The costs and cures for algae

Two updates on blue-green algae… how much pollution costs the state of Florida (a seriously undercounted tally that cries for official investigation), and how a algal bloom in Cape Coral canals is providing researchers with a back-yard laboratory.

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Published by the News-Press on Sept. 6 by Amy Williams

Fighting algae with clay, sponges and floating barriers:
Cape Coral canals are helping researchers find what works

Amy Bennett Williams / Fort Myers News-Press / Sept. 6, 2020

Scientists and officials are using Cape Coral’s cyanobacteria slicks as a living laboratory to test ways to fight freshwater algae blooms with potentially global impact.

A team including city staff and nationally prominent researchers have deployed a variety of algae-fighting measures in several canals, lakes and ponds on and around the Palmetto Pine Country Club’s golf course. 

They’re testing floating barriers, sheets of absorbent foam and clay as ways to knock back the algae, about which Lee County’s health department has issued several warnings, including one Friday.

Though cyanobacteria is a naturally occurring microorganism, sometimes conditions conspire to create huge proliferations called blooms that can create problems that range from obnoxious to toxic.

Some species have been linked to health problems including liver and neurodegenerative diseases. Children and pets are more vulnerable, so keeping them away from the water during a bloom is especially important, the health department warns. This summer, three Cape Coral canals – Makai, Boris and Highlander – have been severely affected by the blooms.

As the Earth’s climate changes, blooms have become more frequent and severe, and the hunt for solutions has intensified, said algae scholar Don Anderson, senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, where he’s been studying those solutions for decades.

The sprayed clay technique, called flocculation, was most recently used by Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory in 2018 to combat saltwater red tide, which is also caused by a toxin-producing microorganism. The idea is to mix dry, powdered clay with water, then spray it into the affected canals or ponds, where it captures and sinks the algae. Instead of remaining in the water column, they become trapped in a layer on the bottom.

“This whole idea of flocculation for water purification (and) clarification is used in many different ways in countries like Korea and China,” Anderson said. “They use it routinely over very large areas for bloom control. Those large areas are in some cases 40 or 50 square miles. Korea has like seven ships that are used to disperse this around fish farms and other areas in the ocean. China has some big operations as well. And they’ve been doing this for 10 or 20 years in these Asian countries, but we are trying to make it work here in the U.S. The technology is sound, but we just have different environmental restrictions.”

FGCU professor and algae scholar Barry Rosen calls it a “good idea … It’ll precipitate everything out, and that’s great.” Rosen also appreciates the singular research opportunity.

“If it were me, I’d do before and after water samples, so next month they can figure out, ‘OK, what did it really do?’”

Palmetto Pine course manager Gerald Karlen said the goal is to make the course’s lake water as clear as rainwater.  

“You can see where we’re pumping in from the Makai, it’s green,” Karlen said. After the treatment, “Hopefully within a week, (the ponds) will be clear and you’ll be able to see the bottom.”

The privately-owned golf course uses the Makai canal as both a reservoir and an overflow receptacle, a feedback loop that’s been problematic in this especially hot, dry summer, with cyanobacteria flourishing. Palmetto Pine discharges pond water into the canal, and a permit from the South Florida Water Management District also allows the course, which is not hooked up to the city’s irrigation system, to take water from the canal to spray its greens, said city spokeswoman Maureen Buice. When it rains, fertilizer- and algae-laden runoff flushes back into the canal.

“Deep turbidity curtains have been deployed in an attempt to contain the algae bloom,” Buice wrote in an email. “Also, booms of biochar/Aquaflex (an absorbent sponge product) are being tested to determine their efficiency in absorbing toxins. Staff is focusing on the mats of algae accumulated in the Highlander and Makai Canals,” which are connected. “A modified clay is another product that is being tested to mitigate the algae.”

The clay, which comes powdered, is mixed in a 400-gallon tank of water, then applied to the water’s surface “using a 100-foot hose that provides a spray similar to a fire hose. The system is trailered by a pickup truck, which enables the City to utilize vacant lots and the City-owned right-of-way to get as close to the water as possible,” Buice wrote in an email. “The clay is non-toxic and approved by the Department of Environmental Protection.”

Any treatment methods must be approved by the DEP, she said, since the canals are considered waters of the state.  

The clay technique made a high-profile appearance in 2018, when a virulent red tide gripped Southwest Florida’s Gulf coast. As the state scrambled for solutions, Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission gave $2.2 million to Mote Marine Laboratory for field testing the sprayed clay, working with scientists at Woods Hole, which has been researching the technique for decades.

