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Lawmakers Float Plans to Fight Toxic Slime in Florida Waterways

Andrea Westmoreland

Toxic Slime. That’s what environmentalists say is filling delicate water bodies like the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie Estuary since the Army Corps of Engineers began releasing water from Lake Okeechobee to the East and West. Members of a Senate Committee held a meeting Thursday in an effort to find solutions as quickly as possible.

Nutrients Lake Okeechobee discharges, including nitrogen, are causing toxic algae growth. According to environmentalists, that’s killing animals, making people sick, and just plain looks gross.

Florida Congressman Patrick Murphy brought a Gatorade bottle full of a dark brownish-green liquid to Thursday’s hearing. He says he hopes to show it to other members of Congress and even talk to President Barack Obama about the issue, saying it's a top priority for his office.

Especially heavy rainfall lately has meant water levels in Lake Okeechobee have risen significantly. That’s created some concern for the Army Corps of Engineers, because the Herbert Hoover Dike is starting to age and needs upgrades.

“The corps of engineers has committed a huge portion of our budget for dam safety to this project and this is one of the top priorities for the Jacksonville district,” said Army Corps Colonel Alan Dodd

We're not doomed in the Indian River Lagoon if we take actions quickly.

Since the rain has stopped, for now, Dodd said the Corps is reducing the discharges that are flowing from Lake Okeechobee. But Dodd said they’ll have to reverse that once it starts raining again. Any major rainfall could make a breach of the dyke a real possibility.

“I cannot state emphatically enough though, that public safety is our top priority and for the near term, releases to the East and West are our only choice to ensure public safety,” Dodd said.

But Brian Lapointe, a professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute,  said there’s still time to fix the situation.

“We’re not doomed in the Indian River Lagoon, if we take actions quickly,” Lapointe said.

He said one good step would be to start eliminating the use of septic tanks in the area, because they can release nitrogen in the water, leading to algae growth and even the death of manatees.

“It’s a major contributing factor. The manatees are eating Gracilaria. This is a fast growing seaweed. It piles up on the beach in Lee County – drives the tourists away over there. It’s smothering sea grass. It’s all the manatees really have to eat in mass now,” Lapointe said.

And Stuart Republican State Senator Joe Negron said he considers Thursday’s meeting the start of a legislative solution, even though it’s months till the next session.

“Don’t assume that we’re going to wait ‘till March, because I’m not going to wait ‘till March,” Negron said.

Negron said he hopes to call on some of his friends in the legislature to start creating plans and finding funding to address the situation. Meanwhile, Governor Rick Scott announced Tuesday he’s planning to commit $40-million to a water treatment project near the St. Lucie River that officials hope will help to improve water quality in the area.  But a group of environmentalists call Scott’s plan nothing more than, in their words, a “bandaid.”

Follow Regan McCarthy on twitter @Regan_McCarthy

Follow @Regan_McCarthy

Regan McCarthy is the Assistant News Director for WFSU Public Media. Before coming to Tallahassee, Regan graduated with honors from Indiana University’s Ernie Pyle School of Journalism. She worked for several years for NPR member station WFIU in Bloomington, Ind., where she covered local and state government and produced feature and community stories.

Phone: (850) 645-6090 | rmccarthy@fsu.edu

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