Sunday, April 29, 2007

Get My Drift?

Imagine one day you go into your bathroom and there's a patch of mildew growing on the shower tiles. Gross right? But it's part of nature. You wipe it away and think nothing more of it. But the next morning not only has the mildew returned, it's now covering twice the area as the day before. So you clean it with a non-toxic, environmentally friendly, orange-blossom scented cleaner and hope it doesn't happen again. But guess what happens the next morning? The entire bathroom is covered in mildew and now it smells like rotten eggs, peaches and dog breath. What would you do now? (If you're eating breakfast and have a weak stomach, I probably should have stopped you at "mildew".)

Red Drift Algae is a naturally occurring red-brown seaweed found in warm shallow waters in the Gulf of Mexico. It washes up from time to time and the tide takes it away a few days later. A few years ago, a massive Red Drift Algae bloom occurred off the Florida coast, later piling up on beaches several feet high. From Sanibel to Naples, the seaweed, which had trapped unfortunate sea creatures like crabs, sea slugs and seashells of all sorts began to decompose along with the dead sea life it ensnared. It smelled. Horrifically. And the sight of the seaweed all along the pristine coastline had tourists appalled. They couldn't just step over the piles as they might a homeless person in the street, they would have to walk 40 feet over the stuff in some places and then swim through it once they reached the surf. Nasty messes like this belonged on the cigarette butt-lined street corners and litter filled storm drainage ditches. Not on the beach!

Some towns brought in earth movers to clean the stuff up. Some towns said it was natural and left it. And some tourists naturally left. No one did the rational thing until it happened again. A year later the algae drifted up again and finally someone asked why. Why had mildew invaded your hypothetical bathroom? Asking and answering that question might fix your problem. Well - my problem that I put in your head. But anyway. Scientists were being enlisted and town meetings were planned to ask why this was happening and what could be done. (About the algae, not the mildew problem I put in your head).

Nutrient runoff from agricultural areas is usually the first to be blamed for the problems in the Everglades. So it was a natural scapegoat here. In some sense deservedly so. All of the excess nitrogen and phosphorus that is used to make things grow better, along with cow poop often washes into the Everglades watershed or downstream and into the ocean. Red Drift Algae thrives with these added nutrients so there's the problem right? The massive blooms occurred right after the busy hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005 when trillions of gallons of rainwater overflowed Lake Okeechobee and were sent out to see. The Gulf of Mexico was warm, fresh water mixed with salt water and the nutrients created the perfect Red Drift Algae soup. But not so fast with the blame. While much of the nutrients washed out to sea could be blamed on the agricultural areas, scientists were able to trace the nitrogen back to its main source. Sewage runoff from leaky septic tanks (are you still eating? I warned you.) and waste water that had not been 100% treated was found to be the main culprit. Water treatment plants are not required to release 100% treated water, but "mostly treated waste water" is not something you'll see on the tourism brochure. What it comes down to is warmer temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, possibly closed by global warming (or "warmings" if you chose the plural form as our President does), a variety of human caused nutrient inputs and poorly managed water supplies.

How easy is this to fix? We'll see over the next ten years. But it must be fixed, because no one wants to swim in massive floating mats of stinky seaweed (even with a hint of peach smell), and the supposed lack of risk may become a health concern sooner than later. (More on that when the flesh-eating bacteria become a media sensation). It's funny how people are not concerned with environmental issues until it has an economic impact. Businesses reacted only when the tourists began to leave.

The underlying issue is most tragic. The seabeds that that Red Drift Algae naturally grows on have become smothered with the stuff. From the coastline to at least 30 miles out, there is a layer of algae covering the sea beds and blocking the sunlight for a multitude of living things under the sea. It's not enough to simply clean the beaches or leave the algae and let "nature take care of it". If we don't solve this problem, a huge portion of the gulf will die and the pristine, seashell-lined beaches people come from the around the world to visit will be no more. Get my drift?

Tomorrow - The big three month review!


  1. Um....if you have mildew in the bathroom you should turn the fan on or open a window.

  2. and that is the issue. Instead of simply cleaning, find the source of the problem and rectify it. But people often do not look so deeply.