Toxic algae spoils Florida’s beaches

0
586

During the summer of 1952, I and nine others about my age were hired by the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission to monitor the ten commercial fishing crews operating on Lake Okeechobee, the state’s largest freshwater lake. We would each accompany a different  crew from about sunrise to late afternoon on a weekly basis. We were to ensure that only bream, shellcrackers, crappie, catfish, and turtles were captured and sold, and that all bass that  failed to jump over the cork line and escape would be released unharmed. The fishermen were also required to kill any bowfin and shad that were caught and to avoid drowning any alligators. When an alligator was seen swimming inside the seine, one of my duties was to jump overboard and hold down the cork line to allow the gator to swim over it to avoid its becoming entangled in the seine.
The lake was fairly shallow, had a sandy bottom and the water was clean. It had two major outflows, one eastward to the St. Lucie Canal, which emptied into the St. Lucie River. Water in the river ultimately flowed into the Atlantic Ocean. The other was the Caloosahatchie River that flowed westward into the Gulf near Ft. Myers.
It thus came as a shock to me when I read that the lake has become so badly polluted that the water resembles “guacamole,” as one observer stated. Excessively heavy winter rainfall required the Corps of Engineers to release up to 70,000 gallons per minute from the lake into the St.Lucie Canal and the Caloosahatchee River. This resulted in toxic algae blooms in the lower Gulf and in the Atlantic from Palm Beach County northward to Martin and St.Lucie counties, killing countless numbers of fish and making many Gulf and Atlantic beaches too dangerous for vacationers and residents to enjoy. (Rush Limbaugh has a home on Palm Beach, but he has to my knowledge failed to mention the disastrous consequences of the polluted ocean water there.)
The problem now stems largely from nitrogen and phosphorus that entered the lake from the Kissimmee River, especially large amounts of phosphorus. Cow manure, and runoff from vegetable farms, citrus groves, and other sources flowed into the Kissimmee from as far north as Orlando. Between 1962 and 1970, the Corps of Engineers channelized the Kissimmee, straightening it and eliminated the oxbows, essentially converting it into a fast-flowing canal, drastically increasing the pollutant loads entering Okeechobee. By 1970, 25 percent of the nitrogen and 20 percent of the phosphorus polluting the lake were from this source. In 1997, the Corps began an effort to restore the Kissimmee to its original condition, and by now should be close to completion.
Not long ago polluted water pumped from sugar cane plantations south of the lake was being pumped into the lake and was an important contributor. Until 1992, pollutants from the plantations accounted for around 28 percent of the total, but has been reduced to only 5.8 percent at present.
On-site septic systems have been blamed by some to be important contributors, but the environmental law firm, Earth Justice, contends that they are not a major problem. It blames runoff from overdevelopment and lax regulations of farming practices by the state as the major culprits. Earth Justice states that Florida has allowed three million acres to be overdeveloped and over-drained within the watershed, resulting in 450 tons of pollutants annually to enter the lake.
With a population of 20 million people and 1,000 new residents arriving each day, it hardly seems possible that Lake Okeechobee and other natural features that made Florida a paradise can ever be restored to a condition that once made the state worthy of the designation.
Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Department of Zoology and Entomology at Auburn University. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here