Waterkeepers Fight to Save Florida From Toxic Algae

Sierra Club Foundation

Reinaldo Diaz begins his search early, before the South Florida heat takes over the day. Diaz, the Lake Worth Waterkeeper, follows the path of the canals in his old VW Rabbit east toward the Lake Worth Lagoon. He’s looking for algal blooms. The worst blooms float on top of the water like a bright-green carpet. More often, Diaz can only see the colonies of algae suspended in the water column.

Algal blooms have increasingly threatened much of South Florida. As recently as early July, a putrid mat of toxic algae covered up to 90 percent of Lake Okeechobee’s 730 square miles. In response, Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency to address blooms he blamed on water discharges controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers. He called on the corps to discharge contaminated water from locks down the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers. But this “solution” doesn’t solve the problem. It just relocates it.

The algal blooms are more than just an ugly nuisance. The blue-green algae is composed of cyanobacteria, which produce microcystins. Water contaminated with microcystins has the potential to cause vomiting and even kidney damage. Researchers like Dr. James Metcalf of the Brain Chemistry Labs also believe the algal blooms contain BMAA (beta-Methylamino-L-alanine), which may lead to degenerative neurological diseases like ALS, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.

It’s Diaz’s mission as Lake Worth Waterkeeper to keep an eye on the algal blooms and other ecological threats to the watershed in his domain. He takes water samples, as many as he can afford on his tight budget, more if he manages to fundraise at events. (Like many conservationists, Diaz is paid full-time to do this work, but there isn’t enough funding to go around to perform all the tests or conduct all the studies needed.) If his initial tests confirm the presence of toxic microcystins, Diaz will send the sample off to the EPA lab in Tallahassee for further testing.

The mission of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a global network of nonprofit organizations with the same goal, is to advocate for clean water. Individual waterkeepers like Diaz carry out the alliance’s mission by keeping watch over their home watershed and educating locals on how to fight for their waters. There are more than 300 waterkeepers like Diaz around the world.

The Lake Worth Lagoon runs parallel to the Atlantic coast of Palm Beach County, Florida, east of where Lake Okeechobee sits in the center of the state. As part of the intracoastal waterway, the Lake Worth Lagoon is home to endangered Florida manatees, many species of wading and song birds, juvenile sea turtles, oyster beds, and more.

So far this year, the lagoon has been spared from the kind of substantial toxic algae events seen there in the past. The cyanobacterial contamination currently present in the lagoon is nothing compared to the matted-green muck on the Caloosahatchee River to the west of Lake Okeechobee, or in Stuart, north of Lake Worth.

The cause of the algal blooms has long been up for debate. Most experts point to a number of contributing factors, including construction that has staunched the natural southward flow of the Everglades. Another widely recognized culprit is agricultural runoff. Phosphorus and nitrogen from agricultural products, when introduced to the water supply, essentially fertilize the cyanobacterial blooms. Combined with an influx of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee, algal blooms have been thriving in previously brackish estuaries where they couldn’t have grown before.

Protecting the population of South Florida is of the highest importance for Diaz, as it is for John Cassani, the Calusa Waterkeeper, who keeps watch over the Caloosahatchee River. Both have been pushing to increase funding for the state of Florida’s Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force, which, according to state statute, would organize the “research, detection, monitoring, prediction, mitigation, and control of harmful algal blooms in Florida.”

“Twenty-two states in the country have what’s called an ‘action plan,’” says Diaz, lamenting Florida’s lack of organization when it comes to combating toxic algal blooms. “That’s the goal of the task force, to create an action plan that will address the problem in terms of what research needs to be done. [The task force] will basically get everyone on the same page so that we can all work together to solve the issue.” Getting politicians, locals, and business interests to cooperate is a larger hurdle than any of the cleanup or engineering itself, according to Diaz.

He has been reaching out to politicians like Philip Levine, who is running for governor in the upcoming elections. Diaz’s hope is that he can educate politicians on both sides of the aisle about the water management problems plaguing Florida. If the people in charge understand what’s going on, and why safe water isn’t a partisan political issue, they will be more likely to push for solutions that will benefit not just the state’s environment, but also its tourism-centric economy as well.

In 2017, the Florida State Senate passed SB10, a momentous step toward relieving South Florida’s water management woes. SB10 authorizes the South Florida Water Management District to buy back land in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee. On this land, the state will be able to build a reservoir, giving the water from overflowing Lake Okeechobee somewhere else to go other than down the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers. But halfway through 2018, plans are still stalled.

Despite such recent measures, the waterkeepers’ fight isn’t over. Every solution has to keep in mind the lives and livelihoods of all the people in South Florida, whether they live in cities like Miami or the rural communities south of Lake Okeechobee.

“There are a lot of stakeholders involved,” Diaz says. “What we're trying to do is figure out how to emulate this connection that the lake used to have with the Everglades while still protecting communities in between.”

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