Sunday, July 3, 2016

Algal Sludge in Southeast Florida

Over the past few weeks, a thick layer of putrid algae has been accumulating along canals and estuaries in Southeast Florida, centered near Stuart.  This unnatural scourge is threatening both the local economy and the welfare of regional wildlife.

The culprit is polluted water in Lake Okeechobee which, during periods of heavy rain, is released into the upper watersheds of adjacent rivers to relieve pressure an an aging dike; the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers receive the brunt of the runoff.  Once the nutrient-rich freshwater mixes with sea water at the coast, an algal bloom is triggered, covering the shallows with a toxic carpet of noxious and unhealthy sludge.  The only remedy is to cut off the flow of nitrogenous waste (primarily agricultural fertilizer) that fuels the bloom.

Repeated episodes have occurred over the years and politicians, at both the State and Federal levels, have stymied efforts to provide a solution (i.e. cleaning up Lake Okeechobee and expanding its basin to eliminate seasonal overflow).  While the tragic effects of pollution are clearly evident in this case, much of human-induced pollution across the globe goes unnoticed for extended periods of time, destroying ecosystems and poisoning wildlife long before the effects become evident.  The warnings of conservationists are often ridiculed by polluting industries (and the politicians whom they fund) until species are lost, fisheries are decimated and our natural environment is forever changed.