I lived in the state of Florida for eight years where I worked on a variety of water projects and it was here where my passion for water and concern for water issues strengthen. Florida was the place where I fell in love with the ocean and its creatures, where seeing dolphins jump out of blue crystalline waters with pelicans flying over it never got old. It was where jumping into a freshwater spring, canoeing down a river full of manatees and turtles, or contemplating the sunset from one of Tampa Bay’s beautiful sandy beaches were the highlight of my week. It’s a place that still feels like home. Unfortunately, this image of perfect paradise is crumbling due to Florida’s current red tide crisis.
But what is red tide? Red tide is a common term for harmful algal blooms that cause direct toxic or harmful effects on people and wildlife. It is commonly called red tide because the algae can turn the water red. These algae blooms can be common in the state during the summer and fall months due to high temperatures and abundant sunlight. However, increases in nutrients from fertilizers and pesticides, reduced water flows, climate change, and lack of animals that eat algae can exacerbate the extent, duration, and intensity of blooms.
Today, Southwest Florida’s beaches, some previously considered the best in the world, are being plagued by foul smells and carcasses of small and large animals. As of August 8, 2018, more than 15 people have been taken to emergency rooms as a result of the red tide and the economic consequences will soon worsen. In fact, news reports say that some residents are considering selling their beachside homes and tourism is already being affected.
But the beaches and their adjacent communities are not the only ones being impacted by algal blooms. Decades of nutrient pollution mixed with warm temperatures have helped create toxic algae levels in Lake Okeechobee. Originally, the waters from Lake Okeechobee discharged into the Everglades. However, as more people moved to the state, canals and water control structures were set in place to remove water off the landscape. Today, during times of heavy rainfalls, Lake Okeechobee’s waters are dumped into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers ending in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
The end of this algae bloom is uncertain. However, everyone can help to minimize the impacts of this and future toxic algal blooms.
- If you are a resident, abstain from or reduce the use of fertilizer. Remember that the composition of fertilizer changes based on geography. Fertilizers sold in Southwest Florida have no phosphorus due to the high levels of this chemical in the soil.
- Check your onsite sewage system.
- Clean up after your pet.
- Volunteer to clean the beaches.
- Educate yourself and stay informed. Here are some good resources.
I am saddened by this crisis. I hope this crisis ends soon and that my memories of paradise don’t turn into a picture of the past.
Jimena Larson is an environmental engineer and urban planner from Bogota, Colombia interested in water, infrastructure, and urban design challenges