“Florida’s Summer of Slime: Stuart and Lake Okeechobee,” photo essay by John Moran, August 2018
I reported last month on the plight of the Caloosahatchee River and its befouled waters flowing from Lake Okeechobee; delivering slime to waterfront neighborhoods in Fort Myers and Cape Coral along the way to the Gulf Islands of Southwest Florida.
Next up on our Summer of Slime photo tour is a visit to Stuart and Lake O…Stuart and environs is a glistening jewel born of water. It may well top the list of Florida cities in shoreline per capita. There’s simply water everywhere. Two forks of the St. Lucie River, the Indian River Lagoon, canals and peninsulas and islands, and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. Stuart is pictured above; below is neighboring Hutchinson Island.
But it wasn’t Stuart’s reputation for abundant clean water that drew me south from Gainesville with my cameras. In effect, I’ve become a traveling crime scene photographer—and slime is the crime. A devastating outbreak of toxic algae has once again hit the St. Lucie River and the Treasure Coast, fueled by the polluted waters of Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee River basin to the north. Damaging headlines trumpet the story to the nation and the world and Governor Scott has declared a state of emergency. It’s déjà vu all over again.
My hosts in Stuart were water blogger Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch and her husband, Ed Lippisch.
Ed took me up for a photo flight in his Piper Cub so I could get the big picture.
Seen from a small plane at 500 feet, Florida is a beautiful place.
Here’s Lake Okeechobee and the western terminus of the St. Lucie C-44 Canal. Administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Port Mayaca Lock and Dam has the capacity to discharge 14,800 cubic feet of water per second downstream to Stuart and the St. Lucie River Estuary, 26 miles away.
Sugar industry representatives say the water coming out of Lake Okeechobee is not the problem and that the algae outbreak in Stuart is primarily caused by Stuart’s own septic tanks and urban stormwater. This claim is contradicted by the extensive algae mats seen along the C-44 Canal between the Port Mayaca and St. Lucie Locks, well upstream from Stuart.
Lake Okeechobee historically drained south to Florida Bay, not east and west to the Atlantic and Gulf. The C-44 canal was built in 1916 to divert floodwaters to the coast.
A view of the St. Lucie Lock and Dam, several miles southwest of Stuart. On the day of my photo flight in late July, the dam gates were closed, visibly holding back algae from flowing downstream. Look closely and you can see what some people call The Seven Gates of Hell.
The St. Lucie Lock and Dam are an integral part of South Florida’s complex web of water management structures, born of an age when the Everglades was reviled as a watery wasteland and America was driven to drain it.
Below the St. Lucie Lock and Dam, in Palm City and Stuart, you can still find waterfront homes untouched by the algae bloom. But that’s no consolation for the thousands of Martin County residents whose lives are in upheaval once again this summer. The familiar pattern of algae outbreaks is fueled by fertilizer, manure and urban sources of nutrient pollution, including septic tanks.
All of this is compounded by denial and neglect by elected officials and agencies to whom we entrust the important work of environmental protection and public health.
Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch took me on a driving tour of the C-44 Canal from Stuart to enormous Lake O, which is more like a stormwater treatment pond than a biologically healthy lake. “There are toxic algae blooms across the globe, but only one place where the government dumps it on you: Florida,” she says.
It’s not just the algae from Lake Okeechobee causing headaches along Florida’s east coast; the sheer volume of freshwater discharges is an environmental pollutant that overwhelms the estuary.
The Lake O gunk visible in the satellite view, above, is shown in the detail photo below.
Fishermen are still drawn to Port Mayaca. On the day we visited, I counted nine.
Dinner in hand (speckled perch), Felix Gui, Jr. has been fishing Lake O for 30 years. “The algae doesn’t affect the fish,” he says. “They eat the same, algae or no algae, and I haven’t gotten sick.” Experts have warned against eating fish exposed to the algae.
A Martin County Health Department sign at Port Mayaca warns against contact with the water but I saw no messaging about whether fish caught in these waters is safe to eat.
Enroute home to Stuart, Jacqui and I stopped at deserted Timer Powers Park on the St. Lucie Canal in Indiantown.
At the St. Lucie Lock, a surreal scene of impaired water, above, and a vortex of slime, below, waiting to be flushed downstream.
A pair of jet-skiers signaled for the lock to be opened, and another pulse of algae-laden water is released towards Stuart and the coast.
Wouldn’t want to anyway, thanks.
Further downstream, the algae spreads…
Nearing the coast, Rio Nature Park and the neighboring Central Marine in Stuart are slimed again. This was the epicenter of the infamous Treasure Coast algae outbreak of 2016.
