Red or green? Take your pick. Both colors of algae are devastating south Florida, infesting beaches on the Gulf coast, invading rivers and canals on the Atlantic side. All kinds of sea life are dying and humans are in jeopardy. Many businesses have closed, reservations canceled. The plague beginning in the spring could last well into November.
Nature, to be sure, is capricious with many surprises, but the problem is largely man made. South Florida was reconstructed with rivers and canals to make it a mecca for everyone. Now a large bill is coming due. People moved in to sample the delights, bringing pollution with them that has overwhelmed the defenses against it. Runoff from farms and urban areas into the large lake Okeechobee then flows into waters leading to the coasts. There the contamination culminates.
One of the hardest hit areas is around seaside Stuart, a town of old Florida charm where I live. The sludge has temporarily, mysteriously receded, but it could return any time. Go talk to people living on one of the canals. The water has been a thick green slime with sickening vapors. Don’t get too close, warned David Conway, managing editor of Florida Sportsman Magazine. He sent his staff home when they began to have respiratory problems. It could be worse – bacterial infections, and with sustained contact, even cancer and Alzheimer’s.
People who have bought modest homes on the St. Lucie River are in a quandary. They had planned to spend their lives in a scenic setting that has now turned on them. Keith Gilbride says he lives in a boating community that can’t use boats. He won’t go out in one himself because of the danger from noxious odors. If he tried to fish, he wouldn’t catch many because they’re dying. Or if still alive, they’re covered with lesions. It’s a far cry from a few years ago when his family enjoyed camping by the water. Still, he remains, hoping that something will be done.
The outlook is cloudy. People cite the massive sugar industry that stands in the way of a serious clean-up. Under the gun in an election year, politicians have come up with all kinds of quick fixes that don’t amount to much. A genuine fix would be to build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to contain its overflow before it moves to the coasts. Since that would take some of its land, big sugar resists, and it contributes heavily to obedient politicians.
Florida, says Editor Conway, has escaped the ecological revolution that cleaned up other parts of the country. The state must soon choose whether it will remain a vacation wonderland or give way to the spreading, devouring algae.