Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Algae Blooms Threatens Gulf Coast

The Blob has come to Florida
By Hardy Jones
August 9 and 10, 2007

The federal government spends $2-billion dollars a year to subsidize an industry which causes massive environmental damage to a vast area of Florida and its coastal waters, destroying fisheries and now threatening real estate values and the tourist industry on the Gulf Coast. The Feds (and that means out tax dollars) then spend billions of dollars more to try to alleviate this unfolding catastrophe. The industry receiving our tax dollars in such a profligate abundance is sugar – always referred to in Florida as “big sugar” because of its huge political clout.

Of course sugar can be grown more economically in nations that really need a sugar industry. But vast swaths of Florida north and south of Lake Okeechobee have been subjugated to this crop and the pesticides and fertilizers required to grow it. The consequences for other parts of the state are calamitous.

On August 9 and 10 I drove around, flew over and traveled by boat around Lake Okeechobee, down the Caloosahatchee River, through Pine Island Sound and Red Fish pass and out into the Gulf of Mexico, returning through San Carlos Pass. At Lake O I saw mountains of contaminated muck just dredged from drought-lowered lake, endless fields of sugar cane and ultimately fifty square miles of the Gulf covered in an algal bloom that seems on the verge on developing into highly toxic red tide.

Greg Rawl, an independent water consultant, and Andy Powell, head of a construction company that had just finished demucking parts of Lake O, guided me along the Calahoosahatchee pointing out the vast engineering works that have distorted the historical flow of water from the big lake, creating land dry enough for residential housing, farming and other human enterprise.

Lake O, today suffering through one of its worst droughts in memory has seen its water levels drop to their lowest levels since recording began in 1932 – 8.8 feet at on July 1. The low water levels exposed large areas of the lakebed and made it easy to bring conventional earth moving equipment in to remove two million cubic yards of sludge that had accumulated on the natural lake bottom. The idea is that by removing the muck they will restore natural sandy bottom that will support move natural vegetation and fish life.

At first they thought they would give the sludge to farmers but then learned a lot of it contains pesticides, arsenic and other heavy metals so piles of the stuff just sit around the circumference of the lake. No one is quite sure what to do with these mounds. Some have suggested they may spontaneously combust, eliminating the problem on the ground but transferring it to the air.

The other great problem of Lake O and waters downstream is that fertilizers used in agriculture and droppings from cattle have rendered a phosphorous poor environment, to which plant life had adapted, into a phosphorous rich water system which promotes the intrusion of exotic vegetation such as cat tails which wipe out the native flora. Removing the muck removed some of the phosphorous.

Nitrogen also adversely affects the waters of Southern Florida, fresh and marine.

Friday August 10
I met Greg at his Cessna 182 and we took off heading back over the land we had seen by road the previous day. Flying conditions were ideal, the sky a blazing blue, few Cumulous clouds in the distance – not even hinting they might produce rain. From the air you get a sense of the massive engineering that has gone into bending nature’s design to something more amendable to human demands such as agriculture, housing and marinas.

There’s a lot of algae on the lake and the area devoted to sugar cane is staggering.

We then flew the Calahoosahatchee past Fort Myers over Pine Island Sound and out into the Gulf. We flew for miles north and south seeing blotches, rafts and strands of an algae called Tricodesmium covering fifty square miles of water, some of it reaching with two miles of the shoreline of Sanibel Island.

In the afternoon Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah Joined us on a boat provided by Sanibel – Captiva Conservancy Foundation and we ran through Pine island Sound, and through Red fish pass on the course we had followed by air earlier in the day. Greg spoke of the days when one of the world’s largest Tarpon fishing tournaments took place near here. No more – the tarpon are gone because of poor water quality.

We easily found the algae Tricodesmium matted into huge rafts on the surface of the bay and when we had cleared Red Fish Pass and run a couple miles out to see we hit the heavy concentrations.

We also found an algal form called Lyngbia. Gary and Ray were appalled at the size and density of the algal blooms and both felt a red tide would follow bringing fish kills such as happened last year.

They’ve been fighting to improve waters quality in the area for years and lately have achieved some successes. They have strong allies now – owners of very expensive homes who have seen their property values drop as masses of Red Tide accumulate on the beach, giving off noxious odors and a gas byproduct which stings the eyes and burns the lungs. And tourists are now abandoning the lovely islands along Florida’s Gulf coast because of he foul waters.

How bad do thing have to get before societies take remedial action. It would seem that if a harmful algae was growing out of control producing noxious gasses harmful to large numbers of people that citizens and government would act to restore a healthy eco-system. But that doesn’t seem to be the way humans work.

What has happened in Florida as in so many other places in the world is that immediate profit prevails over long-term interests. The huge federal subsidies to Florida Big Sugar have led to the destruction of habit supporting fisheries which has in turn contaminated fish and driven the price of fish in general up several fold. Who hurts from that – the fishermen and the consumer. Not to mention all the other animals who depend on fish for food, dolphins for example.

And by the way, there is an algal bloom on the east coast of Florida off Palm Beach threatening plants, deep water reefs and marine life.

Meanwhile the Bush administration has had The Everglades removed from the UNs World Heritage Committee endangered list and the president has announced he will veto a $21-billion water preservation bill that contains $2-billion dollars for Everglades restoration.

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