STUART, FLORIDA—The smell hit me as soon as I opened my car door—like rancid milk mixed with dog shit. I gasped for breath as humid air descended, filling my pores with the putrid odor.
“It’s been like this for three weeks,” Mary, the unhappy attendant at the deserted Central Marine boat dealer told me. “Last week it smelled like a dead animal. Today—I don’t even know.”
“Be careful out there,” she added as I headed off to the docks.
The reason for her warning was soon clear: at the water’s edge, the stench of the fly-covered slime was almost impossible to bear. Eyes and lungs searing, I walked up and down the harbor snapping photos. The air’s taste was as bad as its smell.
This was my warm welcome to Stuart, Florida, whose St. Lucie estuary is currently suffocating under a vast, nutrient-fueled algae bloom. The St. Lucie is no stranger to algae, but this summer’s slime is fouler and more widespread than anything locals have ever seen.
Not only does the water look and smell like a sewer, it’s potentially a serious health hazard. The Department of Environmental Protection has begun detecting microcystins, cyanobacteria toxins which if ingested can cause nausea, vomiting, and liver failure. Locals exposed to the rank odor of “guacamole thick” algae mats have complained of rashes, eye and skin irritation. Tourism is taking a nosedive.
It could get worse before it gets better.
And this is no accident. What’s happened to the St. Lucie is the latest symptom of a problem that can be traced 35 miles west to Lake Okeechobee, where years of mismanagement and entrenched agricultural interests have precipitated one ecological crisis after another.
“This is absolutely, positively a Lake Okeechobee issue,” oceanographer Zack Jud told me when I arrived at Florida’s Oceanographic Society a few miles away to learn what the hell was going on. “That’s where the whole crux of this problem lies.”
The second largest freshwater lake located entirely within the continental US, Okeechobee used to be the beating heart of the Everglades, connecting freshwater from the Kissimmee river in the north to the sawgrass prairies stretching more than 100 miles south. That all changed in the 1930s, when the US Army Corps of Engineers erected the a vast dike system around the lake in order to drain lands for settlement and cultivation. It was the first of many decisions that would forever alter the hydrology and ecology of the Everglades.
But water was still entering the lake from the north, and it had to go somewhere. So the Army Corps dredged two canals—one west, to the Caloosahatchee river, another east to the St. Lucie. Today, these man-made flow paths are Lake Okeechobee’s overflow valves.
“Initially, this wasn’t a problem,” Jud said. “It becomes a problem when you look at how the lake is managed.”
When the Army Corps first girdled the lake, flood prevention was the key motivating factor. (In 1928, thousands of people drowned after a major hurricane caused Lake Okeechobee to overflow.) Flooding remains a major concern today, but for a slightly different reason: large, politically powerful sugar companies, which own most of the land due south of the lake.
Sugar farms depend on Lake Okeechobee’s dike system to keep their fields from becoming swamps. But they also rely on the lake as an irrigation reservoir. “These are two completely conflicting uses, and they helped set up this year’s catastrophic algae bloom,” Jud said.
The trouble started last fall, with the onset of strong El Niño conditions that brought boatloads of rain to central Florida. Instead of keeping Lake Okeechobee low, the state allowed the lake to fill up to ensure there was ample water to irrigate farms throughout what is normally a dry winter. Only this year—thanks once again to El Niño—it turned out to be a very wet winter.
The result is that by early spring, Lake Okeechobee was becoming dangerously full. Fearing a catastrophic dike breach, the Army Corps began discharging billions of gallons of water a day through its canals, turning the St. Lucie estuary into a freshwater ecosystem overnight.
This alone would have harmed the oysters, seagrass, and other saltwater-adapted organisms living there. But it wasn’t exactly spring water entering the ecosystem. The discharges were filled with nitrogen and phosphorus-laden fertilizer, which seeps into Lake Okeechobee from farms to the north. This stuff was algae fuel.
And sure enough, as summer heated up, the slime came. First, algae blooms appeared on Lake Okeechobee itself, but neon green filaments were soon spotted flowing down canals and into the St. Lucie estuary. The algae bloom started making national headlines several weeks back, after Governor Rick Scott declared states of emergency in four afflicted Florida counties, and shortly before NASA released stunning satellite images depicting the scale of the problem. As of last week, the bloom encompassed over 200 square miles on Lake Okeechobee itself.
Coastal residents are fed up, and they have a right to be. Summer algae blooms like this have been a regular sight on the St. Lucie since 2011, and many feel that the state is ignoring a common-sense solution: restoring the natural flow of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades.
“We have too much freshwater flowing to the east and west, and not enough to the south,” Julie Hill-Gabriel, director of Everglades policy for Audubon Florida, told me over breakfast in Coral Gables. “This year was the ultimate depiction of Lake Okeechobee’s problems.”
For years, environmentalists like Hill-Gabriel have been calling for the state to purchase large parcels of land south of Lake Okeechobee that can be converted into “remediation wetlands,” which would clean fertilizer-fouled water before sending it into Everglades National Park. Not only would this take some pressure off the nutrient-loaded St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee, it’d bring additional freshwater to Florida Bay, where hypersaline conditions have resulted in an enormous seagrass die-off.
Two years back, Floridians voted overwhelmingly in support of a constitutional amendment which earmarked hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to purchase land for exactly this purpose. Instead, the state used the money to buy anything and everything else in the name of conservation. Environmentalists blame the sugar lobby, which opposed the land purchase and has helped bankroll the careers of prominent Florida politicians, including Governor Scott and Senator Marco Rubio.
Now, the state has an environmental and PR crisis on its hands. Governor Scott, who recently gutted the state’s water policy of pollution regulation, is trying to blame the Obama administration for failing to repair Okeechobee’s aging dike system, and to paint septic tanks, not agriculture, as the cause of the bloom.
Meanwhile, in response to public backlash the Army Corps says it’ll begin restricting the flow of polluted water out of Lake Okeechobee July 15. But as Army Corps spokesperson Jenn Miller told Gizmodo, the situation is week-by-week. “It’s all conditions-dependent,” she said, noting that the lake is currently 14.73 feet high. If heavy rains hit and the water level rises above 16 feet, the channels will have to be reopened to prevent an even bigger disaster.
Miller said that sending more water south is “absolutely” part of the long-term solution.
“My fear is that we have not seen the worst,” Jud said. “With 200 square miles of algae blooming on the lake, and conditions getting more and more favorable for algae growth, and the potential for rainfall to require additional discharges, I think we have the potential for things to get much worse before they get better.”