Fred Grimm

Governor ignores Big Sugar’s role in toxic algae infestation

Water full of algae laps along the Sewell's Point shore on the St. Lucie River under an Ocean Boulevard bridge, Monday, June 27, 2016.
Water full of algae laps along the Sewell's Point shore on the St. Lucie River under an Ocean Boulevard bridge, Monday, June 27, 2016. AP

Marta Rivera paused for a moment to read the city’s “declaration of emergency” sign near the entrance of the Boatyard, a waterfront restaurant in downtown Stuart with a deck offering diners what used to be an alluring proximity to the St. Lucie River.

Bold red letters on the yellow poster warned, “ADVISORY. High Bacteria and Blue Green Algae. AVOID CONTACT WITH THE WATER.” So much for the river’s allure. “Wow,” said Rivera, a visitor from Orlando. “This can’t be good for business.”

Talk about understatement. Tourism in Stuart and Martin County is choking on a toxic cyanobacteria scum called microcystis. Residents? They’re retching. “When the wind’s right, the air just gags you,” said part-time resident Beverly Nelson, wrinkling her nose. Fellow Martin Countians have complained of rashes, nausea, diarrhea, inflamed eyes and irritated throats.

A massive algae bloom has flourished along the St. Lucie estuary, forming Starry Night swirls on the water surface, like a Van Gogh painted in DayGlo green. Then the wind blows the stuff against the river bank or into coves and marinas. The algae piles up into foamy layers, inches thick, while the sun bakes it into a reeking gelatinous mess.

So much for waterside dining, paddle boarding, kayaking. Beaches were (temporarily) closed. Fish kills preempted fishing. At MarineMax, a high-end boat dealership upriver from Stuart, Mike Damask and his co-workers talk about the absurdity of trying to sell an expensive motor launch next to a waterway garnished in green fetid slime.

Sebastian Lahara, who in a normal summer would be leading kayaking expeditions out of Tri-Athletica, his Stuart sports shop next to Frazier Creek, has given up. No one wants to pay to paddle through the pea soup clogging up the St. Lucie and its tributaries. Even on summer days when the algae infestation seems less acute, his customers complain of headaches and respiratory discomfort. “The summer is lost,” he said.

On June 26, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for Martin, St. Lucie and Palm Beach counties on the east coast and Lee County on the west coast, where a similar dross has afflicted the Caloosahatchee River. Except Stuart residents dislike the use of the term “emergency” to describe a recurring, predictable, preventable water crisis.

This year’s cyanobacteria outbreak is only a severe variation of the algae blooms that have plagued these watersheds for more than a decade. Infestations follow major water releases from Lake Okeechobee, when the Army Corps of Engineers opens the spillways to relieve pressure on the lake’s old earthen dike and billions of gallons of nutrient-laden water cascade into the St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee waterways.

Scott blamed President Obama and the “negligence of the federal government” for the slow progress in hardening the dike that surrounds the lake. But the governor can’t bring himself to mention the primary source of the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that’s tainting the lake water. Most of that comes from farm runoff, particularly from the area’s sugarcane fields.

This is a governor who has resisted clean water standards, who disparages environmental regulations, who’s allied himself with corporate agriculture. Earlier this year, he signed a law that essentially allows Big Ag to police itself when it comes to fertilizer pollution. And last year, Scott’s appointees on the South Florida Water Management District scuttled plans to buy 46,800 acres of sugar company land below the lake where the state had once planned to build giant retention ponds to store and filter the polluted lake water.

We can see (and smell) what his policies have wrought. After unusually heavy rains last January, the Corps opened the spillways and Martin County was soon choking on the results. “We’ve never had algae that bad so early in the year,” Lahara told me.

It would get worse. In May, the NASA Observatory released satellite photos showing an algae bloom that covered 33 square miles of Lake Okeechobee’s surface. It was pretty obvious what would be flowing Stuart’s way.

On Wednesday, Scott’s office, still avoiding the subject of farm runoff, announced he would seek money in next year’s budget for matching funds “to encourage residents to move from septic tanks to sewer systems in order to curb pollution.”

Sure, leaky septic tanks contribute to algae blooms and fish kills, but Scott is ignoring the damage caused by agricultural pollution.

“Oh, the politicians know how they can stop the algae,” Beverly Nelson said. Except Big Sugar has a lot more influence than little Stuart.