Water quality issues remain one of the most pressing and unifying topics in Florida. The state relies on its natural environments and healthy coastlines for vibrant tourism and outdoor recreation economies. Many readers may remember the devastating algal blooms that plagued Florida in 2018 and the countless other “lost summers.” Beaches were shut down due to the respiratory issues red tide causes for people, tourists canceled trips, and high-volume fish kills were experienced on both coasts. This year, Florida’s coasts and waterways are already experiencing harmful algal blooms, and the stage is set for another destructive summer.
Generally speaking, South Florida’s water issues stem from nutrient pollution from large-scale agriculture and decades of water mismanagement. Each year when Lake Okeechobee’s levels get too high, managers are forced to discharge this nutrient-rich (in the bad, polluting sense) water to the east and west through the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers, respectively. This polluted water fuels harmful algal blooms (HABs), fish kills, habitat destruction, poses serious risks to human health, and devastates Florida’s economies. The solution is known and has been known for decades: send more water south and hold the polluters accountable.
In recent weeks, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released satellite imagery showing two-thirds of Lake Okeechobee, or 500 square miles, covered in blue-green algae (a type of toxic Cyanobacteria). In addition, red tide events, while not at incredibly high levels yet, are already occurring. This current situation is a recipe for disaster that looks eerily similar to the devastating 2018 red tides, which inflicted hardship and environmental destruction on both of Florida’s coasts.
The reality of the situation is an unfortunate one. There is not really anything that can be done at this point to prevent a worst-case scenario. If heavy rains come, discharges will happen and send toxic, algae water to the coasts. Deadly and economically costly red tides will most likely follow. However, if rains are lower than anticipated, Florida’s coasts may be spared.
Which brings up the decades old question: why can’t we fix the underlying problems? This is where the public, and the fly fishing community, can be impactful. Securing federal funding for Everglades restoration would improve southernly flows and benefit several ecosystems. Additionally, influencing the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM), which guides the Army Corps of Engineers’ management of Lake O, could prioritize a balanced, precautionary management regime.
“We’re basically at the mercy of mother nature at this point because the Corps didn’t implement effective strategies to lower the lake and send water south during this past dry season,” Captain Daniel Andrews, Executive Director of Captains for Clean Water, said. “So, one way or another, the writing is mostly on the wall for this year, and with a higher-than-normal lake and toxic cyanobacteria blooms covering the lake, we’re not excited about what’s in store for the summer. Hopefully, our worries don’t turn into realities, but we shouldn’t have to hope.” So, en lieu of an act of God–no rain, during the rainy season–the most impactful ways anglers can protect these amazing coastal fisheries and habitats is by pressuring politicians and regulators for the long game–more on that below.
Red Tide and Harmful Algal Blooms
Algae occurs naturally in marine environments and, in many cases, is a major component in ocean food webs. Within the scientific community there is still many unknowns with HABs. However, there is general consensus that algae blooms are intensified and prolonged by a myriad of human-caused factors. “Increased nutrient loadings and pollution, food web alterations, introduced species, water flow modifications and climate change all play a role.” In addition, HABs can produce toxins and effects that are harmful to humans, fish, shellfish, marine mammals, and birds. Other types of algal blooms which may not be toxic can have adverse environmental impacts by affecting oxygen levels and smothering other marine organisms.
In the case of Florida, red tide and blue-green algae are the most common and well known HABs. Both are closely connected to human activities and years of mismanagement. Red tide occurs in saltwater environments and is composed of a type of algae called Karenia brevis. This form of algae generally blooms offshore and moves inshore with winds and tides. Nutrient-loaded water partly from the Caloosahatchee River and Lake Okeechobee then fuels the red tide, intensifying its impact. The 2018 red tide “killed some 452 sea turtles, nearly 100 manatees, 11 dolphins and tons of fish, according to the FWC.” The impact to humans can be significant, with respiratory and neurological complications associated with brevotoxins produced by K. brevis. Further, “red tides are estimated to cause more than $20 million in tourism-related losses in Florida each year.”
Microcystis, also known as blue-green algae, on the other hand, takes hold in freshwater and is commonly found in Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee, and St. Lucie Rivers. The ongoing blue-green algae bloom took hold in Lake O due to excessive nutrient levels in the water (75% of which coming from industrial agriculture runoff) and warm water temperatures. Blue-green algae thrives in these conditions and can explode, choking out entire ecosystems (not just in Lake O) and producing dangerous toxins for humans.
Paul Cox, a toxic algae scientist, said “[blue-green algae] can be nasty, dangerous stuff.” During the 2018 algae crisis, “We received calls from concerned citizens and some post-mortem tissue from their animals who’d fallen in,” he said. “In the worst case, high levels of microcystin [a byproduct of blue-green algae] can cause death of a dog by basically dissolving its liver in as short as about 30 minutes.”