Reporter Tyler Treadway of TCPalm gathered a sample of the polluted water from a canal behind the offices of Florida Sportsman magazine in Stuart.
Staff complaints of headaches, nausea and dizziness prompted Florida Sportsman publisher Blair Wickstrom to temporarily close the office in late July. “It smells like death,” he said.
The Shepard Park boat ramp parking lot in Stuart was nearly empty on the day we visited.
A man on a mission, Mike Knepper, above and below, posts videos on his Youtube channel documenting the degradation of natural Florida.
“It’s totally unacceptable to me what we’re doing to this planet because we’re very rapidly destroying it,” Knepper says. “My children and grandchildren will be paying the price for all the bad decisions we’re making today. I want to be able to look them in the face and say, ‘I tried to make a difference.’”
Dead-end canals along the St. Lucie River with their limited water exchange have been hardest hit by the toxic blue-green algae, which scientists refer to as cyanobacteria.
A growing body of medical research links exposure to cyanobacteria with neurodegenerative diseases including Parkinson’s, ALS and Alzheimer’s. Google it.
Meanwhile, we’re getting conflicting messages from officialdom. Martin County has erected signs warning against contact with the water but the Florida Dept. of Health website, under the heading How to Keep Your Family Safe While Enjoying Florida’s Water Ways, has this to say: “Cyanobacteria/ blue-green algae…are naturally occurring in Florida’s environment and are also found all over the world. They are part of a healthy ecosystem and help support a wide variety of aquatic life.” (http://www.floridahealth.gov/environmental-health/aquatic-toxins/cyanobacteria.html) In other words, Lighten up, Florida. This is just nature being natural.
An open question remains: What will become of the value of the Florida brand when the world fully sees what we have done to our waters?
Even in disaster, strange beauty emerges.
Greg Fedele has lived in his water-front home since 1991. He grieves for his loss. “I have three kids who can’t enjoy the waterways of Martin County like I did growing up.”
The sign at Ocean Blue Yacht Sales in Stuart echoes a wide swath of community sentiment. Asked to describe in a word how the algae outbreak has impacted his business, president Bryan Boyd replied, “Horrible. The last three years, our bay boat sales have been a third of what they used to be.”
A roadside sign seen in Stuart in late July. If you’re wondering what you can do about the ongoing crisis of Florida waters, we are called to consider our own water footprint, learn about the issues and get involved. And never forget that elections have consequences. Vote for Clean Water. (https://www.bullsugar.org/#)
What we have here in Florida is not just a crisis of water, we have a crisis of democracy and civic engagement.
From the beleaguered springs of North Florida to the sickened rivers and coasts of South Florida, we must understand that no savior is waiting on the horizon who will fix this thing for us.
It took a group effort to create this mess and we need all hands on deck if are to reclaim our waters. Florida needs environmental patriots willing to face down politicians funded by wealthy interests who think nothing of sacrificing our public waters on the altar of their private profits.
We don’t have the luxury of time to get this right. We are losing our waters now. This is our moment. It’s time to set aside our differences and focus on what is at stake, for this is nothing less than a battle for the soul of Florida.
The pictures don’t lie. We the people of Florida bear witness today to nothing less than a crime against nature, and a crime against the children who shall inherit our natural legacy.
A long time ago, Florida political leaders—Republicans and Democrats in common cause—understood there can be no healthy economy without a healthy environment. They wisely enacted laws and regulatory safeguards accordingly.
But that was then and this is now. It’s time to end the popular fiction in Florida that we can plunder and pollute our way to prosperity.
Gov. Reubin Askew said it best when he declared in 1971, “Ecological destruction is nothing less than economic suicide.”
In the early 1990s, I came to Pensacola from UF in Gainesville, to teach German and English at Pensacola High School in both the traditional and International Baccalaureate Program.
I learned perhaps as much as my students. It was hard and rewarding work. I matured here one could say.
Maturing didn’t just involve the discipline of being a teacher, but also the responsibility of my first dog. “Dash,” as he was named for his ability to sprint. Dash was a stray I found in Downtown’s Seville Square. He was as beautiful and white as Pensacola Beach with black spots over his eyes. Even my parents visited to meet him!
Every evening he sat by my side for hours as I graded papers long into night. I would leave at 6 am for the first bell at 7:01. When I got home from a day of teaching, Dash and I would swim at Pensacola Beach or take long walks to Fort Pickens and then of course, grade papers,
These were wonderful times! The powerful simplicity of the blue sky, the green waves, the white sands, and my white and black best friend, forever left an impression on me.
These aerial photos over the St Lucie Inlet were taken by my husband, Ed Lippisch, Sunday, October 29, 2017, at 1:45pm.
