What is it?
The green slime that recently broke out on some South Florida rivers and beaches—specifically the St. Lucie and Indian Rivers on the east coast—is an algae outbreak.
Like many other states, Florida has experienced this phenomenon repeatedly over the years. This one is among the worst, experts say.
Florida's Toxic Mess
Why are some of Florida's beaches turning green?Posted by Earthjustice on Friday, July 1, 2016
Video footage recorded June 27, 2016, at the St. Lucie River by Dylan Hansen.
What are the health risks?
This kind of blue-green algae can be toxic to wildlife and to humans. Symptoms include skin rashes, runny nose, sore throat, allergic reactions, severe gastroenteritis, liver or kidney toxicity and neurological problems. Health authorities advise people not to come into contact with the algae.
Previous algae outbreaks have had devastating consequences for Florida's wildlife. In March, a brown algae explosion in the Indian River Lagoon and Banana River led to a massive fish kill. And in 2013, algae outbreaks were linked to the deaths of hundreds of manatees along the state's west and east coasts. More than 15% of the estimated manatee population died that year.
Where does it come from?
Fertilizer, inadequately treated sewage, and animal manure poison Florida's waters during each rainfall, adding phosphorus and nitrogen into water bodies, which feed noxious algae.
In June, a major outbreak of green slime was spotted in Lake Okeechobee, which sits above the Everglades in South Florida’s center, roughly between Fort Myers on the west coast and Stuart, north of Palm Beach on the state’s east coast. By July, the algae outbreak covered 200 square miles of Lake Okeechobee and the huge green blob was visible from space satellites.
Lake Okeechobee has long received massive amounts of agricultural waste from industrial-sized sugar-cane fields, dairies, beef operations, and vegetable row crops. The state has failed to adequately control this pollution. Contaminants from this runoff pollute the water and accumulate on the bottom in a thick muck layer.
Due to heavy rains, Lake Okeechobee’s level has been high. The 714-square-mile lake has a massive U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dike around it. The dike is old and needs repair. Due to concerns about its structural integrity, the Corps lowers the lake in advance of hurricane season.
The Corps pumps Lake Okeechobee’s water to the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico—pollutants and all—through the St. Lucie River to the east and the Caloosahatchee River to the west.
What is the state doing about it?
Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in some counties on the east and west coasts due to the devastating economic impact that Lake Okeechobee’s dirty water is having on businesses like hotels, fishing charters, beach and paddleboard vendors, real estate, and waterfront restaurants.
It is similar to programs the government puts in place after oil spills. Health and environmental authorities are testing the water and the air to monitor the algae. See some of the sampling sites:
How can algae outbreaks be prevented?
“Until those pollutants are addressed, nothing is going to prevent a future algae bloom,” said Earthjustice attorney Bradley Marshall.
We know how the nitrogen and phosphorus in sewage, manure and fertilizer tip Florida's delicate ecological balance. We have a responsibility to do something about it.
What is Earthjustice doing?
- We fought to create a total maximum daily load of phosphorus allowed into Lake Okeechobee. Unfortunately, this limit continues to be exceeded, year after year.
- We challenged the “backpumping” of agricultural wastewater into Lake Okeechobee. Florida agricultural operations have been allowed to take water out of the lake, irrigate fields with it, and then pump the water—now polluted with fertilizer, pesticides, and other pollutants—back into the lake.
- We filed a challenge to stop government water managers from using taxpayer-funded pumps, pipes, and canals to transfer water pollution from one place to another. Our challenge to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule allowing this practice is currently on appeal.
- We sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to enforce water quality standards on the Caloosahatchee River, which flows from Lake Okeechobee westward to the Gulf of Mexico, emptying near Fort Myers. This case is on appeal.
Earthjustice's Florida office has spent years battling the nation’s largest polluters—and their politician friends—every step of the way. And we will continue fighting to get meaningful regulations to restrict this type of pollution.
Is there anything I can do?
Demand action from our elected leaders to clean up water pollution—including phosphorus and nitrogen—at its source.