A Color-coded Guide to Florida’s Algae Problems

From freshwater lakes to our coastal seas, a rainbow of colors paints the Florida landscape. Scaling from single-celled organisms to 160 feet in length, algae can be the base of the food chain or coat our waterways in toxic slime. Here in Florida, our multicolored tapestry of algae blooms triggers many problems­—driving away tourists, damaging our economy, and impacting public health.

Blue-green Algae Blooms

For starters, blue-green algae are contradictory little organisms. They’re actually a type of bacteria, cyanobacteria, that photosynthesize just like plants. One of the oldest life forms on Earth, cyanobacteria enriched our ancient atmosphere with oxygen, paving the way for an explosion of biodiversity.

Cyanobacteria are an important part of freshwater to marine ecosystems. However, when they coat our waterways like spilled green paint, it’s a problem.

These frequent blooms are linked to the liquid heart of the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee. The lake has an existing legacy of pollution which drives algae blooms, while agricultural and stormwater runoff flowing into the lake adds fuel to the fire.

Blue-green Algae Blights

When lake levels get too high, polluted discharges of freshwater are released east and west to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers and Estuaries. This can trigger algae blooms that engulf our coasts in a foul-smelling ooze, degrade water quality, limit fishing, and close beaches.

Certain types of cyanobacteria also produce dangerous toxins that can affect the liver, skin, and nervous system in people and animals.

Algae bloom on Lake Okeechobee. Credit: USGS

Waves of Red Tide

If that weren’t bad enough, another culprit lies in this polluted mess: red tide. Occurring naturally in coastal waters, it has plagued the Gulf of Mexico for centuries. In fact, Spaniards noticed red tide near Tampa Bay in the 1500s.

Red tides develop offshore, without a direct link to nutrient pollution. However, once a red tide is triggered, it needs a supply of nutrients to sustain itself. As blooms move closer to shore, discharges from Lake Okeechobee may provide this pulse of nutrients.

Red Tide Troubles

Red tide packs a punch—it produces powerful neurotoxins that can kill fish, marine mammals, birds, and other organisms. In humans, it can cause skin and respiratory problems.

Not surprisingly, these crimson blooms take a toll on Florida’s economy. For instance, a red tide event in 2018 led to a drop in Airbnb rentals, causing a loss of over $184 million in visitor spending. The blooms also reduced fishing, diving, and other businesses’ revenues, increased medical and clean-up costs, and potentially damaged property values.

Tricolored heron amid algae blooms in Boca Raton, Florida

What Can We Do to Help Fight Algae Blooms?

Despite this spectrum of setbacks on Florida’s canvas, we can mitigate algae blooms.

Everglades restoration is a primary solution. For example, the recently updated rulebook for managing Lake Okeechobee’s water, Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM), will reduce harmful discharges of polluted water to both coasts. Another project, the C-43 West Basin Storage Reservoir will capture excess basin runoff and releases from the lake.

You can help out too.

  • Fertilize only when necessary and not during the warmest months.
  • If your house has a septic tank, service it regularly.
  • Plant species requiring minimal amounts of fertilizer or pesticides in your yard.
  • Reduce stormwater runoff from your yard through rain gardens, or maintaining permeable walkways, driveways, and patios.
  • Don’t mow, fertilize, or use pesticides in a 10-foot buffer zone next to water bodies.
  • Support Everglades restoration projects.

We may never be completely free of our palette of algae shades, but with these efforts, we’re paving the way to a less colorful, but healthier, future.

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