The number one issue here is the polluted waters of Lake Okeechobee being forced into the SLR/IRL because they are blocked by the Everglades Agricultural Area from going south.
The ACOE has been discharging Lake O waters into the St Lucie since mid-September. These over-nutrified and sediment filled waters continue to destroy our economy and ecology on top of all the channelized agricultural and development waters of C-23, C-24 and C-25. Stormwater from our yards and streets also adds to this filthy cocktail.
Near shore reefs, sea grasses, oysters, fish? A human being? Better not have a cut on your hand…Not even a crab has an easy time living in this.
We move forward pushing the SFWMD and ACOE for the EAA Reservoir with these sad photos and the fact that our waters are putrid at the most beautiful time of year as motivation. We will prevail. One foot in front of the other.
TCPalm’s Elliott Jones reported this morning that Stuart has received a whopping 11.30 inches of rain just so far this month! (The average being 7.14.)
Although due to the recent drought, the ACOE/SFWMD are not dumping Lake Okeechobee through Canal C-44, canals C-23, C-24, C-25, and areas along C-44, as well as our own basin, are draining right into the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon. Very little of this water is cleansed before it enters and thus is damaging to the eco system. Next time you see water draining through a grate in a parking lot, think about this. Remember too that before the major canals were constructed the 1900s, the river received less than half the water it gets every time it rains today.
The aerials below were taken 6-13-17 by my husband Ed Lippisch and pilot Dave Stone. It is important to monitor the river all of the time so we can view changes.
“Rain stained” we are; please remember not to fertilize during the rainy season. The birds on Bird Island will appreciate it! (http://befloridian.org)
Canals draining water into SLR/IRL after rain events:
At the recent Bullsugar “Fund the Fight” event, Captain Mike Connor introduced me to Montana based, award-winning fishing and hunting journalist, Hal Herring. I looked Hal straight in the eye, shook his strong hand and said, “It’s so nice to meet you Mr Herrington.” He smiled, eyes sparkling, and replied, “Herring mam. Like the fish.”
Fly Life Magazine writes: “Herring, one of the leading outdoor writers of our time, co-manages the Conservationist Blog for Field & Stream, is the author of several books and is a regular contributor to numerous other well-known outdoor news outlets including High Country News, Montana’s Bully Pulpit Blog and the Nature Conservancy magazine.”
To say the least, I felt honored to be chosen as a tour guide for Hal Herring as my husband and Mike Connor arranged an aerial journey for the visiting journalist. After researching Hal, checking out his website, and reading his article on the Clean Water Act, I knew I was dealing with a gifted journalist. What a great person to have learn about the problems of our St Lucie River!
We prepared the Baron for Saturday. My husband Ed invited friend and fellow fisherman Dr Dan Velinsky. The flight stared with a rough take off. I steadied myself. “Please don’t let me puke Lord…” As Ed gained altitude, things settled down and we were on our way…
After taking off from Witham Field in Stuart, we followed the dreadful C-44 canal west to Lake Okeechobee; diverting north at the C-44 Reservoir under construction in Indiantown; traveled over the FPL cooling pond and S-308, the opening to C-44 and the St Lucie River at Port Mayaca. Next we followed Lake Okeechobee’s east side south to Pahokee, and then Belle Glade in the Sugarland of the EAA; here we followed the North New River Canal and Highway 27 south to the lands spoken about so much lately, A-1 and A-2 and surrounding area of the Tailman property where Senate Presidient Joe Negron’s recently negociated deeper reservoir will be constructed if all goes well; then we flew over the Storm Water Treatment Areas, Water Conservation Areas, and headed home east over the houses of Broward County inside the Everglades. Last over West Palm Beach, Jupiter, north along the Indian River Lagoon and then back to the St Lucie Inlet. Everywhere the landscape was altered. No wonder the water is such a mess…
I explained the history, Dan told fish stories, Ed ducked in and out of clouds. All the while, Hal Herring took notes on a yellow legal pad with calmness and confidence. Nothing surprised him; he was a quick study in spite of all the variables. He was so well read, not speaking often but when he did, like a prophet of sorts. He spoke about this strange time of history, the time we are living in, when humans have overrun the natural landscape. He spoke about mankind being obsessed with transcending the limits of the natural world…and the control of nature…but for Hal there was no anger or disbelief, just wisdom. In his biography, he says it best:
“My passions as a writer and storyteller lie where they always have – in exploring humankind’s evolving relationship to the natural world, and all the failures, successes and deep tensions inherent in that relationship…”
In the Everglades region, Hal may just have hit the jackpot!
Writing my blog allows me to meet many interesting people. Recently, fellow Sewall’s Point resident, and active Vietnam Veterans of America member, Mr. Frank Tidikus, introduced me to Canadian and part-time Martin County resident, Professor Geoffrey Norris who is a geologist and algae fossil specialist with a long career at the University of Toronto.
