Red Tide, Algae Blooms and Impacts to our National Wildlife Refuges

Fish kill  from Red Tide at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge taken by Paul Tritaik / USFWS
Fish kill at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge taken by Paul Tritaik / USFWS

Julie Morris, Florida and Gulf Coast Program Manager, NWRA and Tom Hoctor, Ph.D., Director Center for Landscape Conservation Planning, University of Florida

Over the summer, the nation has seen devastating impacts to wildlife and people from algae blooms including red tide, with the most widely reported on occurring along the Gulf Coast of Florida. Photos of dead sea turtles, dolphins, sea birds and fish, and even a large whale shark have been circulating on the news and on social media. The red tide in southwest Florida over the last year is one of the worst on record, killing hundreds of thousands of animals, causing severe respiratory problems in humans, and impacting tourism.

The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in southwest Florida is currently experiencing devastating impacts of two different types of algal blooms – red tide and blue-green algae – but other refuges and conservation areas are impacted as well, with a stretch of over 100 miles of Florida coastline being impacted by either red tide or a combination of red tide and blue-green algae blooms.

National Wildlife Refuges impacted by the Red Tide
as of Sept 6th, 2018 Red Tide Distribution map provided by NOAA
Figure created by The Refuge Association

Red tides are extreme proliferations of an algae species of dinoflagellate (Kirenia brevis) that begin offshore when conditions are favorable including the right combination of temperatures, nutrients, and currents. Red tide events have been documented to occur over the last several centuries. However, when currents carry red tide to the shore it can intensify when it encounters high concentrations of nutrient pollution (nitrogen and phosphorous) caused by human activities. This year, after heavy rains caused by Hurricane Irma last fall were followed by heavy winter and spring rains, large discharges of water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River and other river and stormwater runoff in southwest Florida brought large amounts of nutrients into near-shore waters of the Gulf of Mexico. These excessive nutrient discharges have now helped fuel one of the most intense, extensive, and prolonged red tide events in the history of southwest Florida.

In addition, blue-green algae blooms can occur in freshwater bodies like Lake Okeechobee. In hot calm weather, excess nutrients can result in harmful blue-green algae blooms in the lake and then spread through the human-altered watershed. This includes blooms that start in Lake Okeechobee and are then transported through the man-made canal systems to the southern Indian River Lagoon on the east coast and the Caloosahatchee River estuary in southwest Florida. Man-made nutrient pollution is the primary cause of these blooms, with very high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from agricultural lands, septic systems, and fertilizer runoff in stormwater from residential areas.

Dark water discharge from Lake Okeechobee mixing with
pristine blue water Photo by USFWS

Ding Darling NWR is suffering severe impacts from both red tide and blue-green algae since the refuge is located near the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River. There is also discussion among scientists that the blue-green algae bloom could further fuel red tide as the algae die in saltwater and therefore provides another source of nutrients to the red tide. These discussions include the likelihood that both types of algae blooms are getting worse in terms of frequency, severity, and duration.

There are no easy solutions or quick fixes for these problems, but better watershed management including both protection of remaining high-quality natural lands and restoration of wetlands, floodplains, riparian buffers, and other forms of stormwater and nutrient management is essential for reducing the levels of nitrogen and phosphorous causing these algal blooms. We need to better protect these watersheds, restore and protect wetlands and floodplains, and create more water storage to treat polluted stormwater and agricultural runoff before it reaches the Kissimmee River, Lake Okeechobee, and the coastal estuaries.

The National Wildlife Refuge Association is currently engaged in many of these solutions on the ground in the watersheds of south Florida and is actively working on future solutions by advocating both federal and state legislation and funding to achieve land protection and water management solutions that will lead to restored healthy watersheds for Ding Darling NWR and all coastal estuaries in southern Florida. The following is a brief description of both on the ground and legislative advocacy efforts by the National Wildlife Refuge Association to implement sound watershed conservation strategies that will help reduce the likelihood and severity of such algae blooms in the future.

