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Nancy Smith

Frantic Martin Countians Plead to Stop Lake Discharges, End Algae Blooms

June 29, 2016 - 6:00am

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.

Overflow Emergency Water Meeting Tuesday in Martin County
Overflow Emergency Water Meeting Tuesday in Martin County

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 or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith. Barbara Clowdus, editor and publisher of Martin County Currents, contributed information to this column.


We’ll keep getting these algae blooms until we realize that we are a big part of the problem - not just Lake O

Yes we are a big part, Overdevelopment is a big part and leaking septic tanks is a huge part.

We need to come together and fix this solution now. I agree with Doug, the pollutants are from the north of the lake and therefore we need to focus our efforts into stopping the pollution and fixing our water quality. More storage and a water treatment center in the north would pump CLEAN water into lake o, therefore sending clean water out.

We must fix the problem at the source! If not we are just sending polluted water through the waterways that are not contaminated. How is that any solution?

I absolutely agree with molly. Clean water into lake O and down towards the south.

I'm disgusted with what I read here. Why can't all of you stop the finger pointing, stop the blame game and get together to come up with an answer that will save our state because, if you don't, it will only get worse.

Barrie...there is not point in getting your panties all in a wad. THERE IS NO FIXING THIS. The milk is spilled. The horses are out of the barn. One hundred years ago - really a pretty short time - none of this was a problem. There were not millions of people down there, the Magic Kingdom had not been built (don't think for a second that the disgusting monstrosity known as Disney does not play a large role here. Most people are just too dumb to know it.) and there was not a dike around the lake. Kinda hard to fix that at this point. In the end I expect Nature will take care of it.

Yes, Jamie, so far I have been. Have mentioned a number of times I was willing to paint Pam Bondi's toenails but have yet to hear from her. Hope springs eternal!

Still in disbelief over this. So Doug Smith is the longest serving commissioner. And he just now noticed the problem? And is screaming for help from the president? Try this one for size. Tell the prez that you are spending about 38 million to install four transgender bathrooms, just in case there are any transgenders in the area and they can't figure out where to potty. A common problem, I run into it all the time. Then say that a local nightclub has been a haven, a refuge as it were, for homosexuals and other different sex forms for a long time. Tell him the name of it is "Queer for Years". He will then proclaim it a National Monument and help will be on its way. Probably print up another billion or so. That should help.

Been turned down for a date, huh Trapper? lololol

Feel like I am talking to myself. Someone once said that stupidity is no obstacle to a politician. There are too many people down there. Everyone agrees septic tanks a huge problem no politician wants to tell constituents they have to pay to convert to sewer. Hell, the county will then dump it in the ocean anyway. 1. Spend money to test air and water quality in affected areas. Why? You already know the answer. 2. Document health effects on residents. Read....spend more money. Why bother? You know it effects them. 3. Enlist the help of neighbors. That at least makes a little sense. The squeaky wheel does get greased. 4. Empanel a group of people from most destructive agencies to come with solution. Yea, right. Spend more money, waste more time. 5.Document current conditions. Spend more money. Why don't you look out the window and see if it is raining. 6.Create a set of water quality standards. So that means that you don't have any now? The problem is scumbag politicians bought and paid for by Big Sugar. In compliance with the corrupt SFWMD. And the corrupt legislature. We voted to spend about $700 million on land buying efforts. They should have bought the Sugar land, but that was not convenient for them. Want to do something real? End the subsidy for sugar. We are trading with communist Cuba now, thanks Obama, but we could buy sugar from them for half what we pay now. This camel has had his nose in the tent for quite a while. There are millions more people than resources can support. All involved government agencies have their own axe to grind. Nobody really gives a doodley damn. I take that back. Maggy Hurchalla does, but that is a lone voice in the wilderness. Two things can happen that will solve the problem. Water will get so putrid that people will quit coming because of possible death. Power grid outage will run them off. This whole part of Florida reminds me of the Rio Olympics. They don't have the money and no one is going to show up.

Nancy - ignorance should not be typed for all to see. The lake was filled with an algae bloom prior to and during the releases in to our estuary. The pollutants are from the North End of the lake, nobody is completely blaming the Farmers. They want the land that the farmers have to reroute the discharges to the Everglades. Why are there no blooms (if the septic tanks are the root of the cause) when the locks are shut; answer, because the normal salinity levels are present in the estuary where green blue algae can't grow. I agree septic must go because run off does effect water quality like fecal contaminants and nitrogen but come on LOOK AT THE WIDESPREAD DAMAGE! I am thinking you have a stake in pumping systems that will replace septic tanks or are you just blind to see that the discharges directly relate to lower salinity and algal blooms.

Big surger supported news paper.

How does this solve anything? You sound ignorant. Keep blaming people and think your fixing the problem. You are part of the problem!

You anti-big sugar people are like 9-11 truthers. Obamacare problems= Big sugar National debt= Big Sugar Terrorist shooting = Big sugar too much rain = Big Sugar Too little rain = Big Sugar My socks are wet = Big Sugar My septic tank pours $hit into the rivers because I am too uneducated to get septic in Martin County = Big Sugar Garbage smell on Turnpike = Big Sugar Light bill just went up = Big Sugar The irony is the ones I see at these meetings spouting off nonsense are obviously fans of sugar, and bread, and lots of excess carbs.

Poor Nancy her voting for repubs and corporate welfare is coking home to roost. The solution is simple and costs little, tell and enforce farms, ranches to keep the pollution on their property or get fined big time. There is no reason for taxpayers either state or feds to pay to clean up farmers, ranchers mess. Yes septic tanks can be a problem but many easy solutions to that like composting toilets, garden treatment, etc. In ft laud they blamed the boaters for their water pollution but turned out to be dogs, not people.

Easy solutions are what lead us here. We need a permanent solution so this doesn't happen again.

Poor Nancy her voting for repubs and corporate welfare is coking home to roost. The solution is simple and costs little, tell and enforce farms, ranches to keep the pollution on their property or get fined big time. There is no reason for taxpayers either state or feds to pay to clean up farmers, ranchers mess. Yes septic tanks can be a problem but many easy solutions to that like composting toilets, garden treatment, etc. In ft laud they blamed the boaters for their water pollution but turned out to be dogs, not people.

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nancy smith


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