Professor Norris, his wife, and I met at the Prawnbroker and had a lovely exchange. Dr Norris describes himself as such…
...In the 1960s, I lived and worked as a petroleum exploration geologist in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Subsequently, I spent almost 40 years at the University of Toronto in teaching and research in geology…A geologist by training, I have a specialized knowledge of fossil algae, their ecology, morphology, and distribution. I have published hundreds of scientific papers on fossil algae and related topics…
Professor Norris shared two papers composed for his property association at Indian River Plantation on Hutchinson Island along the Indian River Lagoon during the 2016 toxic algae extravaganza. Today, I will share the first entitled: “Blue-green algal blooms in the lakes, rivers, and marine waters of south Florida surrounding Lake Okeechobee.” His second, specifically on Sugarcane, I will provide next week.
Professor Norris’ summary and full paper is below. It is excellent in that it is able to relay complex subjects to the everyday reader interested in water quality and improving the plight of our St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon.
What is most amazing to me are his comments on glyphosate, most famous for being the active ingredient in Roundup, but now used under many names. Sometimes I hear people screaming so much about Roundup that I tune it out, but Professor Norris’ observations really got to me.
He notes that glyphosate, used excessively in agriculture production around south and central Florida may actually “feed”cyanobacteria (toxic blue-green algae blooms). Also mind-blowing are Professor Norris’ insights into the reproduction of the hungry and ancient cyanobacteria that reproduces through binary fission (copying itself) “producing endless clones” “with no dissipation of mutant genes as a checks and balance to adaptation…”
Well, enjoy the reading the paper. And know, together we are making a difference!
Blue-green algal blooms in the lakes, rivers, and marine waters of south Florida surrounding Lake Okeechobee
This report provides basic information on blue-green “algae” and explains that they are actually bacteria (cyanobacteria). These blue-green bacteria form blooms in Lake Okeechobee that in turn are released by the Army Corps of Engineers into canals and estuaries of south Florida.
The blue-green bacteria grow by using sunlight as an energy source to synthesize elements from the water into more complex compounds used in their cells. When important nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen are present in excess, the bacteria multiply rapidly and accumulate as highly concentrated masses of cells, called blooms.
Blue-green bacteria can synthesize nitrates from atmospheric nitrogen, but also need phosphorus dissolved in water to survive and thrive. If phosphorus is scarce in the water, this limits the growth of the bacteria. If it is abundant, blooms can be triggered.
Run-off and back pumping into Lake Okeechobee from surrounding Everglades agricultural lands and upstream from the Kissimmee River watershed is suspected of providing a potential abundant source of phosphorus for blue-green bacteria, in phosphate-rich fertilizers and herbicides such as Roundup (glyphosate).
Glyphosate (2-[(phosphonomethyl)amino]acetic acid) is of particular concern, since it has been used heavily in the agricultural areas around Lake Okeechobee and upstream in the Kissimmee River watershed for at least 25 years. Glyphosate provides a source of phosphorus for blue-green bacteria and recent research by others suggest that glyphosate enhances the growth of blue-green bacteria, which become tolerant and absorb glyphosate directly.
The blue-green bacterial blooms released into the St Lucie Estuary (principally Microcystis) are formed in freshwater but appear to be tolerant of dilute salinities, and recent research suggests can build up resistance to increased salinities such as are found in estuarine waters.
Blue-green algal blooms in the lakes, rivers, and marine waters of south Florida surrounding Lake Okeechobee
I am a property owner in Stuart, Florida and have been alarmed – along with many others – at the spread of blue-green algae (aka cyanobacteria) into the St Lucie River and adjacent areas by water releases from Lake Okeechobee. There has been much publicity and calls for action over the years but very little appears to have been done to solve this long-standing problem at any level of government, until very recently. Now, a State of Emergency has been declared by the Governor of Florida. Recent initiatives, following public meetings in Martin County thanks to the Board of County Commissioners, have been undertaken by Florida Representative Gayle Harrell and Senator Joe Negron and their colleagues in association with Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson and Rep. Patrick Murphy to urge the Army Corps of Engineers to stop immediately the nutrient-laden discharges from Lake Okeechobee.
Although I am a property owner and tax payer in Martin County, I am also a Canadian snowbird and therefore do not have a vote, which is a little constraining when trying to influence political decisions. Therefore, I decided to put my energies into assessing what is known about the current situation of the blue-green blooms. I am a geologist by training and I do have a specialized knowledge in particular of fossil algae that have been extremely important in oil and gas exploration over the decades gone by. I am not a biologist but I do have some knowledge of the literature on algae – their ecology, morphology and distribution in various environments. I have published hundreds of scientific papers on fossil algae and related topics and hope that the following – largely based on biological and agricultural literature – will pass muster.