Solutions on the Ground

  1. Achieving Land Protection
    • Additional land conservation is essential for achieving watershed protection goals. Protecting high-quality wetlands, floodplains, and natural buffers will protect ecological functions and minimize future degradation that could exacerbate current water management issues. Protected land also creates additional opportunities for restoring wetlands and water storage to reduce current impacts. Every acre conserved in these watersheds including the Everglades Headwaters north of Lake Okeechobee, Caloosahatchee River, and Charlotte Harbor will allow managers to hold more water, facilitate the restoration of natural hydrology, and improve the quality of water. The Refuge Association focuses on science-based land protection by identifying the most sensitive properties including wetland, floodplain, and water protection characteristics through careful analysis with our colleagues at the University of Florida, and our work through a variety of state and federal programs to protect our most sensitive lands.
    • In past several years, we have facilitated the protection of several thousand acres of high-quality habitat critical to the health of the Lake Okeechobee watershed utilizing funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. We have leveraged these funds with state dollars to maximize the amount of land protection in the watershed.
    • We have also protected thousands of acres in the Lake Okeechobee and Charlotte Harbor Watersheds with Florida Forever and Rural and Family Lands Programs. We have leveraged these state dollars with federal dollars to maximize conservation.
  2. Facilitating wetland restoration conservation easements on altered/converted wetlands. These easements both protect and restore wetlands and natural hydrology.
    • We are working to implement Wetland Reserve Easements (WRE) through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) on properties in Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee and Charlotte Harbor Watersheds. These easements restore wetlands that have been destroyed or heavily altered, and protect them in perpetuity. Restoring the natural hydrology on the landscape allows for cleaner water to enter into our waterways because wetlands filter and clean water including removing excess nutrients and other pollutants.
    • We recently completed a 1,500 acres WRE on a ranch in the Charlotte Harbor Watershed that will allow for the protection and restoration of slough systems that flow into Charlotte Harbor. We are currently working with private landowners to identify other WRE projects in the Charlotte Harbor and Caloosahatchee Watersheds.
    • The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation is supporting our work to identify and facilitate additional NRCS conservation easement projects to protect and restore wetlands.
  3. Establishing Additional Water Storage north of Lake Okeechobee
    • Developing and implementing dispersed water storage programs, which includes putting water back on the land that has been drained or keeping water on the land longer, are also an important strategy for treating agricultural runoff and stormwater before it reaches Lake Okeechobee and coastal estuaries. These programs usually involve payments to landowners for providing an agreed amount of water storage on their properties. By creating mini-reservoirs and wetland rehydration projects with private landowners, helps protect additional lands and better manage water while keeping the lands in private hands and on the tax rolls.
    • We are currently implementing a water storage project on a private ranch adjacent to the Kissimmee River. The ranch’s creeks and wetlands flow directly into the Kissimmee River, which provide significant opportunities to protect and restore hydrology and quality of water flowing into the river and Lake Okeechobee. This project plays an important role in water quality, quantity, and storage for the Lake Okeechobee watershed.
The sun rises over an early cattle drive at Doyle Carlton III's Carrion Ranch in Highlands County. The ranch helps protect the headwaters of Fisheating Creek through support from the USDA's Wetland Reserve Program. Photograph by Carlton Ward Jr
The sun rises over an early cattle drive at Doyle Carlton III’s Carrion Ranch in Highlands County. The ranch helps protect the headwaters of Fisheating Creek through support from the USDA’s Wetland Reserve Program. Photo by Carlton Ward Jr

Legislative Action Needed

Secure Federal Land Acquisition Funding:
  1. Reauthorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and secure LWCF dollars for land acquisition projects in the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area.
    • LWCF funding for Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge enables us to protect lands critical to the health of the hydrological resources of the Lake Okeechobee Watershed. We are currently working on protecting high-quality wetlands and habitat in the watershed that are critical to the success of the Kissimmee River Restoration Project and the health of the river and Lake Okeechobee.
  2. Pass a Farm Bill with increased resources and funding for the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) for easement and incentives.
    • Natural Resource Conservation Service programs are critical to restore and protect wetlands and improve water quality in the Lake Okeechobee and Caloosahatchee watersheds. We will continue to advocate for ample funding for the Wetland Restoration Easements (WRE) and conservation incentive programs such as Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) that assist landowners in implementing projects that protect their water resources.
Support State Land Protection Programs

We are working to secure increased funding for the Florida Forever and Rural and Family Lands Protection Programs. These two state programs focus on protecting both natural and agricultural land, either through outright purchase or conservation easements that are important for conserving wildlife and water resources. Both programs have been underfunded in recent years, and we are advocating for significant funding increases to significantly enhance efforts to protect additional environmentally sensitive lands that help provide natural water storage and can also provide opportunities to enhance water storage through wetland restoration and other water management practices.

Improve State/Federal Water Storage (EAA/CERP) and Water Management
  1. Authorize the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir by passing the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2018.
    • The EAA is a water storage project and vital component of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program (CERP) that will capture water discharged from Lake Okeechobee, so it can be cleansed and sent south to Florida Bay to reduce the amount of nutrient polluted water currently being flushed into the Caloosahatchee and Indian River estuaries. Florida has passed a bill to fund 50% of the $1.6 billion project. The U.S. House of Representatives passed WRDA in June, 2018, but now the Senate must follow by passing the Water Resources Development Act to ensure federal funding of the other 50%.
  2. Pass the South Florida Clean Coastal Waters Act of 2018 to specifically analyze the causes of, and solutions to, algal blooms in Florida.
  3. Seek funding for additional dispersed water storage (through state agencies and private entities) in the Lake Okeechobee and Caloosahatchee River watersheds.

The National Wildlife Refuge Association is committed to the health and vitality of South Florida, its wildlife, wild lands, and its people, specifically through our work in the Everglades Headwaters. We implement strategic programs that secure its natural wonders while finding solutions for ecological health and economic prosperity for its residents.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2018/09/red-tide-algae-blooms-and-impacts-to-our-national-wildlife-refuges/

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