In the summer of 2018, Florida experienced one of the most toxic and devastating algal blooms in its long history of water crises. That summer, everything that could go wrong did.
Lake Okeechobee was already relatively high going into the spring of 2018, as a result of Hurricane Irma. So, when Florida received nearly five times more rain that May than the historical average, water managers were forced to quite literally open the floodgates and begin high-volume discharges to the west and east coasts. These discharges sent nutrient loaded water covered in blue-green algae into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers, fueling a long-lasting and destructive environmental disaster with red tides on both coasts.
The terrible 2018 red tide inflicted more than $8 million in business losses and killed more than 200 tons of marine life.
The Lake Okeechobee Connection
By now, you’ve gathered that much of South Florida’s water issues are closely tied to Lake O, its management, and the industries that rely on the lake. At 730 square miles, Lake O is the eighth largest freshwater lake in the United States. Unfortunately, Environmental devastation is a common occurrence on and because of Lake O. For example, during a 2007 drought, state officials removed thousands of tons of toxic mud, containing excessive levels of arsenic and pesticides–both known carcinogens–from the lake. Many of the ongoing environmental issues in Lake O are caused by the large-scale agriculture and sugar industries surrounding the lake.
The sugar industry represents a powerful and influential voice in Florida. For years they have secured management regimes and regulations that benefit their industry and profit margins but have grave consequences for Florida’s diverse terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Big sugar’s impact dates back to the early 20th century, when wetlands south of Lake O were drained—the headwaters of the Everglades. Then roughly 50 years later, the region’s sugar cane farmers formed a farming cooperative, which has grown tremendously in size and influence. In the last 20 years, big sugar has donated tens of millions of dollars to Florida Politicians. That influence has played a role in Florida’s water issues and slowing large-scale everglades restoration.
Big sugar’s impact on Florida’s water is multifaceted and complex. For one, they disrupted the natural southernly flow of freshwater, which filtered the water and maintained healthy salinity levels in Florida Bay and the Everglades. These renowned estuaries have suffered and lost tens of thousands of acres of sea grasses as a result of these water issues. In addition, big sugar, which is a intensive crop, lobbies the Army Corps of Engineers, whom oversees Lake O management, to keep the lake’s levels high during the growing season. This practice is precautionary for the sugar industry but incredibly troublesome for clean water and the coasts. High lake levels supply sugar farmers with water to irrigate their crops when rainfall is less than optimal. However, when rains do come, the Corps is forced to lower the lake to account for the incoming volume of water through harmful discharges. These discharges send polluted and algae laden freshwater directly into coastal rivers and estuaries.
Captain Daniel Andrews of Captains for Clean Water simplified this idea by comparing Lake O to a bathtub: “If you have a bathtub that is clogged with hair and soap, it’s going to drain slowly. So let’s say someone takes a bath and pulls the drain, but then another person immediately jumps in to take a shower. That tub is most likely going to overflow. That’s what happens to Lake O during the rainy season; the lake’s levels get too high, prompting discharges to the east and west.” Following with this metaphor, Daniel likened a roto-rooter (a device used by plumbers to clear clogged drains) to Everglades restoration, as both are the only long-term effective solutions to the respective problems.
The Precarious Current Scenario
Today, Florida’s coasts are staring down the barrel of a large caliber rifle loaded with excessive nutrients and mats of blue-green algae. Many of those same factors that contributed to the terrible 2018 red tide season are in place now, and in some cases greater than that year. Lake O water levels are similar to back in 2018, fluctuating around 13 feet. Blue-green algae has already taken a strangle hold on Lake O and many of the connected waterways. Red tide continues increase in Southwest Florida. And, NOAA scientists predict “a 60% chance of an above-normal [hurricane] season.”
Earlier this month, “satellite imagery for Lake Okeechobee showed extensive blue-green algae coverage, resembling the 2018 situation when nearly 90% of the lake was covered. The most recent May 18th imagery was partially obscured, but still showed moderate to high bloom potential on 20% of the lake. More recently, Calusa Waterkeeper, a local water quality advocacy group, found high concentrations of cyanobacteria in the Caloosahatchee River. The group found levels at Franklin Lock to be “1628 [times greater than] the EPA guideline of 8 ppb.” So, presumably, the Lake O blue-green algae and nutrient-rich water is already having a concerning impact on the Caloosahatchee and is heading to the west coast.
Over the past several months, Florida authorities detected red tide throughout the state’s west coast–albeit not in widespread concentrations, yet. According to the most recent Florida Red Tide report, high concentrations of red tide exist in Lee and Collier counties. Fish kills were reported in Manatee, Lee, and Collier counties. However, discharges and presence of algae to the east coast have been minimal at this current point. But again, when the heavy rains come, both coasts could be affected.