In the following presentation my aims are twofold:
Firstly, to try and answer commonly asked questions about blue green algae (which are actually bacteria) that might be helpful in clarifying some of the technicalities of a complex subject.
Secondly, to highlight what to my mind is the ultimate cause of the blue-green outbreak: that is, the heavy application of phosphate-bearing fertilizers and herbicides around Lake Okeechobee together with back pumping of agricultural run-off into the Lake. In particular I believe that the well-known weed killer glyphosate (e.g. Roundup) may be implicated as a major contributor to the problem. South Florida and somewhat later Central Florida became major users of Roundup in the early 1990s, long before its popularity spread north into the corn and bean belt.
Feel free to pass this article on to others. I would welcome comments by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
What are blue-green algae?
Well, for starters they are not actually algae at all. They were discovered in the 19th century by biologists using newly invented high-powered microscopes. They noticed a variety of microorganisms living in water, some of them with green pigments in the cells that allowed photosynthesis to occur, similar to the well-known photosynthesis occurring in the much larger land plants and driven by chlorophyll. But they were much simpler in organization than the large land plants so were called “algae” (singular alga, from the Latin word for seaweed). Some of these microorganisms contain a rather different bluish pigment and were therefore referred to as “blue-green”, and in these early days were judged nevertheless to be algae – hence blue-green algae.
It was only later that biologists realized that the blue-green microorganisms were crucially different from algae because they had no nucleus in the cell and their pigment was not organized into a “blob” within the cell like most other algae. In the scientific literature they are now regarded as bacteria and the blue-greens are referred to as cyanobacteria – that is, photosynthetic bacteria that use a blue-green pigment to facilitate the use of the sun’s energy to produce organic compounds needed by these organisms.
It is important to understand this difference between the blue-green cyanobacteria on the one hand and the “true” algae on the other. I will come back to the difference between bacteria and algae later, and how this impacts on bloom formation.
Meanwhile, the term “blue-green algae” has gained traction in the news media and is now widely understood to be implicated in the blooms of microorganisms that occur from time to time in lakes and rivers in Florida and elsewhere. I will use either of the terms “blue-green algae” or “cyanobacteria” depending on the context, or just the neutral term “blue-greens”. But remember they are actually bacteria.
What are algal blooms?
An algal bloom is the result of rapid increase or accumulation of algae in a body of water. They can occur in freshwater (lakes, rivers) or in marine water (estuaries, lagoons, coastal embayments). Different types of algae (including the blue-green cyanobacteria) produce different blooms characterized by green, bluish, yellow, brown or red colors. The density of pigmented cells in a bloom is enormous, and measured in the hundreds of thousands to billions of cells per liter (1 liter is almost a quart) depending on the species.
Blooms can be quite localized and appear as a streak on the water or can be very large and visible from space, such as the algal blooms that occur from time to time in Lake Erie and measure tens to hundreds of miles in extent. The recent blue-green algal bloom in Lake Okeechobee was reported to be more than 30 square miles in extent.
What causes blooms?
Blooms occur naturally when the water contains an excess of nutrients such as phosphorus and other compounds. This causes an increase in the growth of algae leading to very high concentrations of cells that become visible as colored streaks and patches in the water. Other factors involved in triggering algal blooms include temperature changes, sunlight intensity, changes in water chemistry and changes in water currents.
What are the red tides that occur in Florida?
A red tide is just another name for a bloom of “true” algae in marine water, and in this case a particular algal group called dinoflagellates. Red tides can be red but more often occur as greenish or yellowish colored water in the coastal areas of Florida. The term “harmful algal bloom” is often preferred in referring to these dinoflagellate blooms that do indeed harm wildlife and human life in different ways e.g. toxic shellfish poisoning; respiratory illness; mass fish kills.
So what caused the blue-green algal blooms in Lake Okeechobee?
First, it is important to understand that blue green algae are uniquely different. Not only are they photosynthetic bacteria but they are also capable of manufacturing their own supply of nitrates from nitrogen in the atmosphere, one of their crucial nutritional requirements. So the blue-greens have plenty of nitrogen to live on but they also need other important elements and compounds to thrive. One of these is phosphorus, which often occurs naturally in water in trace amounts as phosphates. If phosphorus is scarce, then this limits the growth of the blue-greens even though they have potentially a lot of nitrates available. The amount of phosphorus available becomes a limiting factor for growth of the blue-green algae. If phosphorus becomes more abundant in the water, then the blue-green algae thrive and multiply until they become visible as a bloom. It is believed that high phosphorus concentrations in Lake Okeechobee are capable of triggering blue-green algal blooms.
