Aerial footage makes the smelly, pungent invasion look like a growing oil spill, but it’s not; it’s just algae, and lots of it.
The mysterious blooms sprang up in June and seem to be spreading. They’ve given south Florida residents rashes and coughs and are choking the oxygen out of the region’s wildlife-rich waters, threatening fish, birds and the once-endangered manatee.
“This is our Deep Water Horizon,” Doug Smith, a commissioner in Martin County, told the Palm Beach Post, referencing the devastating BP oil spill in 2010.
Smith’s county is one of four that the state of Florida declared to be in a state of emergency this week. Martin, St. Lucie and Palm Beach counties stack on top of each other along the Atlantic coast, stretching for nearly 100 miles. On the state’s western coast, Lee County abuts the Gulf of Mexico and is home to tropical vacationing hot spots such as Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island.
Through freshwater rivers, canals and brackish estuaries, all four counties are linked to the state’s largest freshwater body, Lake Okeechobee, which has seen unprecedented levels of toxins in recent months after a heavy year of rainfall — enough to cover Delaware in two feet of water — led the government to “back-pump” billions of gallons of polluted runoff into the lake to curb flooding and save crops.
But then Lake Okeechobee began to overflow as well, forcing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency charged with monitoring water levels, to make a tough decision. It could open a series of levees surrounding the lake and dump the excess water into rivers and estuaries that lead to the coast, or it could let the lake continue to rise, putting thousands of people and the towns they live in at risk for life-threatening flooding.
It chose to open the floodgates.
Now those fragile ecosystems are in danger, and Floridians are pointing fingers in many directions.
Some blame the pollution that plagues Lake Okeechobee. Others say the Army Corps should end its relentless dumping. Gov. Rick Scott (R), who declared a state of emergency in the four affected counties this week but has yet to visit himself, has drawn the ire of a collection of residents who say his administration hasn’t done enough.
Scott is blaming President Obama.
In his Executive Order issued Thursday declaring a state of emergency, the governor claimed that a lack of funding from the federal government and Obama’s administration has caused the environmental crisis in south Florida. The Herbert Hoover Dike, funded and maintained by the U.S. government via the Corps of Engineers, stretches all the way around Lake Okeechobee at a height of 30 feet. It was built in its current form in the 1960s, after a rash of destructive hurricanes and tropical storms flooded the lake throughout the early 1900s, killing thousands of people and devastating crops and livestock.
But the dike, composed of natural materials such as soil, rock and shells, is in dire need of repairs and has been for some time, officials say. To prevent a breach, the Corps of Engineers tries to maintain lake water levels between 12.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level, reported the Associated Press.
Scott said the dike should be able to hold as much as 18 feet of water.
Had the Obama administration provided the “necessary funding,” the governor said in his executive order, “the Corps would not have been required to discharge approximately 30 billion gallons of flood waters from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers and estuaries.”
Scott faulted the federal government for inadequate funding and maintenance of the Hoover dike, and said in a statement that “Florida can no longer afford to wait.”
Martin County commissioners and south Florida residents have called on the Corps of Engineers to reduce the flow of water it has been pumping out of Lake Okeechobee, and recently gained support from Florida Sens. Marco Rubio (R) and Bill Nelson (D), according to the AP.
On Thursday, the Corps announced it would cede to the pressure, beginning a “pulse release” Friday that will reduce output levels.
“After visiting with local elected officials in Martin County yesterday and viewing the algae first hand, we felt compelled to take action, even though we need to remain vigilant in managing the level of Lake Okeechobee,” Col. Jason Kirk, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District Commander, said in a statement.
Sen. Nelson, who visited the area this week, said the issue shouldn’t fall just on the shoulders of the federal government. He called on the state legislature to spend money on environmental projects already approved by Florida voters, reported AP, including the purchase of land surrounding Lake Okeechobee for water storage instead of diverting funds to pay for administrative costs.
This isn’t the first time floodwaters have wreaked havoc on the Florida coastline, not even this year. After a record rainfall in January, reported the Tampa Bay Times, the Army Corps released billions of gallons of overflow waters into rivers flowing both east and west of Lake Okeechobee that eventually dump into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, respectively. That release killed sea grass and oysters and threatened coral reefs, according to the Times.
But managing Okeechobee’s water levels is a necessary evil, one that could save thousands of human lives.
That’s why the dike was built in the first place. Hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 assaulted the region, flooding small towns around the lake’s edge where mostly poor, minority farm workers lived; 2,500 people were killed. The 1928 hurricane inspired the storm in Zora Neale Hurston’s novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
A second-coming of that tragedy seems to be far from Floridians’ minds at the moment; they’re too busy pinching their noses and fretting over the monumental consequences the sludgy algae waters will have on the businesses central to their economy, especially during a holiday weekend.
One fishing captain described the chunky mess to AP as “100 percent horror.”
“I would describe them as guacamole-thick,” Gabriella Ferrero, spokeswoman for Martin County, told AP. “And it stinks.”