The project wasn’t a hit with some environmental groups and sparked some sharp criticism and debate over whether funding would be better used to fight harmful algae blooms at their source.

Most agree, though, that more research is needed – and quickly.

“This is among the most challenging and controversial aspects of the research that we do, yet it is also the least developed,” Anderson said. “It is the research line that people think would be at the top of our agenda and at the top of all the funding agency agendas – yet it really hasn’t been … So we’re still very much in the research or pilot-scale stage.”  

Published by the Miami New Times on August 31 by Joshua Ceballos

Pollution Has Cost Florida Millions, and the Bill Keeps Rising

By JOSHUA CEBALLOS | Miami New Times  |  Aug. 31, 2020

Amid a historic fish kill in Biscayne Bay, the public’s eyes are on some of the causes of the dire situation plaguing our waters: nutrient pollution and algal blooms. Nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizers and sewage-treatment plans across the state are supercharging the growth of toxic algae that makes the water undrinkable and depletes it of oxygen. Cleaning up that algae hasn’t been cheap.

Over the past decade, the State of Florida has spent at least $20 million cleaning up and preventing algal blooms in its major bodies of water, according to a recent study by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG).

The study compiled news stories from across the nation to get an approximation of how much each state has spent to deal with large-scale algal bloom events. Florida was fairly low on the list compared to Ohio, which has spent at least $815 million since 2010, but the researchers concede that their study is a significant undercount of the true costs and that the spending is just beginning for Florida. “We only looked at prevention and treatment costs, not costs to tourism or commercial fisheries. We wanted to see what people have actually spent,” says Anne Schechinger, a senior analyst for EWG and author of the study.

Schechinger tells New Times she spent time combing through news stories about blue-green algal blooms in five major bodies of water in Florida, including Lake Okeechobee, one of the state’s major sources of drinking water.

Schechinger’s research focused on blue-green algae, but she says similar sources of nutrient pollution can lead to the infamous red tide events that rocked the Gulf of Mexico last year, killing thousands of fish and leaving many people afraid to go near the water. The type of algae that causes red tide was observed in recent water samples from Sarasota County, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Blue-green algae is a form of toxic bacteria that can severely pollute drinking water and cause long-term health problems for anyone in or near water where it’s blooming.

Direct costs for algal-bloom mitigation and prevention in other states come from treating drinking water, updating wastewater-treatment facilities and stormwater-drainage systems, and dredging phosphorous deposits in lakes, according to Schechinger.

“This is just the beginning – not everyone has started spending what they’re gonna have to spend,” she says.

Miami-Dade is seeing firsthand the environmental cost of ignoring pollution and water quality.

Two weeks ago, thousands of fish were left gasping for air in Biscayne Bay because of extremely low oxygen levels, leaving local scientists and environmentalists scrambling to pump air into the bay and find the source of the problem. Over the past few years, enormous sewage leaks have polluted Biscayne Bay and spewed even more nitrogen and phosphorous into the system.

In February 2019, the county created the Biscayne Bay Task Force to come up with recommendations to save the decaying ecosystem. More than a year later, the task force has submitted its plan to the county commissioners, and its members are calling for immediate action and investment.

“We’re recommending the hiring of a chief bay officer. It’s a big government, and you need a bay watchdog to lobby the state, because it’s gonna cost a lot of money,” says chairwoman Irela Bagué.

In a draft proposal submitted to the county commission, the task force outlined seven areas that need particular attention: water quality, governance, infrastructure, habitat restoration, marine debris, education and outreach, and funding.

Bagué anticipates major expenditures will include replacing the county’s old sewage system, mapping canals to find pollution sources, and restoring critical habitats such as mangrove forests and seagrass beds.

Bagué says the parties involved in environmental management – including Miami-Dade County, its municipalities, the state, and federal environmental departments – have been acting separately for too long. She says preventing more environmental disasters will require coordination between every department to improve Miami’s aging sewage infrastructure and to pass laws regulating nutrient-pollution sources like fertilizers.

This past March, the City of Miami passed an ordinance limiting fertilizer pollution, but the county and other cities have not. If the situation is to improve, Bagué says, everyone needs to be on the same page.

Although the cost of preventing more fish kills and algal blooms is likely to cost millions more, the price of ignoring it may be far greater for Florida, a state whose economy rakes in billions from fishing and aquatic recreation.

“The recreational impacts [of algal blooms] are huge. It makes it so people can’t recreate safely around any body of water with blue-green algae,” Schechinger says. “Those are all huge costs in Florida.”

For Bagué and the Biscayne Bay Task Force, the money and support can’t wait any longer.

“We have to act now,” she says. “We don’t have time to assemble again in another ten years.”

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