Algae blooms are everywhere in Martin County. They lie like a blanket on the C-44 Canal, on the St. Lucie River, throughout the estuary, even at the beach.
They follow another wet spring of rising Lake Okeechobee levels, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is forced to step up its fresh water discharges to protect the dike around the lake from bursting.
On Tuesday Martin County commissioners met in an emergency session before an overflow crowd, more than anything to get the attention of state and federal officials, to start moving ahead with a plan to do something about it. Their once pristine waters, an environmental treasure, have turned forbidding, putrid, perhaps toxic.
Doug Smith, Martin County's longest-serving commissioner, called the unprecedented level of algae blooms a national, as well as a state and county, disaster. Making a comparison to the BP oil spill, he said, “This is our Deepwater Horizon and it needs to be treated and thought about that way.”
Smith called for an immediate disaster declaration to be sent not only to Gov. Rick Scott, but to President Obama: “It's time that the federal government understands just how gawdawful it is here.”
One by one, residents and business people at wit's end went to the podium to tell their stories and plead for help, some in tears and desperation; many more angry the Army Corps won't just shut down the water release permanently, that Big Sugar is poisoning the lake; most convinced that the only plan to make the polluted water go away is, as the Everglades Foundation says, to buy land south of the lake and flow the excess lake water to a reservoir there.
Even the president of Martin County Audubon, John Nelson, blamed the man who fast-tracked Everglades restoration and directed millions of dollars to complete stalled work. He said Rick Scott was re-elected governor with a "Let's get to Work" election motto but, "He's done no work whatsoever in getting our environment back in order."
One woman, Jennie Pawlowsky, was ready to take her protest to a new level. "I'm done being a peaceful protester. I'm done being a peaceful citizen," she told the commission. "If politicians from the local level up to the state don't start acting, we will take things in our own hands. ... Go ahead and put me on a watch list."
Nyla Pipes, founder of One Florida Foundation, was the only resident who mentioned the presence of fecal coliform from septic tanks as a major pollutant in the waterways. She was booed all the way up to the podium and all the way back. Clearly, that's not what the crowd wanted to hear.
In fact, for all the heartfelt emotion during the three-hour meeting, there wasn't even one true scientist who spoke.
No one could answer why, if all the pollutants are coming from sugar farmers, why aren't the sugar crops and the canals moving water south from the lake, also blanketed in algae? I phoned a number of farmers; their crops are bloom-free.
Biologist Brian Lapointe, whose study last year of septic tank pollution in the St. Lucie estuary leaves no doubt that residents on septic tanks need to be converted to a central sewer system, told me Tuesday night, "I think it's obvious you have some algae in the lake. But when it's discharged into the C-44, it mixes with phosphorus and the nitrogen in human waste, and all the other pollutants coming in from the North. They create a bio reactor, which makes the blooms grow like wildfire."
Right now Lapointe, of Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, is analyzing data for septic-to-sewer conversions going on in Charlotte and Lee counties. "Even Crystal River, worried about its manatee population, has banned septic tanks," Lapointe said. "Floridians are getting the message."
Martin County, meanwhile, is stuck on an answer that may not be an answer at all.
Former Martin County Commissioner Maggy Hurchalla asked at the meeting if there was anyone inside or outside the room who did not think the state needed to buy land from farmers south of the lake for water storage. When no one responded, she called it "a major step forward."
Martin citizens follow Maggy's lead, that is expected. But any other year, public officeholders might have spoken up in dissent. This is an election year, and a tough one at that. It's doubtful either an incumbent or a challenger for public office would have raised a hand in the atmosphere of Tuesday's intense County Commission meeting.
Pipes told me Tuesday night, "The land they want to buy south of the lake is a drop in the bucket. It wouldn't give us anything like enough room to store the millions of acre feet we need to store lake overflow." South Florida Water Management District engineers have told me the same thing: a reservoir on the parcel the Everglades Foundation wants wouldn't make a noticeable difference.
Reservoirs also take several years to build. The truth is, no truly quick fix has come to light.
County commissioners directed staff to add to Smith's declaration that the lake releases be stopped immediately to allow salt water to enter the waterways, to invite the president to come see the destruction firsthand, to insist the state delegation “focus on Martin County” and to “put every solution on the table.”
They also passed resolutions to do this:
- Spend county money to test toxicity and air quality in the affected areas;
- Document health effects on residents;
- Enlist the help of all delegations north and south to pressure the state Legislature to buy land north and south of the Lake;
- Empanel a group of scientists, along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the South Florida Water Management District and representatives from the sugar industry to identify short-term solutions and parcels of land to purchase for a long-term solution;
- Document current conditions;
- Create a set of water quality standards for all outfalls to county waterways.
- Pressure the Corps of Engineers to reevaluate the LORS schedule for the dike.
Toxic algae -- if, in fact, it is deemed toxic -- can cause respiratory problems, neurological damage, nausea, diarrhea, rashes, and even death. The toxic algae pollution has become so serious that the Florida Department of Health now hands out educational materials that ask people: “Have You Been Slimed?”
Callers to the state’s Aquatic Toxins Hotline (1-888-232-8635) hear a recording which warns: “It is very important that pets, livestock and small children are kept out of water suspected of having a blue green algae bloom since there have been many reported cases of animals dying after drinking highly contaminated water.”
The Department of Health also recommends that people don’t water ski or jet ski over algae mats. Officials warn against using algae-laden water for cleaning or irrigation.
This is all so painful to hear.
Having lived nearly three decades in Martin County, having raised our kids there to canoe and swim and fish in the rivers, it cuts me to the bone now to see our grandchildren in Stuart and Jensen Beach unable to enjoy the rivers and beaches as we did. We all want a better life for the generations that follow us, and I am no different.
I hope Martin County will get rid of the septic tanks soon, do as the commission suggests: empanel a group of scientists and stakeholders and go at the problem in a wide-open format, lean on the feds to complete reconstruction of the Herbert Hoover Dike, and build more reservoirs that capture dirty water flowing into the lake from the north. According to the University of Florida water study, northern reservoirs are the top priority.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith. Barbara Clowdus, editor and publisher of Martin County Currents, contributed information to this column.