How familiar does this sound? Climbing summer temperatures and nutrient-rich runoff had been feeding algae blooms on the state's biggest lake for some time. Reports were sporadic. Officials weren’t overly concerned. It wasn’t news.
Then, in a matter of days, an eruption of green slime coated shorelines for miles. Suddenly it was everywhere. Reports said it looked like spilled paint and smelled like rotten eggs. The DEP ordered tests. The results surprised no one: Positive. The blooms were toxic.
This is not a Florida story. Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey is a major boating and fishing destination with a thriving summer economy. The timing of this year's cyanobacteria bloom couldn't be worse: a week before July 4th.
Here's where the story may sound less familiar. The New Jersey DEP "closed" the state's biggest lake. The DOT posted closure notices on electronic signs across area highways. Signs went up at park entrances, beaches. Now it was news.
Although state officials later clarified that “closed” wasn’t quite right, people were warned not to swim or even touch the water. Not to windsurf or kayak or paddleboard or ride jetskis. Or let pets near the water. Or eat fish from the lake.
July Fourth Weekend was a bust for local businesses. Some complained that the warnings could have been less stern: For example, boating wasn't technically prohibited. In fact nothing was prohibited--restrictions weren't being enforced. If you insisted on swimming, no one would stop you.
Not many people did, though, which was the point.
Meanwhile back in Florida, the state’s biggest lake was testing positive for the same cyanotoxin, microcystin, that closed Lake Hopatcong. Florida’s DEP reported the results from Lake Okeechobee on its HAB (Harmful Algae Bloom) website. But the state didn’t do much to keep people away from the toxins.
When a local biologist and expert on lake ecology warned against eating Lake Okeechobee fish, the state kept relatively quiet. (A fishing guide advised him in the press to “keep his mouth shut” because some people didn’t get sick from eating fish--and he himself hadn’t died. To be fair, a New Jersey woman told reporters that cyanotoxins in her lake posed no danger because her dog wasn’t sick.)
The Army Corps of Engineers, on the other hand, issued a warning to boaters on the lake: Be aware of the harmful blooms. The Corps says they’re also working with local agencies to post information at key sites near the water.
That’s not exactly “closing the lake,” but it’s a more proactive response than Floridians are used to seeing.
Government agencies around the country and around the world are warning people away from cyanotoxins. The health risks are well-documented--some are potentially devastating. And new research suggests the danger extends to people who breathe near toxic blooms.
New Jersey’s government acted fast to limit residents’ exposure to toxins in harmful algae blooms. In Florida, it was the Army Corps that sounded the alarm. And even Florida’s DEP did more than many have come to expect from state agencies. (Although many of us expected a lot more than this from our governor.)
Keeping people safe is one of the most basic functions of government. Protecting us from cyanotoxins is a relatively new challenge for officials around the country, although Florida has grappled with it longer than most. For the sake of everyone within breathing distance of our biggest lake, let’s hope Florida is showing the first signs this year of catching up with the science and policy that safeguards Americans' health in other parts of the country.