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Thursday, September 12, 2013
Updated: September 13, 1:29 PM ET
Green slime plagues Florida waterways

By Jon Coen
XGames.com

It's been a quiet season of surf in Florida. Eventually that equatorial hot box will kick back on and start sending pulses of swell through the Atlantic Basin. But even then, Sunshine Staters aren't exactly sure that they'll be scoring green tubes. The tubes might be too green.

For several months, the Indian and St. Lucie Rivers, both which flow into Florida's coastal waters, have been riddled with a bright green -- think '80s wetsuit neon -- toxic algae. It has not only surfers, but environmental groups and hundreds of thousand of residents up in arms.

The problem starts not out at sea, but in Lake Okeechobee, the 730-square-mile lake that sits inland between West Palm Beach on the Atlantic and Fort Myers on the Gulf of Mexico. The lake is part of a natural flow of water from Central Florida to the south and through the famed Florida Everglades.

But that flow of water has long been diverted for agricultural needs. In order to keep South Florida's farms from flooding, the lake has had a 35-foot high dike around the perimeter since the 1930s.

The overflow of water now flows into canals and rivers of the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Estuaries on the east and west coasts of Florida. In May and June, central Florida had buckets falling from the sky, which means more water unnaturally channeled east. The added freshwater throws off the salt content of some of Florida's brackish rivers, which has led to a massive die-off of oysters. The fresh water has also been rough on the five main species of sea grass, which are home to lobster, crab, snook, tarpon, snapper and other animals.

Slime
Floridians are looking for green lines in September, but not this kind.

"This is the most biodiverse ecosystem in North America," says Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart, Fla. "There are 4,300 species living here and 36 of them are threatened or endangered. There are marine mammals and plants that depend on the 700 acres of sea grass habitat, oyster reefs and nearshore ocean reef systems."

That warm, unfiltered, stagnant water is an incubator for algal blooms, which are accelerated by agricultural fertilizer run-off. Enough nitrogen in the water can actually create toxic levels of blue-green algae. This summer, Martin County Health Department warned against swimming -- or any contact with the water -- in areas of the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie Estuary.

"It's toxic to your liver, it will make you very sick and could kill you," says Perry.

He adds that sediment caused by the discharge gets into the ocean and is basically covering the St. Lucie State Preserve Reef.

"That's a five-mile-long reef that was full of beautiful fish and now it's covered with silt," he explains.

Surfer and sunglass sales rep Evan Miller of the Rivers Coalition says this is an old issue. The Rivers Coalition sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2005 for diverting the water and discharge to the east. Miller grew up surfing Bathtub Beach in Stewart. When there's a south current, he claims the discharge comes out of the St. Lucie Inlet and goes north into the breaks. He explained that the green slime became a black tide in the ocean. While surfing there this summer, says Miller, a friend's child was playing near the shoreline and got a staph infection. And the silt is covering the very worm rock reef that creates the workable left, threatening the break indefinitely. His new focus is fundraisers to fund fighting the pollution.

"I've spent the vast majority of my life in Florida's waters, growing up as a surfer near Sebastian Inlet. When the waves were flat, you could always find me in the Indian River Lagoon exploring, fishing or on some sort of adventure," says Justin Riney, executive director of Mother Ocean, an ocean advocates organization. Riney is currently leading Expedition Florida 500, exploring all of Florida's waterways to celebrate the 500-year anniversary of Ponce de Leon's discovery of the area. Partnered with Quiksilver, Tahoe SUP and Viva Florida 500, his goal is to paddle, surf, fish and do clean ups all over the state to bring attention to some of environmental threats.

Slime
Folks who love Florida's rivers, beaches and estuaries have had a rough summer with massive growth of "green slime" blue-green algae in their waterways.

"Recently with my travels throughout the state, I've gained a tremendous amount of perspective. The situation in South Florida is a serious one, for both the ecosystems involved and the livelihood of the surrounding communities. This is no longer a discussion for hippie environmentalists -- it's affecting the lives of many Floridians and is being considered as a potential state of emergency," explains Riney. "Businesses are closing. People are moving. Children are not allowed to play in the water, and dead animals continue to wash ashore. This was once an area considered to be the most biodiverse in North America, and politics and greed have neglected and undervalued it for generations."

Floridians voiced concerns at a Phillips Park Rally on Aug. 3, the Riverstock Rally (with 3,000 in attendance according to a Martin's County Sheriff's office spokesperson) at Jensen Beach on Sept. 1, and the South Rivers Coalition meeting on Aug. 29.

Like most people at these rallies, Perry doesn't feel that the state has been effective in addressing any of these threats.

"As Floridians, we trust the Department of Environmental Protection to protect us and these waterways. They've been spineless. We design these protected areas that depend on the state's enforcement. They've been absent in standing up for protected areas," adds Perry.

The DEP did not return calls to answer questions for XGames.com.

Riney and Perry were both at the Sugarland Rally on Sunday in Clewiston, Fla., a demonstration to unite both coasts of Florida in their opposition to the discharge. Speakers ranged from students to environmentalists, scientists and even Mayor Phillip Roland of Clewiston.

"Florida is nothing without its natural land and waters. It's our draw. It's the foundation of our economy. These natural resources are the state's number one asset, yet we've been duped to believe that short-term gain, jobs and the immediate financials are the priority," adds Riney.

And now that the tropics are finally showing some signs of life with the brief formation of Tropical Storm Gabrielle, the discharge could become an issue for thousands of wave-starved Floridians.

"Without clean inland waters, the entire aquatic ecosystem suffers all the way to our oceans," continues Riney. "Beaches have been closed down temporarily during the Lake Okeechobee discharges. Surfers have gotten infections. This Florida surfer is tired of the degradation and polluted waters--I want my local breaks to provide clean, healthy swell. As someone that uses these waters daily, it's my responsibility to fight for them. We're fighting hard here in Florida."