Home Opinion Suffolk Closeup Unchecked, nitrogen-fueled algal blooms spell environmental and economic disaster for Long Island

Unchecked, nitrogen-fueled algal blooms spell environmental and economic disaster for Long Island

Red tide in the Peconic Bay, 2011. Courtesy photo: Kevin McAllister

“The press keeps reporting that Florida’s red tide is a ‘naturally occurring phenomenon.’ This is wrong,” declared Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, on Facebook. “The hundred miles of dangerous red tide is caused by too much nitrogen!”

“Take heed Long Island. This is a wake-up call,” said Esposito, whose environmental organization is based in Farmingdale. “Let’s not hit the snooze button.”

What are the connections between the algal blooms that have been striking Long Island and those that are devastating much of Florida’s waters?

“The issues are similar in that they are all harmful algal blooms that harm marine life,” said Dr. Christopher J. Gobler, chair of coastal ecology and conservation at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University. “What we have now [in Long Island waters] is NOT toxic to humans, whereas the Florida one is,” he responds via email to our inquiry. “However, the one we get in spring — referring to the Alexandrium algae that produces lethal saxitoxin — “is toxic to humans, as are the blue-green algae blooms in lakes and ponds.”

Thus, there’s a link in terms of the algal blooms in both areas harming marine life and blooms in Florida and also some of the blooms here being deadly to humans.

“Our blooms are very strongly linked to nitrogen loading from land and occur in inland waters, estuaries,” Gobler continued. Many of the “Florida events” began “more innocently in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico” to then be “transported to near-shore regions where nutrients make them more intense.”

Kevin McAllister, founding president of Sag Harbor-based Defend H20 and a native of Center Moriches who for 15 years worked as a marine scientist in Florida, focuses on the Kissimmee River that “flows south to Lake Okeechobee. The lake, a shallow waterbody, would spill over to the south serving as the freshwater head to the Everglades.” But “historically it was a meandering river straddled by thousands of acres of freshwater marsh—natural biofilters of nitrogen, phosphorus, sediments and other pollutants,” he said.

“In the late 1960s the Army Corps of Engineers canalized the Kissimmee for flood control” allowing for more agricultural uses, McAllister said. “In addition, Lake O. was diked to control water flow to the south. What the canalization did was negate the benefits of marsh filtration…Pollutants from agricultural activities were discharged directly to Lake O. When water levels in Lake O. are high, the canal gates are opened to dump water into the Indian River Lagoon and the Gulf,” he said.

“The activities of Big Sugar” — sugar agriculture — produce water “laden with nutrients and other pollutants. Because South Florida, with its network of canals, dikes and water control structures has transformed into a geographical plumbing works to accommodate suburban sprawl and agricultural interests, the ramifications to water quality are profound,” he said.

The “current situation” in Florida was “set in motion” by Lake Okeechobee “bursting at the seams” during an “extremely wet June. An enormous volume of nutrient-laden lake water was dumped to the coast.”

As to the connection to Long Island: “While excessive nitrogen directed to marine waters may be the fuel, the sources and means of conveyance are different. What I have come to believe seeing the explosion of harmful algal blooms locally and up and down the East Coast within the past 10 years is that climate change is a greater factor,” McAllister says. “It’s too coincidental for virtually every pond and embayment on Long Island to experience algal blooms within the same time period. The development scenarios surrounding waterbodies are not the same, yet the algal blooms are now omnipresent everywhere,” McAllister said.

It’s somewhat complex. But there are strong parallels: nutrients — especially nitrogen — the key to the situations in Florida and here. Climate change — the heating of waterways — creates a soup in which algal blooms explode.

Another parallel: both areas are tourist meccas. Hotel bookings in parts of the Sunshine State are down precipitously. There’s been a substantial economic impact. Who would want to vacation at a hotel or a Florida home amidst the slime.

Meanwhile, Newsday has just reported that “tourists spent $5.9 billion on Long Island in 2017, up 4 percent over 2016,” and there was this quote: “’Tourism on Long Island has been on an upward trajectory for the past several years,’ said Kristen Jarnagin, CEO of Discover Long Island.” How long will that influx annually of billions of dollars — important to the Long Island economy — last if the algal blooms that have struck our waters continue and increase?

Needed in Florida and here is action — — to deal with situations that threaten the marine environments and economies of both places.

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Karl Grossman
Karl is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Karl lives in Sag Harbor. Email Karl