Robert Silk
Robert Silk

Environmental advocacy can be an arcane game, especially in southern Florida. After all, not many people understand the intricacies of the Everglades ecosystem and how man's plumbing of that system over the past century to facilitate growth and development has created a situation that demands a replumbing in order to protect beaches, waterways, reefs and drinking water.

But you don't have to be an environmental scientist to be alarmed when algae blooms, caused not by a natural process but rather by a human-managed one, force beaches to be closed, make marinas look like an especially thick green-pea soup and emit smells so strong that they can take your breath away.

Sadly, that's what Martin County, home to the city of Stuart as well as a string of lovely beaches, has experienced over the past few weeks due to the large volumes of polluted freshwater that managers have had to release out of Lake Okeechobee and into the St. Lucie Estuary since January in order to ensure that the lake won't overtop the Hoover Dike during the summer wet season.

The algae bloom gives the water at Outboards Only marina in Stuart the appearance of crusted mud.
The algae bloom gives the water at Outboards Only marina in Stuart the appearance of crusted mud.

Popular beaches, such as Bathtub Reef on Hutchison Island and Stuart Beach off A1A dot Martin County. The county's four guarded beaches have periodically been closed since the bloom developed, though they were all open on Wednesday.

The Martin County Board of Commissioners responded to the situation earlier this month, asking not only that the federal government declare the county a disaster area but also that Florida leaders take steps to remedy the problems, in the short-term as well as the long-term. Notably, the resolution referenced the impact that algae bloom episodes, which have been reported in the St. Lucie Estuary three of the past four years, have on tourism.

"History shows that when natural or man-made disasters strike, the tourism industry often experiences significant economic losses," the resolution says, before stating that those damages "are often predictable, long-lasting and far beyond the areas of immediate physical impact."

As it happens, Discover Martin had concerns early on that trouble could be on the way. In February, just a month after exceptionally heavy winter rainfall forced water managers to begin this latest round of releases from Lake Okeechobee through the St. Lucie Estuary, the agency began an advocacy campaign touting the local environment. Discover Martin had reason for concern; a massive algae bloom in 2013 ruined that summer tourism season.

In June Discover Martin launched a new push with a website called protectourparadise.com, which called on people to submit photos showing why they love the area. The photo campaign continues, but the site has largely been repurposed to highlight "algae-proof activities" and to encourage ecosystem-related advocacy.
Though this algae bloom has mainly affected Martin County, the damage to tourism is likely to be more widespread.

Ashley Svarney, director of public relations for Discover the Palm Beaches, the county to the immediate south of Martin, told me that while their beaches haven't been affected at all, hoteliers report receiving worried calls from prospective visitors.

"We're certainly worried about the perception that this blue-green algae is covering the beaches when in fact that is not the case," Svarney said, adding that they've been countering misconceptions and misinformation through social media and via direct engagement with news media.

Meanwhile, Chris Egan, general manager of the Vistana Beach Club in St. Lucie County, just north of Martin, told me that the algae bloom has cost them business, even though it's not actually present in the area around the hotel.

"Some have canceled. They say. 'I have a family, I'm not going to take any chances,'" Egan said.
In Martin County, the extent of the impact on tourism won't be known for a while, Discover Martin spokeswoman Nerissa Okiye said. Most of the bookings by out-of-state tourists there are made at least six months advance.
But the happy news is that there is a way to sharply curtail the frequency of future human-caused algae blooms in the St. Lucie Estuary.

Everglades advocates have long said that the linchpin to fixing this intricate system is the construction of a new water-retention facility to the south of Lake Okeechobee. With that extra storage capacity, water managers could keep lake levels low enough to stave off concerns about flooding while at the same time avoiding the often-calamitous results that come from sending the water out to sea via the St. Lucie Estuary to the east and Caloosahatchee River to the west.

Instead, the water in the retention area would eventually be released south, through treatment ponds that would scrub it of phosphorous, its primary pollutant, and then out toward the Gulf of Mexico and the estuaries of Everglades National Park, where the ecosystem desperately needs more freshwater to maintain its historic balance.

For now, that solution doesn't appear to be on the immediate agenda of the administration of Gov. Rick Scott. In fact, last year his administration chose not to exercise an option on 46,000 acres of land, much of it directly south of Lake Okeechobee, that could have been used for water retention.

Still, the state has another option, negotiated in 2008 by then Gov. Charlie Crist, to purchase 160,000 acres of land that is owned by the U.S. Sugar Corp. for the purposes of restoration.

Martin County, in its July 6 resolution, called on the state to direct environmental funding approved by Florida voters two years ago toward a water storage facility south of Lake Okeechobee. During this fiscal year alone those funds are estimated to be $648 million.

Tourism-dependent business owners along Florida's Treasure Coast should join Martin County in the cause.

Editor's note: A beach hotline (772) 320-3112 offers daily updates on any beach closures in the area.

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