So where did the phosphorus come from in Lake Okeechobee?
Lake Okeechobee is surrounded by agricultural land that is being intensively farmed. Run-off from the farmland appears to be entering Lake Okeechobee, and this includes various phosphate-rich fertilizers and herbicides such as Roundup (glyphosate).
But Lake Okeechobee water levels are higher than the surrounding plain. How can run-off into the Lake happen?
Well, firstly, Lake Okeechobee and the surrounding farmland share a common water table. Transfer of minerals and soluble organic compounds can occur through the groundwater. But probably more importantly, until recently it was common farming practice to back pump excess run-off water from the agricultural land into Lake Okeechobee. Almost certainly this had led to the accumulation of phosphorus and other nutrients in the Lake as well as unused agricultural chemicals. Aerial transmission into the Lake from crop dusting is also possible.
So now that back pumping has been discontinued will this solve the problem?
Not really, because although farmers now are not allowed to back pump into the Lake, the South Florida Water Management District has responsibility to alleviate the threat of flooding. They can – and do – back pump surface water from the surrounding land into Lake Okeechobee, if excessive rainfall conditions threaten to flood the communities around the Lake. Rainwater running off the agricultural land will still contain phosphorus and other compounds derived from fertilizers. Furthermore, from time to time the Army Corps of Engineers controls the level of Lake Okeechobee by releases of lake water into the canals, which in turn feed into the estuaries around Stuart and other coastal communities.
Are there any other agricultural products that are contributing to the appearance of blue-green algal blooms?
Yes, there is one in particular that is of great concern. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the well-known weed killer Roundup. It is used intensively by farmers over much of North America. South Florida is one of the areas where it is being used very heavily in agriculture, and has been since at least 1992 (the earliest available data). A little further to the north, Central Florida’s usage of glyphosate surged in 1993 and continued until 2013 (the last available data) and may also be a source of glyphosate in Lake Okeechobee but originating further upstream in the Kissimmee River watershed and its interconnected lakes.
Glyphosate is an organic compound with phosphorus as an important component as well as nitrogen in its chemical make-up. It was invented by Monsanto chemists, brought to market in 1974, and its chemical name is N-(phosphonomethyl)glycine (aka 2-[(phosphonomethyl)amino]acetic acid) – glyphosate for short and much more easily remembered. Monsanto’s patent on glyphosate expired in 2000 and since then it has been manufactured by dozens of companies with a significant drop in price and therefore increasing popularity with farmers. In 2007 it became the most-used herbicide in agriculture in USA. It works as a weed killer by inhibiting the production of certain plant amino acids and enzymes. After it has done its deadly work, some of it can break down in the soil into simpler molecules of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus. Excess glyphosate can run off into water, particularly at peak farming times. Its use has been expanding in the agricultural sector by about 20% per year for the last several years.
So far, so good. It kills most green plants, if that is what you want. I personally use it to kill poison ivy on my property. Unfortunately, it has become apparent through a number of recent laboratory-based studies that glyphosate does not act as a killer for some blue-green algae, aka cyanobacteria. Firstly, the blue-greens love the phosphorus in glyphosate or its degradation products, which otherwise is a limiting factor in their survival. They thrive on increased phosphorus. Secondly and more insidiously, recent research has indicated that glyphosate actually enhances the growth of blue-greens. The blue-greens apparently have the ability to absorb glyphosate directly from the water and some are tolerant to it or become adapted to it by rare genetic mutations.
OK, but rare genetic mutations are just that – rare! So what?
Well, you remember that blue-greens are actually bacteria, not true algae. As such their genetic material is distributed throughout the cell, and they reproduce by binary fission producing endless clones. There is no “mix-and-matching” of chromosomes and genes such as occur in nucleated organisms using sexual reproduction that tends to dissipate the effects of mutant genes. Once a cyanobacterium has undergone a mutation, that mutant gene is replicated again and again as the cell divides. It produces clones of the mutant cell, and if that mutant has an advantage (such as resistance to or affinity for glyphosate), it will rapidly spread.
A more familiar example is the recent rise to prominence of so-called superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics. Human infections are often related to bacteria that enter the body, and are treated by the intake of prescribed antibiotics as a course of treatment for a number of days. If the antibiotics are not taken for an adequate period of time, the residual bacterial population includes mutants that resist the drug in question, and in turn that drug becomes less and less effective against new infections. This way a superbug is created e.g. MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). So think of the blue-greens as bacteria (which they are) and glyphosate as an antibiotic (which it is). Those blue-green cyanobacteria that survive the glyphosate thrive as mutants and have the capacity to spread widely.
