Toxic algae in West Palm Beach drinking water raises crisis to a new level

Florida is in the midst of a toxic-algae crisis. And communities that rely on water from West Palm Beach are the latest victims.

On May 28, city officials warned more than 120,000 residents of West Palm Beach, Palm Beach and South Palm Beach not to drink their tap water, which was contaminated with toxins caused by blue-green algae.

This is the poison Friends of the Everglades and have been warning about for years — and calling on government leaders to fix. But, time and again, polluters get preferential treatment over Floridians.

Now, the poison is in drinking water.

The toxin cylindrospermopsin can cause upset stomach, vomiting, diarrhea as well as liver and kidney damage. West Palm Beach utility officials blamed its presence in the water on a lack of rain: This year’s parched spring dried out Grassy Waters Preserve, the utility’s primary source of drinking water. The preserve leads to Clear Lake, which feeds into the city’s water treatment plant.

The city had been supplementing Grassy Waters with water from Lake Okeechobee, but in late April officials found blue-green algae in the canal supplying the preserve and shut it down.

By May 3, tests began detecting the cylindrospermopsin toxin in Clear Lake.

Utility officials have downplayed any possible link between the bloom in Lake Okeechobee and the toxins in West Palm drinking water. Conditions in Grassy Waters and Clear Lake were ripe for an algae bloom, they say, with or without the addition of lake water.

But it’s tough to know what we can believe, given the fact West Palm Beach officials didn’t warn the public about the toxins in its water until eight days after dangerous levels of cylindrospermopsin were confirmed.

There’s no excuse for that flagrant disregard for public health.

Lake Okeechobee is the beating heart of the Everglades, and it’s long suffered from a form of heart disease. Between the legacy nutrients in the sediment at the bottom of the lake and additional pollutants that flow into it every day, Lake Okeechobee is sick. The blue-green algae which this year began blooming long before the summer heat and rains came is merely the most obvious symptom.

The way federal and state officials manage the flow of water from the lake accelerates the disease and ensures that “symptom” gets washed far and wide. Toxic water ultimately makes its way throughout local watersheds, most visibly the three northern estuaries: the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and the Lake Worth Lagoon.

We shouldn’t be surprised it shows up in our drinking water. We should be surprised it doesn’t happen more often.

Down the road, it might.

That’s why Friends of the Everglades has partnered with several other environmental organizations on both the east and west coast of Florida to push water managers for a better solution, one which safeguards our waters, our communities — indeed, our very health.

What’s good for the estuaries is also good for the southern Everglades, which is why we are calling upon the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to adopt a new operational plan that sends more clean Lake O water south during the dry months and eliminates harmful discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries and Lake Worth Lagoon.

We have urged the Corps to adopt an improved version of Plan CC from the Iteration 2 Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) alternatives now under consideration.

Florida’s toxic algae crisis is getting worse, and threatens us all.

We know Floridians have little tolerance for the status quo. That’s in Friends of the Everglades’ DNA, too. We’ve been pushing against the status quo since 1969, when we were founded by Marjory Stoneman Douglas. How can you help? Become a Friend of the Everglades today by signing up for our emails.

An informed public is a powerful public — and the current toxic-algae crisis is a painful reminder of the need for people power in Florida.