For oceanfront real estate, the beach is a prime amenity and a major asset. But not if it's covered in "reeking, oozing algae," as the New York Times reported on July 1 — or, in USA Today's phrase, "toxic green slime." (See: "Reeking, Oozing Algae Closes South Florida Beaches," by Les Nehaus; "How toxic green slime caused a state of emergency in Florida," by Hannah Schwab and Tyler Treadway.)
The problem originates miles from the state's famous beaches, reports the Times, at Lake Okeechobee. "There, an aging dike system forces the Army Corps of Engineers to release controlled discharges through channel locks east and west from the lake to protect nearby towns from flooding. However, those discharges, which carry pollutants from agricultural lands that flow into the lake from the north, pour into rivers and lagoons downstream, which eventually dump into the ocean. When too much polluted discharge from Okeechobee hits areas downstream like the St. Lucie River estuary in Stuart, for example, the blend of fresh and salt water creates giant phosphorescent plumes of algae, making the water unsafe for human and aquatic life alike."
To preserve the vulnerable dike, the Corps has to keep an eye on the lake's water levels — especially during hurricane season, when a heavy drenching by a tropical storm or hurricane could trigger catastrophic flooding if the dike were to fail. But the escaping algae-filled water released by the Corps poses its own kind of risk: "Toxicity is an issue of concern because the algae blooms produce toxins that can cause sickness in humans if they touch, or even breathe near, the green water," the Miami Herald reported (see: "Where will the green slime go? Florida tracks its spreading algae," by Eliza Dewey).
The issue is not a new one: sporadic algae blooms have plagued the Lake Okeechobee watershed for years. But each outbreak leaves locals hoping for a long-term response by state and federal policymakers. Algae on the beach, obviously, is bad for business, as NBC News reported here (see: "Florida Tourism Not Seeing Green as Toxic Algae Chokes Business," by Martha C. White). "Hotel occupancy rates in the West Palm Beach and Boca Raton areas for the holiday weekend fell as much as 18 percent from a year earlier, according to data from hospitality research company STR," the network reported. "The problem isn't just limited to lodging. Industries such as fishing and boating — chartering boats and recreational sport-fishing are both popular in the area — have also been affected, as have retail and restaurant operators."