“What we have now,” said Daniel Andrews, “is a dining room table with a bunch of breakable plates and glasses, and someone is getting ready to do the tablecloth trick. Sure, it could end well; but more than likely, most of the items will be shattered.” That’s the general sentiment with the red tide outlook this year. The Sunshine State might get lucky with little rain, and even favorable winds and tides can play a significant role. Or the rain will follow historical trends and dump over the summer, filling Lake O and prompting the harmful discharges.
Every summer does not need to be dominated by fear of toxic algae blooms invading Florida’s coasts.
Long-Term Solutions for Chronic Water Issues
There are solutions. Even though red tides and blue-green algae are naturally occurring, they are substantially worsened by human actions, namely nutrient pollution and disrupted natural hydrologic systems. So, first and foremost, limiting the amount of nutrients and pollutants that enter waterways and holding offenders accountable will go a long way toward improving South Florida’s waterways and defending against HABs. However, that does not address the underlying issues of restoring the natural flow of freshwater.
Returning the consistent, natural, southernly flows of freshwater from Lake O are fundamental to fully restoring the Everglades. That is the primary goal of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). Authorized by Congress in 2000, CERP is a $10.5 billion project to restore the Everglades by 2035. Originally intended to be funded equally by the state and federal government, Florida has spent more than two and a half times more money than Uncle Sam.
Full Everglades restoration funding is desperately needed. Today, that opportunity has never been more realistic. President Biden’s upcoming “infrastructure package is a historic opportunity to make up the federal government’s deficit and fully fund all of the remaining projects,” wrote U.S. Congressmen Brian Mast (R) and Darren Soto (D) in a letter to the President.
Infrastructure negotiations are ongoing, and it seems like every day the dollar figure is getting smaller and smaller. So, your voice and input are paramount to prioritize Everglades funding in the final package. Everglades restoration most certainly meets the definition of infrastructure, carries broad bipartisan support, and has tremendous economic and environmental benefits. You can advocate for Everglades Restoration by using this easy to use form: Urge your representatives to demand full funding for all authorized Everglades restoration projects through The American Jobs Plan.
While funding these remaining Everglades projects is essential, the way Lake O is managed and operated plays an equally important role. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manage Lake O through the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM), which is currently going through a regularly scheduled revision. The current manual prioritizes the needs of the agriculture industries and too often burdens coastal communities. LOSOM should be balanced and precautionary in nature, to avoid the devastating high-volume discharges during the rainy season.
Whereas the Everglades infrastructure projects may take years to complete, a balanced LOSOM would benefit everyone almost immediately. “The Corps absolutely has to create a more balanced LOSOM so that we don’t have to enter into every rainy season with our fingers crossed,” Daniel said. “They have to write a plan that prioritizes sending more water south during the dry season to prevent killing the coastal estuaries with damaging discharges during the rainy season. A balanced lake management plan like that will provide massive relief to the system until longer-term infrastructure projects to send more water south—like the EAA Reservoir—can come online.”
Stakeholders and stewards of clean water have a tremendous opportunity to influence how the Corps manages Lake O for the next ten years. Captains for Clean Water, The Everglades Foundation, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and others recently met with Governor DeSantis to outline their requests for LOSOM. Governor DeSantis then urged the Corps “to improve lake management to make more beneficial releases and send more water south during Florida’s dry season and to allow for flexibility to avoid harmful discharges in Florida’s northern estuaries.”
The overarching idea is to reduce the harmful discharges by sending more water south during the dry season and providing more capacity during the rainy season. To use Daniel’s bathtub metaphor, an ideal LOSOM would translate to pulling the drain the night before you wanted to take a shower in the morning, because you know the pipes are clogged and drain slowly. That precautionary approach was more or less implemented in 2019 and 2020–years that were not marred by high levels of devastating algae. However, despite pleas by countless advocacy groups, concerned individuals, and Florida authorities the Corps failed to adequately prepare the lake for the rainy season.
The devastating high-volume Lake O discharges need to be avoided at all costs. The idea that Lake O should be low enough to adequately handle an influx of rainfall during the rainy season is not rocket science.
Your voice on the matter can go a long way to prompting beneficial change. Healthy ecosystems require responsible, equitable management, and motivated and informed advocates. Demand that the Army Corps Includes a More Equitable Distribution of Balance within LOSOM.
As you may have gathered, this may be a challenging summer for Southern Florida. Be sure to keep an eye out for updates and ways to help. Groups like Captains for Clean Water will certainly be on the ground this summer to provide updates and ways to help, in addition to the infrastructure and LOSOM action items linked above. Florida’s fisheries are too important ecologically and economically to sacrifice for poor management and big sugar’s greed.
Thanks to Captains for Clean Water for their help and all the work they do to protect South Florida’s coastal resources.