Signs of progress in Florida’s toxic water crisis

Florida has a pollution crisis that has fouled up its fresh waterways for years. New efforts to solve it could make a big difference in the coming years.

It’s a crisis that starts with leaking septic tanks and fertilizer that washes from lawns and farms across Central Florida, then seeps south into Lake Okeechobee.

“It’s predominantly the commercial, the residential and the agricultural operations north of the lake, running from Polk County through Orlando – all the way from Orlando into the lake,” explained Matt Morrison of the South Florida Water Management District.

The polluted water feeds massive blooms of cyanobacteria that infest Lake Okeechobee and emit cyanotoxins, which are some of the most potent natural poisons on Earth.

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John Cassani, director at Calusa Waterkeeper, takes a water sample at W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam park where a deepening algae bloom could be seen along the canal that is affecting waterways around Lake Okeechobee on June 27, 2018. (Pedro Portal/Miami

It takes many forms — from clumps of brown gunk people often confuse for dying seagrass, to more serious forms that make the water look like green paint or bluish-purple. That type releases a toxin called Microcystin that scientists have tied to liver damage in people, along with a toxin called BMAA, which they’ve correlated to neuro-degenerative disease, according to Dr. Larry Band at the University of Miami.

“What happens is the BMAA causes the proteins in your brain neurons to get all tangled up and you see the slow accumulation of proteins into your neurons until they get completely clogged and the neurons die, so you slowly develop these diseases over the timescale of 10 to 20 years,” said Brand.

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And by polluting Lake Okeechobee, we’ve turned it into a toxic factory that pumps the poison back towards us.

To protect the dike around Lake Okeechobee, and to prevent the lake from flooding people to south as it has been known to do, the Army Corps of Engineers pumps that toxic water east toward West Palm Beach and west toward Ft. Myers – where it also seeps north toward the Tampa Bay Area.

Governor Ron DeSantis says either scenario is bad.

“We can’t just be spewing this into local communities,” DeSantis said. “It creates huge problems”.

At the same time, he says, “we don’t want to see Lake Okeechobee flood those nearby communities, which is the reason they discharge water. We want to protect those people of course.”

So the state’s strategy is to urge the Corps to reduce the amount of water they pump east and west — while the state builds a new reservoir system, as Governor DeSantis planned.

“If you have the water go to the reservoir, you can clean it, send it to the Everglades and obviate the need to discharge all this polluted water into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers,” DeSantis continued.

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Meanwhile, after 10 years of planning, the Army Corps of Engineers has improved the dike and developed a new model that keeps the lake level higher and pumps more water as needed south — reducing the toxic releases east and west.  

We don’t know if the federal government will continue to commit the money it pledged decades ago to build out the reservoirs.  But Gov. DeSantis’ budget for 2022 proposes $660 million to keep the reservoir projects on track.  

Overall, this is the most significant progress seen in several years.  It could lead to some positive results this summer when the toxic blooms usually take off.

Blue-green slime and red tide: An in-depth look at Florida’s water crisis

Explorers discovered Florida’s treasure. We cherished and preserved it for hundreds of years — until now.   This is a story of water choked in slime.  A river sample that tested 10 times too toxic to touch. Dead fish, manatees, turtles, and sharks fouling the beaches.  And politicians pointing fingers or asleep at the wheel. 

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