevent the lake’s discharge from quickly reaching the Gulf of Mexico are not occurring fast enough.
In 2014, Florida voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that required one third of all of Florida’s real estate transaction fees, a total of $700 million annually, to go toward restoration and the construction of storage ponds to filter pollutants out of inland waters before reaching the Everglades. In response, the state took initial action that included approving a $200 million budget to protect the Everglades through various ecological services such as creating water storage ponds to protect the area from flooding and the damaging consequences of runoff.
Algal blooms pose a significant health risk to humans. In 2015, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection collected water samples and found algal blooms in 44 locations; of those locations, 34 contained trace amounts of toxins, and 12 of those also contained toxins at levels high enough to present a human health risk. Algal blooms are also a significant threat for both marine and freshwater ecosystem health. Aquatic organisms cannot survive in the phosphorous-rich environment where the lack of dissolved oxygen in the water often suffocates them.
Beyond marine life, algal blooms also impact the economy. They can lead to millions of dollars in healthcare costs and beach cleanups and cause losses to the fishing and tourism sectors. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute calculated that harmful algal blooms cost the United States $22 million annually in healthcare costs and lost work days alone.
Florida’s algal bloom dilemma presents an opportunity for bipartisan and cross-sector collaboration given the algal bloom’s impact on crucial economic sectors, such as tourism, healthcare, and agriculture. Though no single solution will solve this complex problem, continued cooperation among affected residents, policymakers, toxicologists, and agricultural producers is essential to ensure the health of Florida’s populace, economy, and environment.
Published in March, 2017, by the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.