Should state or feds fix toxic algae blooms? Why Florida can't decide

Florida officials, including Gov. Rick Scott, are calling for federal action to stop the release of pollutants. But the algal blooms may have other causes.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, center, addresses reporters during a news conference in Orlando, Fla, in June 2016. A toxic algal bloom in South Florida has sparked a conflict, as local and state officials call for federal action, while the US Army Corps of Engineers is defending its decision to release water from Lake Okeechobee -- the state's largest lake -- that local officials say is responsible for polluting local waters.

In Florida, officials are calling for federal action to tackle toxic blue-green algae that is threatening water along the state's Atlantic Coast.

Growing algal blooms prompted Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency in Martin and St. Lucie counties on Wednesday, allowing state and local government to take "swift action" to stop the blooms from spreading. 

The stakes are high, as harmful algal blooms — a colony of algae that has grown out of control — can have toxic or harmful effects on people, fish, marine mammals, and local birds, according to the National Ocean Service. They create a thick mat on the surface of a lake or slow-moving body of water that cuts off oxygen to creatures below.

They also pose a threat to Florida's beach tourism industry and could have ripple effects throughout the state's economy.

In Martin County, officials say federal action, including a federally declared state of emergency, is needed to stop pollutants in Lake Okeechobee, the state's largest lage, from leaking through locks that divide it from the local St. Lucie River. The county has also declared a state of emergency of its own.

"Given the nature of the algae, there's no immediate or obvious solution for dealing with it," county engineer Don Donaldson told the St. Lucie News-Tribune. "I'm not aware of any safe, practical way of getting rid of it. We're looking to the state to provide us expertise in that area."

The governor's order allows lakes north of Lake Okeechobee to begin holding back 20 billion gallons of water that could otherwise continue to flow south and exacerbate the release of pollutants, reports.

But pollutants from Okeechobee aren’t the only cause, as local stormwater runoff and septic tanks can also spur algal blooms. That has happened in previous years when no water was released from Lake Okeechobee, according to the South Florida Water Management District.

Debates about federal and state management of Lake Okeechobee are not new. One concern is the old earthen dike that surrounds the lake, which is vulnerable to erosion and failure, the AP reports.

Since flooding following a 1928 hurricane killed at least 2,500 people, the US Army Corps of Engineers has worked to keep water levels in the lake between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet above sea level, to reduce the risk of a breach in the fragile dike.

But Governor Scott, a Republican, has criticized the Obama administration and the Corps for the pollutant discharges. Federal regulations, conservation mandates, and stalled projects have also complicated local efforts to direct more water south of the lake into the Everglades, the AP reports.

"The state, as you know, doesn't have any control over Lake Okeechobee," Scott told reporters in West Palm Beach on Tuesday. “The federal government has got to put the money in to be able to hold more water there when we have a rainy year like we have now. It's 100 percent controlled by the federal government." The governor has invited President Obama to visit the site.

Some observers criticized Scott's inaction.

"[Scott] should come and visit the site. He should be on the ground and open up to the citizens of the area and say 'This is clearly an emergency' and be more engaged in getting agencies to respond to this," Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society, told WPTV on Tuesday.

Federal officials are holding their ground. John Campbell of the Corps told WPTV the agency was stuck between a rock and a hard place, but called efforts to release the water the "lesser of two evils."

"Holding the water back in the lake accelerates the rise and puts us in a position that the people that live and work around the lake face an increased flood risk basically due to the concerns we have with the dike," Mr. Campbell told the station.

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