One type of algal bloom is caused by cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria produce a variety of toxins, including beta-Methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA), which has been linked to ALS¹, a debilitating illness with no cure. Cyanobacteria can use up all the oxygen in a body of water, killing other organisms that need oxygen to breathe.
A second kind of algal bloom also affects our community. Red tide is caused when there is a high concentration of certain microorganisms in various genera, such as Karenia, Dinophysis, and Chattonella. This causes oxygen depletion, resulting in the mass death of fish and other aquatic wildlife. It also causes discoloration of the water and foul smells. Contact with red tide causes breathing difficulties and irritation in humans. Seafood polluted by red tide can cause food poisoning.
Many people, including myself, have pointed the finger at big sugar and agricultural interests as the only source of the problem. The truth is, while excess agricultural fertilizer use does play a role in this problem, it really is all parts of the state that contribute to water pollution. Therefore, every part of this state must be involved in resolving this issue.
Algal blooms are caused by too many free nutrients in the water, particularly phosphorus. The ecosystem does not care if the nutrients come from a sugar farm or a house lawn. We do have a way to deal with nutrients coming from our green lawns — retention and detention ponds. These ponds, contrary to popular assumption, are not for flood control. Instead, they are for water filtration. Water from your neighborhood ends up in a pond near you, and from there it goes to the canals, streams, rivers, and the ocean.
Maintenance of these ponds is crucial. Vegetation in and around these ponds filters out the water, taking in excess phosphorus and other free nutrients, preventing these chemicals from going into the waterways and causing algal blooms. A major problem is that these ponds are often kept in an artificial state, with the vegetation trimmed too short or removed entirely and with the water dyed blue with harmful chemicals. A perfectly manicured pond is useless in keeping chemicals out of the environment.
In addition to artificial ponds, wetlands provide a natural water filtration system that performs many of the same roles. In fact, artificial ponds seek to replicate the wetlands that we have removed so we could build our neighborhoods.
Wastewater is another source of chemical nutrients in our waterways. There is no statewide mandate for wastewater treatment facilities to reduce or remove phosphorus or other chemicals before the water goes back into our ecosystems. Unlike with artificial ponds, wetlands do help significantly with flood control, as well as with mitigating storm and hurricane damage.
In these ways, virtually every neighborhood in our community should be involved in fighting water pollution. Most Floridians have little awareness of just how localized this issue is. Keeping these challenges in mind, here are my proposed solutions for stopping algal blooms and cleaning up our water.
Special thanks to: Dr. James Douglass, Dr. Serge Thomas, Dr. L. Donald Duke