Do blue-green blooms last forever?
No. Eventually the blue-green bloom uses up available resources and requires more nutrients than are available leading to a decline in the number of cells in the water column. Also in temperate climates, the onset of winter temperatures can put an end to algal blooming for that season.
Then what happens?
The blue-green cells die off and sink to the bottom of the lake or estuary. Other bacteria move in and use the debris from the dead blue-greens as a source of carbon, and use oxygen in the water to fuel their own growth. This in turn leads to oxygen depletion that can be very severe. Without oxygen in the water, normal aquatic life becomes impossible and a dead zone is created: fish move away, and other organisms die that can’t move into more oxygen-rich environments.
How many blue-green algae/cyanobacteria exist?
About 2500 living species have been described in the literature but probably double or treble that number exist and await discovery and description. They have a very long geological history. Fossilized blue-greens have been discovered in rocks 3.5 billion years old.
How many are harmful?
Only a dozen or so species are actually harmful when they form blue-green blooms and emit toxic substances. In the recent outbreak, Microcystis aeruginosa has been identified as a bloom-forming cyanobacterium together with a couple of others.
So which blue-greens are responsible for the Lake Okeechobee and St Lucie River blooms?
The Florida Dept of Environmental Protection (DEP) took a number of samples from sites in Martin County and adjacent areas from Late May to Late June 2016 and the results are available at their website:
Most samples are reported as “mixed algae; no dominant species in the sample”, but a few are reported with more detail (numbers are depth in meters):
St. Lucie River, Central Marine Marina (N 27° 12′ 55″, W -80° 15′ 18″)
Dominant taxon: Microcystis aeruginosa
Dire Point Canal (N 27° 12′ 24.47″, W -80° 16′ 16.90″)
mixed algae; no dominant species in sample though specks of Microcystis aeruginosa present.
SE Harbor Pointe Dr. (N 27° 12′ 12.44″, W -80° 12′ 44.77″)
mixed algae; no dominant species in sample though specks of Microcystis aeruginosa present.
C-44 and S. Fork Mouth (N 27° 7′ 46.13″, W -80° 15′ 58.02″)
mixed algae; no dominant species in sample though specks of Microcystis aeruginosa present.
S-80 (N 27° 06′ 41.87″, W -80° 17′ 06.08″)
Dominant taxon: Planktolyngbya limnetica
Lake Okeechobee – Port Mayaca S 308 C Upstream Lake Side
N 26° 59′ 6″
W -80° 37′ 16.5″
Dominant: Microcystis aeruginosa
Lake Okeechobee near Channel Marker 9B
N 26° 46′ 36.6954″
W -80° 54′ 8.676″
Co-dominant taxa: Microcystis aeruginosa and Dolichospermum circinalis
Clearly, Microcystis appears to be important in several blooms, but quantitative and qualitative data are not provided for the majority of samples, making further evaluation impossible at this time. Dolichospermum (aka Anabaena) is a well known blue-green that produces nerve toxins and liver-damaging toxins, as does Microcystis. Planktolyngbya limnetica is another well known toxic blue-green.
How adequate has the sampling and analysis program by DEP been?
It is difficult to say for sure, since DEP only provides results of their program, not the sampling and analytical strategies themselves. However, from what can be gleaned from their website it would seem that during the month of June 2016 DEP collected 24 samples from 7 counties (Martin, Palm Beach, St Lucie, Lee, Charlotte, Hendry, Glades) over a 29 day period, covering a transect from the Atlantic coast to the Gulf of Mexico (Stuart/Palm Beach to Fort Myers). Of those 24 samples, 83% were reported “mixed algae; no dominant species in the sample” without further details. I would judge this to be a token response to what is clearly a major emergency. The analytical results appear to be lackluster to judge from details available on the website. No doubt DEP activities are constrained by their budget, but the lack of urgency in attempting to characterize these blooms is disappointing at best and may eventually be judged negligent to some degree.
What is known about Microcystis aeruginosa?
Quite a lot. It is the most common harmful algal bloom-forming species in freshwater. The cells are tiny but colonies can be macroscopic in size and contain gas vesicles that allow the colonies to be buoyant and float to the surface of the lake. It produces both neurotoxins and hepatotoxins that contaminate the water and have been known to kill dogs, other large animals and livestock in general that drink the polluted water. The toxins may be carcinogenic. Microcystis has a drastic effect on dissolved oxygen in the water that can lead to mass fish kills.
Can blue-green algae live in salt water?
