Blog  /  August 2018  /  Water Issues and the US Gulf Coast

Blog Post Teaser

What is red tide?  How is the algae bloom affecting Florida’s water quality?  What is a dead zone?  Situated along the shoreline of the ninth largest body of water in the world, the Gulf of Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida make up the Gulf Coast.  Here’s a quick look at the water issues facing gulf coast waters in recent news.


Toxic Algal Blooms in Florida


Florida waters are at risk of devastation from a particularly aggressive “red tide,” a type of toxic algal bloom presently impacting an estimated 100 miles of the state’s iconic coastline.  States along the US Gulf Coast experience toxic algal blooms annually; however, the current bloom has persisted longer than any experienced in over a decade.  The severity of the bloom is thought to be caused by several factors, including rising temperatures; storm and agricultural run-off, which carries fertilizer and animal feces; and the aftereffects of Hurricane Irma, a Category 4 storm that struck Florida in September 2017.


This year’s red tide has been deadly for marine life, killing an inordinate number of turtles, fish, dolphins, and manatees.  Since the beginning of the bloom, over 120 dead sea turtles – including some Kemp’s ridleys, the world’s most endangered species of sea turtle – have turned up on local beaches.  Beyond its harmful effects on the state’s wildlife, the algae bloom poses potential health risks to humans as well.  For example, the toxic algae can release air toxins that may cause respiratory issues, nausea, and vomiting, among other symptoms.


Further inland, Lake Okeechobee – Florida’s largest lake – is experiencing a severe toxic blue-green algae outbreak.  Causes for the bloom include rising water temperatures, agriculture run-off carrying phosphorus and nitrogen, and a series of dikes and canals that divert the natural flow of water from the Everglades.  The green sludge, which reportedly covered more than 90 percent of the lake’s surface in early July, has contaminated local canals and waterways with cyanobacteria that presents serious health risks to humans and wildlife.


The severity of the conditions prompted Florida’s governor to declare a state of emergency in July throughout the counties of Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Glades, Hendry, Lee, and Okeechobee.


Water Quality Concerns in the Gulf of Mexico


Water quality in the northern Gulf of Mexico has been declining since the 1950’s – primarily a result of nutrient runoff from agricultural activities in the Corn Belt region of the US entering the Mississippi River.  High levels of phosphorus and nitrogen flowing into the gulf have been linked to the creation of a large dead zone – an area devoid of enough oxygen to sustain marine life – which is currently comparable to the size of Delaware.  Furthermore, coral reefs situated in the Flower Garden Banks national marine sanctuary about 100 miles off the coast of Texas and Louisiana experienced a mass “die-off" in July 2016, believed to be caused – at least in part – by the dead zone.


In addition to the devastating effects of the dead zone, intensifying hurricane activity has heightened water quality issues in the Gulf of Mexico.  For example, Hurricane Harvey – a Category 4 storm that hit Texas in August 2017 – dumped more than 50 inches of rain on parts of Houston and flooded 800 wastewater treatment plants, releasing various contaminants into the environment, the drinking water supply, and waterways that drain into the gulf.  Oil and gas production activities in Texas also pose a risk of contamination to the Gulf of Mexico.  For instance, the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig in 2010 discharged an estimated 3.19 million barrels of crude oil into the gulf before the damaged well was capped almost three months later.