When people think of Florida, they think of Mickey Mouse and beautiful beaches with clear, glistening ocean water. So, what happens when that water goes from clear to brown or green?
We’re learning the answer to that question now. Well, at least the east coast of Florida is, more significantly. Entire beaches in Martin County had to be closed due to the toxic blue-green algae blooms appearing in the water people usually swim in.
While a state of emergency was called in Lee County as well, the situation here on our side of the state doesn’t appear to be nearly as bad as the other. However, the problem is one that could become very real over here, and for that reason, we need to be aware of what’s going on.
This is all happening because of the Lake Okeechobee water releases that have been happening since January of this year. If you’re unfamiliar with what that means, long story short, the Herbert Hoover dike, which keeps water from overflowing out of Lake Okeechobee and endangering people, is old and unstable, so when the water level gets too high, the Army Corps of Engineers, who are in charge of the lake, decide that water needs to be released.
This water is contaminated with fertilizer run-off from neighboring farms, human and animal waste, making it polluted and unsafe for consumption. It is also fresh water. Therefore, when the water is released and mixed with saltwater, we start to see problems. The balance that Florida estuaries depend on gets thrown completely off by the overabundance of nutrients that the mix of water creates, which in turn creates the toxic algal blooms.
This has been happening for centuries. Back in the day, water used to naturally flow south out of the river and into the Florida Bay, but somewhere along the line, we decided we had to live in the swamp. So, we redirected the water east and west. At some point, U.S. Sugar, which produces, well, sugar, bought hundreds of square miles of land south of the lake, and now, here we are.
I encourage you to read more about it, but that mini history and science lesson should at least get you asking the question: why?
Why do we humans feel the need to mess with the natural flow of nature?
The only answer I can come up with is that we care about ourselves and our survival — which we should — but we care very little about the care of the only earth we have to live on. Seems silly to care about ourselves so much that we forget to care for the place we live, doesn’t it? This isn’t Wall-E; we don’t have a gigantic spacecraft to go live on next.
The funny part is that the earth will figure it out without us. It’s been through worse. We’re really just hurting ourselves. Dirty, toxic water found where clear water usually is just screws up the tourism industry, hurting businesses and the state’s economy, which isn’t good for humans. The earth doesn’t care about how deep our pockets are.
The algae that have formed hurts animals that live in these waters and aren’t equipped to deal with it; some even die. Animals have been dying for centuries without our help — it’s life — but here we humans are, happy to help speed up the process.
Doesn’t that sound horrible? Manatees, a protected species, are dying due to these toxic algae blooms. That also hurts tourism — and my heart. Manatees are adorable and important to Florida ecosystems; we should be angered by this news.
And, the thing is, I am angry! But, what can I do about it? Realistically, as a 28-year-old entrepreneur and college student, what can I really do to make a difference? Without completely changing my life, I’d argue that there really isn’t very much that I can do. I’d argue that those who are capable of making a difference are the ones who aren’t doing enough.
Gov. Rick Scott has blamed the Obama administration for this time and time again. He has chosen to assign blame instead of take responsibility and affect much-needed change. He’s talked about making change. He’s discussed ideas that could make a difference. He hasn’t actually acted upon them, though, so what good is that?
He’s also received almost a half a million dollars in political contributions from U.S. Sugar, so there’s a lot of talk that he’s working for them, instead of the good of the state and environment.
It’s a common argument that the sugar industry has much to do with the state dragging its feet on coming up with a real solution. The industry has made political contributions amounting in just under $60 million since 1994, so it certainly seems like politicians would have an interest in keeping it happy.
You see, these water releases from Lake Okeechobee that cause toxic water conditions, kill animals and ruin tourism have been happening for years. The Herbert Hoover dike has been unstable for years. And, still nothing has been done. It’s like we’re waiting for it to be too late.
If that’s the case, enjoy the beaches and wildlife while you can. We live in an incredible area of the country with a fantastically rich and diverse ecosystem. The fact that preserving that isn’t top priority for those responsible for running our state is truly sad.