This depends on the species. Many truly marine blue-greens are known in seas and oceans where they play an important role in nitrogen fixation and are important components of the marine ecosystem. In the case of Stuart and the St Lucie inlet and estuary, these natural estuarine waters have been diluted and/or replaced by fresher water discharges from Lake Okeechobee as shown in recent Florida Oceanographic Society water quality reports:
In turn this has allowed freshwater blue-greens such as Microcystis to establish colonies and blooms in areas that otherwise would support more saline organisms. So, for example, on June 30th 2016, the north and south forks of the St Lucie River, the St lucie River adjacent to Sewells Point, and the Manatee Pocket were reporting salinity values in the range of zero to 13 parts per thousand, areas which otherwise would be in the range of 15 to 30 parts per thousand. Hence some of these diluted saline waters can now support freshwater blue-greens.
Alarmingly, recent laboratory-based research has shown that some blue-greens – such as Microcystis – can build up resistance to increased salinity and, therefore, if this happens in the natural habitat can expand their range from freshwater to higher salinities.
What can be done to improve the situation?
If you have a vote at any level of government, contact your elected politicians to highlight the urgent nature of the blue-green blooms and to bring pressure to bear to use available resources to solve the matter.
Stop the back pumping of run-off water by anyone into Lake Okeechobee.
Curtail the heavy application of phosphorus-rich agricultural chemicals in farmland surrounding Lake Okeechobee.
In particular, request a thorough scientific investigation into the effects of glyphosate (Roundup) on blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) and their blooms.
In the long run, demand that the dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee be rebuilt with a view to diverting southwards the impounded waters back into the Everglades.
On December 2nd, 2015 my husband Ed and I flew to a historic event in Tallahassee, the designation of local politician, Joe Negron, as President of the Florida Senate.
To try to bring understanding and light to Joe’s accomplishment is really not possible for me… His world is one few know, including myself. I have supported Joe Negron all along the way, first working together in 2012 on Lake O issues when I was mayor of Sewall’s Point. Yes, the ACOE was releasing that year too and the River Kidz were protesting at the locks even then…..I believe in Joe. I believe too that that you have to cut people a break who are “in the Lion’s Den.” It is easy to sit outside of the cage and yell “how to tame,” “how to win,” and “how not to get eaten….”
I admire people who try tame lions…..Don’t you? Could you tame them?
Sitting in the balcony during the event, I recorded what I could of Senator Negron’s acceptance speech. He noted four goals: making Florida’s top universities even greater, dealing with the Lake Okeechobee dilemma, not criminalizing adolescence, and embracing the Constitution.
Today I have transcribed the part of Senator Negron’s speech from my iPhone recording. This part is about his goal for Lake Okeechobee. I am thankful “beyond words for these historic words…” “Thank you Joe!” Every one of us who were part of the fight to right the Lost Summer are part of the spirit of this historic speech! We have come a long way since 2013! And get ready for the ride of the future mostly in 2016-2017.
Here we go…
Words of Joe Negron 12-2-15, Florida Senate Chambers:
“Issue number two, let’s solve the Lake Okeechobee dilemma. …In the summer of 2013 there were near historic levels of rainfall in south Florida and Lake Okeechobee rose to the levels where the ACOE made the decision to have massive releases east and west in order to protect the integrity of the dike. And in the community that I represent, 136 billion gallons of water was sent from Lake Okeechobee into the St Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon.
It also had an adverse effect on southwest Florida with water going to the Caloosahatchee to the Ft Meyers area. Our community came together, and this Senate stepped up, and President Gates appointed a “select committee.” We met in Stuart, and I promised people “measurable progress in a reasonable time.” The then speaker of the house, Speaker Weatherford, also came to our community to visit. We had a group called the River Kidz that were young people who came together to support our efforts… there was some excellent reporting by the Stuart News on this issue that led to not only local coverage but also state coverage and national coverage which was very effective at bringing the attention of the state to our issue.
We funded 231 million dollars in projects. These were not studies, they were not groups sitting around talking about what to do. These were tangible things. Thanks to Governor Scott’s support for bridging two and a half miles of the Tamiami Trail so that water can flow south from Everglades National Park into Florida Bay. That’s going to be a step in the right direction. We just broke ground on the C-44 reservoir which will store basin run off and also assist our in not having water go into the lake….
My goal is before I finish my time in the senate and pack up boxes and put them in the Jeep and go back go Stuart—I have a personal goal/mission and that is to work with the agricultural community, to work with Florida’s best scientists, to work with all of us as a legislature who have background and knowledge on this issue and we will permanently protect our estuaries, protect our lagoons, come up with a way to not have these terrible discharges from Lake Okeechobee that destroy our environment. That’s one of my goals….”
Senator Joe Negron
Designee President to the Florida Senate
Audio file Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch 12-2-15:
(Go to website if not available)