In Florida, miles of waterways and beaches in St Lucie and Martin counties are ridden with foul-smelling algaeResulting skin rashes and concerns over marine animals have caused Florida governor Rick Scott to declare a state of local emergency in the affected areas.

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Governor Rick Scott offered this statement:

Today, I am declaring a state of emergency in Martin and St. Lucie Counties to expedite water storage projects to alleviate the proliferation of algal blooms. The order also allows the South Florida Water Management District to reduce the flow of water into Lake Okeechobee through additional water storage projects. In addition to our Executive Order, I am calling on the federal government to speedily approve permits for our dispersed water management programs. I am also asking DEP and FWC to take actions to address the issues caused by algal blooms in South Florida waterways, including developing a hotline for residents to report algal blooms and deploying teams of additional staff to more rapidly survey and sample areas impacted by blooms.

After the bloom caused water at some beaches to thicken and turn pea green, residents began urging state and federal authorities to take control of the situation. The algal bloom developed when water was released from Florida’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Okeechobee.

Samples taken of the algae earlier this month discovered levels of toxins 20 times higher than the World Health Organization’s safety threshold.

“The smell is so bad it will make you gag,” complained Martin county resident Mary Radabaugh. “We have red eyes and scratchy throats. We can smell it in our office. It’s terrible.”

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High rainfall and even higher temperatures caused excess water to fill Lake Okeechobee and put pressure on an aging levee that forced the US army corps of engineers to release water to keep residents south of the lake from being flooded. In response, Florida’s Republican governor pointed the finger at the Obama administration.

“Florida’s waterways, wildlife and families have been severely impacted by the inaction and negligence of the federal government not making the needed repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike and Florida can no longer afford to wait,” he said. “Because the Obama Administration has failed to act on this issue, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues to discharge millions of gallons of water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries resulting in the growth of blue-green algae which is now entering residential waterways in South Florida.”

When the algae dies, toxins can release from the decaying remains and cause skin rashes, vomiting, and respiratory problems in people. There are also concerns over how it will harm manatees, as they eat seagrasses in the estuary area. Sea turtles could also be threatened.

“This is the worst it’s even been and there are no signs that is it improving, I really wish it was,” said Deborah Drum, manager of ecosystem restoration at Martin county. “It’s been a very trying, challenging time for us here. One of the concerns is that the toxins will be very tough on sea mammals. We haven’t found any dead ones yet but it’s hard to imagine that we won’t.”

But Drum says, because there is no effective way to clean up the algal bloom, the only option is to “wait for it to disperse.” She added: “We anticipate that it will go away but we are not sure about that now. We didn’t expect this to happen so we are kind of at a new frontier.” Drum suggests that, because the flat wetlands of south Florida have been extensively re-engineered with canals and manmade lakes, changing the natural flow of fresh water immensely, new ideas need to be brought to the table that work with a region susceptible to soaring temperatures, sea level rise, and invasive species.

“Maybe some of the decisions that were made in the past could be done differently in the future,” she explained. “All levels of government have a responsibility to create a sustainable path forward. It would be a mistake to use the same thinking that got us into this situation.”


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