‘Guacamole-thick’ algae fouls swath of Florida coastline

Boats docked at Central Marine in Stuart, are surrounded by blue green algae on Wednesday. Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency for the area and on Thursday the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it would reduce the flow of foul Lake Okeechobee water down the St. Lucie River.
Boats docked at Central Marine in Stuart, are surrounded by blue green algae on Wednesday. Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency for the area and on Thursday the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it would reduce the flow of foul Lake Okeechobee water down the St. Lucie River. AP

A smelly, “guacamole-thick” muck is fast spreading in the waters of Florida’s Treasure Coast, where angry residents blame the federal government, state water managers and Florida Gov. Rick Scott for yet another spiraling environmental catastrophe.

The choking blue-green algae bloom is the latest contamination of the coastal waters caused by water releases from Lake Okeechobee intended to protect its aging dike.

Scott declared an emergency for Martin and St. Lucie counties on Wednesday and extended that to cover Palm Beach County and Lee County on the West Coast on Thursday. But for many, it was a gesture considered too little, too late in communities that have been repeatedly hammered by foul lake released over the last decade.

At Central Marine boat docks in Stuart on Thursday, pea-green and brown algae coated the water and smelled strongly like cow manure. Blooms that started last week in the St. Lucie River continue to spread, washing up under the docks of waterfront homes and marinas and threatening Atlantic beaches expected to draw crowds of families for the holiday weekend.

Sarah Chaney, a receptionist at Central Marine, said boaters and fisherman are canceling reservations after seeing reports of the algae, which she called “horrible and disgusting.”

“I would describe them as guacamole-thick. And it stinks,” said Gabriella Ferrero, spokeswoman for Martin County.

Florida’s U.S. senators, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson, have joined Martin County commissioners in calling for the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the dike and controls water levels in the lake, to stop the flow of foul water to the St. Lucie River. Residents and business owners blame the algae on lake water, polluted by fertilizer nutrients and other contaminants. Foul water is also being released to the West Coast down the Caloosahatchee River, with damaging effects of water quality and marine life.

The Corps, responding to a state of emergency for Martin and St. Lucie declared by Scott on Wednesday, announced late Thursday that it would begin to reduce the flow from the lake this weekend.

The Corps says the releases are required to keep water levels in Lake Okeechobee from creating potentially damaging pressure on the dike, a massive earthen embankment in the midst of ongoing projects to shore up its most vulnerable areas. Despite the efforts, the lake has continued to rise, pushed up by rainfall and runoff.

Since hitting a low of 13.64 fee on May 17, the lake has risen to 14.90 feet above sea level.

“It has been a challenging year for South Florida,” said Col. Jason Kirk, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District Commander in a statement. “Our water managers have dealt with such large quantities of rain and runoff entering the lake that it would cover the entire state of Delaware in two feet of water. However, after visiting with local elected officials in Martin County yesterday and viewing the algae first hand, we felt compelled to take action.”

Geochemist Henry Briceño and NOAA molecular biologist Chris Sinigalliano address their report about human waste bacteria being present during king tides to Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine and commissioners.

When Scott declared a state emergency for the area Wednesday, he blamed the federal government for neglecting repairs to an aging dike considered one of the country’s most at-risk for imminent failure. Some residents blamed Scott instead on Thursday.

He hasn’t done enough to curb pollution from farms north of the lake or purchase land farther south where lake waters could be stored and cleaned, said Irene Gomes, owner of the Driftwood Motel in Jensen Beach. The Scott administration and the South Florida Water Management District last year rejected pursuing a $700 million option to 46,800 acres of farmland south of the lake, which could be used to build reservoirs that could store water.

Over the last month, the algae has rapidly grown from a beach nuisance to a health concern, as one customer made plans to leave early if the algae triggered breathing issues, said Gomes, whose family has owned the motel’s turquoise-colored cabins since 1958.

“At one point, I could say to my customers, ‘Come down, it’s not at all the beaches,’ because it wasn’t toxic. Now we’re talking about health issues,” Gomes said.

Chaney, the Central Marine receptionist, said Scott should visit the area, even if he gets criticized.

“He needs to come see it himself and stop being a coward,” she said.

Scott’s press office didn’t immediately respond to a call for comment from The Associated Press.

After touring the St. Lucie River where it passes through downtown Stuart, Nelson said the problems go back decades to Florida’s history of diverting water to the ocean.

“We need to repair 75 years of diking and draining, but that takes time,” he said. He called on the Florida Legislature to spend money approved by state voters for environmental projects, such as purchasing land around Lake Okeechobee for water storage instead of diverting the funds to pay for administrative costs. Rubio is scheduled to visit the area Friday.

Rubio issued a release Thursday applauding the Corps’ decision to reduce lake flows and “relieve the Treasure Coast from this grave situation, but more needs to be done.”

He called for authorizing a critical Everglades restoration project that would allow more water to be sent south into the River of Grass and also for more money to repair the Herbert Hoover dike.

“Although this is not the first time we’ve faced this problem, it must be taken seriously and acted upon for the safety of our people, businesses and ecology that depend on these waters. The billions of gallons of water being released are lowering salinity levels, pushing algae into the estuaries and harming the delicate ecosystems.

Lake Okeechobee is the largest lake in Florida and the second-largest body of freshwater in the contiguous United States. Flooding there after a major hurricane blew out a smaller dike in 1928 killed at least 2,500 people in surrounding communities of mostly poor, black farmworkers. That disaster inspired Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and led to construction of the larger dike that still stands today.

To reduce the risk of a breaches, the Corps tries to keep lake water levels between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet above sea level. The Corps has strengthened some of the most vulnerable stretches of the dike but finishing the job will take years. In the meantime, freshwater is released east and west of the lake into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers — with the volume of water largely dictated by rainfall and runoff.

State water managers have said local stormwater runoff and septic tanks also fuel algae blooms. They say they have worked to direct more water south of Lake Okeechobee into the parched Everglades, but say federal regulations, conservation mandates and stalled restoration projects complicate those efforts.

In neighboring St. Lucie County, home to the troubled Indian River Lagoon, officials have prohibited homeowners from using fertilizer during the summer and begun working with the state to test waterways for pollution that might be linked to septic tanks.

“A lot of people want to blame Lake Okeechobee, it’s an easy target, but there are a lot of factors that contribute to the health of the lagoon,” said St. Lucie County spokesman Erick Gill.

Murky waters on southwest Florida’s Gulf Coast also are blamed on the lake’s discharges. Fort Myers-area lawmakers said Thursday that Scott should extend the state of emergency to Lee County because of water issues in the Caloosahatchee River.

This story was reported by Jennifer Kay and Terry Spencer of The Associated Press and supplemented by Miami Herald staff.