The Caloosahatchee River is in trouble — and with it, the residents and businesses that line its banks. The river, like many Florida waterways, has been inundated with large-scale algal blooms, likely brought on by an abundance of nutrients found in failing septic tanks, home fertilizers and industry runoff.
Florida currently has no regulatory safeguard in place to protect its waterways, and citizens, from such nutrients. Attempts to create a nutrient standard have been railed against by lawmakers like Sen. Marco Rubio, who has argued time and again that such regulations would be bad for business. But according to residents of the small town of Alva, it is the lack of criteria, and the overwhelming presence of algal blooms, that is proving bad for business.
Alva is a sleepy little town of just around 3,000 located near the southwest coast of Florida. Richard Spence, an Alva native who owns a convenience store on State Road 80, has seen (and smelled) the stuff firsthand. ”It looks like some kind of fungus, like a liquid type of moss — and it’s very thick, almost like a putting green, and about an inch thick,” Spence says.
He believes the gunk is not only aesthetically displeasing and extremely noxious, but that it’s making people sick.
In addition to the belly-up fish floating in the river, Spence has heard of dogs dying after drinking the water. Talk at his convenience store — which he describes as a neighborhood water cooler — is that the blooms are having a physical effect on humans. “Lots of people are complaining of stomach pains and all that stuff,” he says. “I’ve personally been having lots of problems with my eyes. … It’s a safe guess that it’s the river making people sick.”
Recent rains have washed much of the bloom away, but concern among residents remains widespread. “OK, so we don’t have the bloom now, but the chronic implications of extended exposure is incalculable,” says Alva resident Michael Dove. He says he has heard of others with intestinal bloating brought on by cyanobacteria — neurotoxins that have been shown to cause chronic illnesses in laboratory animals.
In addition to physical harm, residents of Alva say that the blooms are harming businesses and property values. Spence’s convenience store sells wrapped sandwiches to those boating on the river. On a typical day, he sells somewhere between 35 to 45 sandwiches to go. But recently? “I haven’t done one in the past two months,” he says.
Waterfront homeowners are losing money, too. One homeowner, who wished to remain anonymous, says that the real estate crisis, coupled with the algal bloom, has caused his home to drop millions in value. “I put a ‘For Sale’ sign up on my property. A couple comes out and they see algae and signs that say, ‘Don’t Fish’ or, ‘Don’t Recreate’ in this water,” the resident says. “That’s the value of our property — it’s been stolen. It’s theft by omission and incompetence. Either the governing board or our government in this state is incredibly inept, or it’s a criminal enterprise. Which is it?”
As both a business and property owner in Alva, Spence has resigned himself to the fact that the issue may be a lost cause. “My property value is shot,” he says. “No one wants to buy anything out here. Who wants to live next to a toxic dump?”
Concerns that state regulatory agencies are to blame is a common refrain among the residents of Alva. According to some, the South Florida Water Management District should be held at least partly responsible, for what they argue is a misuse of water withdrawal permits.
Word among the residents of Alva is that, during the months of April and May, the district released only one inch of water into the Caloosahatchee, but released nearly two feet to agriculture and lawn-watering companies. The South Florida Water Management District maintains that 1.3 inches of lake water went into the Caloosahatchee during that time period, and estimates that the Everglades Agricultural Area received around 15 inches.
The lack of water, coupled with the continual runoff of nutrient-laden water from nearby farms, led to the worst algal bloom the area has seen in decades.
Residents compare the algal bloom to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. ”We don’t carry a lot of votes, so I guess people just don’t care,” says Spence. “But it is amazing how one catastrophe can draw presidential attention, to the point BP is reprimanded and fined. We have U.S. Sugar dumping their stuff into the river and no one’s saying a word to U.S. Sugar.”
Like the district, Big Sugar has received a lot of flack for the algae. Even residents wary to point fingers mention the sugar industry as the primary source of the nutrients and the blooms.
“I understand that they’re having issues with salinity in their water,” says Judy Sanchez, director of communications for U.S. Sugar. “There’s very little water anywhere in the system. West Palm Beach is close to running out of water, the Everglades are dry, Lake Okeechobee is four feet below normal. … We are in a drought situation.”
“There’s a misconception that farmers are getting normal amounts of water,” she says, adding that U.S. Sugar is on a 45 percent water restriction. But because of the flow of the water, and the capacity of the pumps, that number is actually less. “We should be getting about 55 percent of the water we normally receive, but we’re probably getting more like 40 percent. Crops that are normally six to eight feet tall are only three feet tall. The rain is starting to help, but we’ve lost both the yield of cane and the sugar content of those crops.”
But critics say that agriculture isn’t suffering nearly as much as Lee County residents, and that if practices continue unchanged, everyone’s bottom line will suffer.
“The reality that I see is that if we don’t have clean water in Florida, we’re not going to have tourism,” says Dove. “Our health is going to be gradually eroded. Each year, the bloom gets more severe. Agriculture is a component, and their practices have contributed to the lack of health, but so have septic tanks. All of us are shareholders in the degradation.”
Dove, a longtime resident of the area who lives in one of Alva’s oldest homes, says he is mystified by the argument that regulating nutrients will be costly and bad for business.
“Agriculture is kicking and screaming about those nutrient levels, and lawmakers argue that we already have clean water. The reality is, most of our tributaries are nothing but conduits for sewage,” he says. “We are spoiling the very resource that nurtures agriculture. If we don’t act yesterday, we aren’t going to have agriculture.”
And that, it seems, would be awfully bad for business.