St. Lucie County oceanographer James Sullivan and others recently named to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Blue-Green Algae Task Force could find their work reaching around the globe to help solve an apparently growing problem.
“Right now Florida is probably one of the most impacted states in the United States with harmful algae blooms,” he said. “We can start doing the science that’s needed, because we’re on the front line of this problem now.”
DeSantis announced the appointment of the five-member task force at the Nathanial P. Reed Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge on April 29. Even as the governor spoke, the St. Johns River had a growing algae bloom stretching from Lake George, Pierson, to Palatka.
Sullivan is the executive director of Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce. He said in a telephone interview blue-green algae blooms seem to be a growing problem internationally. He couched it in the careful language of science. “I think, anecdotally – not ‘science fact,’ but ‘opinion’ – I do believe the problem is getting worse,” Sullivan said. “It’s hard to say over what period of time.”
But, he added, “the severity and size of the blooms seem to be getting worse. It’s not just Florida. It’s the world.”
Sullivan is hardly alone in that scientific opinion. Scientists and others throughout the state, nation and world are noticing an apparent uptick in harmful algae blooms. Anyone who lives on the Treasure Coast would almost certainly say the Lake Okeechobee blue-green algae blooms have gone from events to norms in recent years and are getting worse.
“It appears Lake Okeechobee – instead of bad blooms separated three, four, five years, it seems to be every other year,” Sullivan said.
Contributing factors to the algae blooms that emanate from Lake Okeechobee likely go back more than a century. Put a finger on an Orlando map at Sand Lake Road and South John Young Parkway. That’s pretty much where most would say blue-green algae problems on the Treasure Coast begin. More accurately, the about 100 miles and 140 years of development between south Orlando and Lake Okeechobee are where the problems begin.
“We all like to live by water, so that puts stress on watersheds,” Sullivan said.
People want green lawns, so they put down fertilizer that groundwater picks up and takes to nearby rivers. Many also have septic tanks that seep.
Shingle Creek is generally regarded as where the headwaters for the Everglades begins. A drop of rainwater that makes its way to Shingle Creek heads to the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes and River then toward Lake Okeechobee. Then, famously, that nutrient-laden water is released into the St. Lucie River and flows to the Indian River Lagoon.
“It’s a complex problem; it’s not going to go away overnight,” Sullivan said. “It took us many years to get into this state and it’ll take us a while to figure out the best path forward.”
The longstanding pattern of development and channelization dates back to Hamilton Disston’s massive development of central to south Florida starting in the 1880s. Sullivan said the task force will have to examine a lot of possible suspects for why there’s an apparent uptick in the frequency and severity of blue-green algae blooms in Florida.
“It’s a good question,” Sullivan said. “Scientists – some would say that climate change is a big issue. Blue-green algae in particular grow better in warm water.”
There are other factors to consider, too, he noted. At press time Sullivan was awaiting word on when the task force will start meeting.
“Nothing has been put into official work yet, only because the task force is waiting for the chief science officer for the state to start his position,” Sullivan said. “We’ll work with him to arrange how the task force will function.”
Early in April DeSantis appointed Thomas Frazer to the newly created position at the Department of Environmental Protection. Frazer served as director of the University of Florida’s School of Natural Resources and Environment and acting director of the school’s Water Institute. Others named to the task force are Valerie Paul, director of the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce; Wendy Graham, University of Florida; Michael Parsons, Florida Gulf Coast University; and Evelyn Gaiser, Florida International University.
Sullivan has worked in academia and the private sector researching and mapping ocean-borne microorganisms. He’s published more than 50 peer-reviewed studies and served as an editor on Optics Express.