The red tide in Florida is historically destructive and toxic this year, extending along the western coast of the state from Naples to St. Petersburg, destroying marine life and ravaging tourist destinations and local businesses.
Even though the phenomenon is a naturally occurring one, it drew the attention of the U.S. Senate in a Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee hearing on Tuesday while Florida politicians and corporate giants continue to point fingers at each other over how bad the red tide is this year.
But Florida conservationists and scientists say there’s plenty of blame to go around as to why the red tide is so severe, and told InsideSources that Florida’s government, businesses and local residents must work together to fix the problem.
Before industrialization in Florida, rain water flowed through northern and middle Florida wetlands down into Lake Okeechobee. Once the lake’s waters rose to a certain height, the water spilled over the southern side and flowed through the Everglades and all the way down to the tip of the state.
This process created layers of nutrients in the soil south of the lake, which is why that area is so fertile and heavily utilized by US Sugar for sugar farming.
According to conservationist group Audubon Florida’s Executive Director Julie Wraithmell, this extensive process naturally cleaned the water. While red tides still happened — and have been documented as far back as the Spanish explorers in the 16th century — they weren’t nearly as acute as they are now.
Part of the problem is man-made engineering to allow the surrounding land to be farmed. Instead of allowing Lake Okeechobee to naturally spill over toward the south, the Herbert Hoover Dike was installed to stem the southern flow and two estuaries — the Caloosahatchee River to the west and the St. Lucie River to the east — now drain the lake east-west instead of south.
The result, according to Wraithmell, is a disrupted natural water management system that fuels not only a booming agricultural and sugar industry but also a booming red tide.
“This is the problem with a natural system that has been constrained and reengineered in many different ways,” Wraithmell said. “We can’t make it work for all of the needs that we have. We need to get it back more to its natural function to make sure the lake and Everglades are healthy.”
The farms surrounding the lake contribute nutrients to the water flow that encourage the red tide. Because the natural water flow and cleaning is disrupted, the nutrients from farm fertilizers steadily makes the red tide worse.
Some have blamed US Sugar specifically for contributing to the red tide, because it dumps pollutants into Lake Okeechobee, including the chemical phosphorus, which accelerates the life cycle of red tide blooms.
But Wraithmell said US Sugar is “not responsible for all of the nutrients” causing the red tide: many of the nutrients come from septic tanks and other farms north of the lake.
Just a few weeks ago, US Sugar posted a press release titled “The Facts on Florida Red Tide — It Is NOT Caused by Lake Okeechobee” in which it states that anyone claiming US Sugar is responsible has an “anti-farming agenda.”
“This idea is completely false, and factual statements to correct that misinformation have been made recently by well-respected scientists with research organizations that have studied Florida red tide for decades,” the statement reads.
US Sugar then quoted Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium scientist Tracy Fanara as saying the red tide is not “initiated” by the lake.
Fanara then told WINK News that US Sugar “misused” her statement for its own agenda, clarifying that the lake may be in fact contributing to the red tide even if it isn’t causing it.
Despite the debate over the cause and facilitation of the red tide, some Floridians believe US Sugar has abused the land and paid off politicians to stop them from focusing on environmental protection regulation that might cut into US Sugar’s business.
Local and national reports in the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, Marketwatch, and the right-leaning Americans for Tax Reform have found that US Sugar regularly contributes millions of dollars to federal, state, and local politicians and then receives hefty subsidies, which some claim hurts Florida jobs, taxpayers, and local businesses as well as the environment (US Sugar says it employs more than 12,000 in Florida sugar cane farming).
The local reports found that US Sugar has successfully lobbied to push back the deadline for cleaning up Lake Okeechobee several times. According to the Herald, the Everglades Foundation claims the lake is primarily responsible for most of the phosphorus that enters the Everglades.
Yet, US Sugar has substantially reduced phosphorus levels in the lake over the past 10 years, so much so that now most phosphorus comes from cattle ranches and suburbs, according to the South Florida Water Management District.
“Every time people put those things on their lawns or cut their lawns, those things get flushed out into our waterways,” Wraithmell said. “So we’re asking people to be really mindful of the use of fertilizers on laws and municipal parks and reserves. Septic tanks of course contribute as well. Even septic tanks that are in perfect order continue to contribute nutrients to waterways so making sure that we have every opportunity to hook those up to sewer is an important step we can take.”
Vincent Lovko, another scientist with Mote, told InsideSources there “isn’t sufficient data” to pinpoint exactly why the red tide is so bad this year.
“As far as the influence from human derived nutrients, fertilizers and septic systems, all that of course can increase the nutrient concentration in the coastal water,” he said, “or it could be that it’s just a natural occurrence. From a scientist’s perspective, either we don’t have data to conclusively say, or we just need to do more analysis to determine.”
At the Tuesday hearing, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s Daniel Anderson also said additional research is necessary to fully understand the red tide and said “sustained funding at a higher level is a critical need.”
Lovko said there was another historically bad bloom in 2004, 2005, and 2006, so this year’s severe outbreak “is not unprecedented.”
“This is not the norm, but they do happen,” he said.
Besides the influence of man-made nutrients, Wraithmell said warmer temperatures are also to blame for this year’s outbreak.
“Water temperature is related to weather patterns and climate,” she said. “We need to recognize that there are long term effects of climate change.”
Republican Gov. Rick Scott has called for additional federal funding to repair the Herbert Hoover Dike, but his challenger in the upcoming November election — Democrat Bill Nelson — and Wraithmell both said that won’t solve the problem.
Scott has also asked Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to do everything they can to mitigate the crisis, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
A few weeks ago, Scott declared a state of emergency and announced additional funding for conservation and environmental protection groups so they can quickly address the issues. The funding includes more than $100,000 for Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, according to the Bradenton Herald.
Additional funding, Wraithmell and Lovko said, can make a huge difference. Not only will it allow scientists to better study and determine the exact causes of the red tide, but it will also allow conservationists to help save marine life.
But Wraithmell said the water system in Florida must be overhauled in order to bring about lasting change, and that requires cooperation from politicians as well as corporations like US Sugar.
“Wetlands and these water bodies, they’re infrastructure, they need to be maintained just like roads and schools,” Wraithmell said. “Investing in this is important to the health of the state. We need to move more water south and focus on the everglades and clean more water. Folks need to be thinking about septic tanks and also protecting coastal wetlands.”
At the Tuesday hearing, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said the red tide is a “bipartisan issue” and highlighted this year’s destruction to the tourism industry and local businesses as well as marine life and hazards to human wellbeing.
“This is not a partisan issue. I’ve worked for years with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to secure funding for research on algae blooms and projects to restore the Everglades to send the water south as Mother Nature intended,” he said.
Nelson said he and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) are working on a bill “to require a coordinated scientific strategy to address toxic algae in South Florida and the Everglades.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Ala.) also described similar algae problems in his home state of Alaska, as did Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.). Anderson told the senators that red tides can cost local communities millions of dollars in lost tourism or business.
“As waters warm, precedents like this may become the new normal. Climate change will only make things worse,” Baldwin said.
Nelson sponsored the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Amendments Act of 2017, but after passing the Senate in September 2017 it is now stalled in the House.