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Deep doodoo: Diver’s-eye view of a Florida problem

Diving at Boynton Beach
Diving at Boynton Beach

JOHN CHRISTOPHER FINE is a marine biologist and carries out coral-reef research from his home in the city of Boynton Beach, a popular Florida diving location. What he saw on a recent dive there didn’t exactly surprise him, but it did prompt him to write this piece… 

We were diving in the Atlantic Ocean off Boynton Beach, Florida yesterday – swimming through 6m of sewage and canal run-off. Visibility was poor. Flocculent matter contained macerated pieces of toilet-paper and suspended particles of sewage. 

Also read: Divers, back SAS to clean up UK waters

The ocean was 28°C and storm-clouds had gathered on the horizon. It would have been a typical Florida summer day, but a tropical storm had brought torrential rain, with 35cm falling in a few hours.

Boynton Beach in Florida (Ebyabe)
Boynton Beach (Ebyabe)

Years ago, innocent people were being sold swampland in Florida. Notorious criminals scammed them into land-deals that turned out to be nothing more than “worthless” everglades covered with water. 

Had those hapless investors held onto their pieces of swamp, they would be billionaires today. Florida has been paved over, from east to west and north to south. Swamps have been drained, everglades re-routed and rampant development in the west has made the danger of flooding apparent.

Taxpayers might say: too bad, they built there, a hurricane wiped them out, why should Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) money be used to save them? 

“They lied to me,” the late pioneering Palm Beach dive instructor Norine Rouse told me long ago. “The water-managers told me a blatant lie – that they did not release canal water.

“I took pictures of it. Plumes of black water came out of the inlet into the ocean. Turtles are burying themselves in the muck it created. Turtles use this oxygen-free muck to kill barnacles on their shells, everything else is dying.” Such conditions prevailed on my dives yesterday.

Water-managers say that if they don’t release water from Lake Okeechobee, where it is dammed, and if they do not control water-levels in the west, homes will be flooded. They will, there’s no doubt about it. It’s too late to condemn building in swampland that has destroyed natural everglades – it’s done and cannot be undone. 

Gigantic canals

When torrential rains occur, several things happen. Water-managers release water by opening canal gates, and Florida is criss-crossed by gigantic canals. They pass for miles through vast agricultural lands where fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides are used in abundance to produce perfect crops – because who is going to buy an insect-bitten orange or grapefruit? 

Florida has no soil, it’s sand on top of limestone, both porous. Pour anything onto it and it percolates down, all eventually reaching the ocean.

Proliferating algae
Proliferating algae

Now for the sewers. Florida is the third most populous state in the USA, with some 22 million people living there, which means substantial waste. Every day, billions of gallons of it must be treated. 

In normal times, sewage-treatment plants can handle the waste-stream, although in some areas they have not been able to keep up with population growth. 

When it rains as hard as it did last week, holding tanks cannot manage the water. Sewage is released with squirts of chlorine, because little more can be done. There is nowhere to store all that wastewater. 

Old pipes that ran from South Florida cities a mile out into the ocean to pump out sewage have been condemned by court order – but the pipes are still out there. One municipality complained that when it rained it would still have to use the pipe, which is big enough for a scuba diver to poke into. 

It’s against the law, but I’ve witnessed them pumping sewage from a pipe that had been declared officially closed.

People and cows

Next we have all that material on our lawns, golf-courses, roads and parking lots, all manner of chemicals. When it rains, residue is washed down storm-drains, and directly into Lake Worth. It goes from there along the Intracoastal Waterway and then, at tide change, directly into the Atlantic Ocean. 

Then there is evaporation. It might be only a little fuel spilt at the pumps, a little poison placed on a lawn – or a major cattle-feed operation in Florida’s western regions where, to fatten all those cows, they exist on a diet of hormones, antibiotics, growth stimulants and special feed.

What do cattle do with all that? The same thing you do, out it goes. Ammonia in waste evaporates, run-off occurs, waste enters both the atmosphere and canal water and arrives via dumping or rainfall in the Atlantic.

What happens next? All these waste-streams contain nitrogen which, in the presence of phosphorus in the marine environment, is a nutrient. Algae love nutrient-rich ocean water. They grow as plants, sink to the bottom, invade corals, sponges and sedentary marine life and smother it to death.

This is what we witnessed while diving yesterday. I have investigated this pollution often but it has not been this bad off Boynton Beach in more than five years. 

Corals are under attack everywhere in the world. Vast reaches of coral growth have been destroyed in Florida by disease and algae. Researchers in the Keys have noted that live coral coverage is down to 3-5%, but when I was a kid diving there, it was 90%.  

Smothering and choking the reef
Smothering and choking the reef

Compare to Bonaire

I’ve just returned from work on the island of Bonaire in the western Caribbean. The contrast is startling. 

Bonaire’s authorities, supported by a dedicated population, took steps to protect their marine environment 40 years ago. Live coral coverage is as it was when I first dived there, a healthy marine environment free from the plague of pollution suffered by South Florida.

Our dives were dramatic. The reefs offshore of Boynton Beach, Gulfstream and Briny Breezes were covered with algae. Coral and sponges were being choked by large tufts of these plants and lay dead or dying. My photographs portray decimated reefs.

What can be done? Decrease the nitrogen-load in waste-streams. Go back to natural landscapes. Prevent homeowner associations and golf courses using non-native grasses for lawns. Establish effective treatment systems to stem nitrogen and chemical waste before it reaches the ocean. 

Some of this costs a great deal of money. They said that 50 years ago, as an excuse for doing nothing. It will cost more now than when government officials excuse their failure to act and tell residents: “We will tax you.” 

The next-best bet is a big, bold, bad hurricane. Terrible thought, but it was Hurricane Irma that swept the algae off South Florida reefs. All that agitation caused the algae to be pulled off and away into the northward-flowing Gulf Stream – like vacuuming the house. The reefs were given a new lease of life by the wind.

We all need to clean up our act and look at what we throw out, not only the plastic debris but chemicals of every sort. If the 22 million people affected took one little step to protect the environment, it would make a colossal difference.

John Christopher Fine

John Christopher Fine is a marine biologist and and specialist in maritime affairs. He is a Master Scuba Instructor, Instructor Trainer and the author of some 25 fiction and non-fiction books on a wide range of themes, most recently Hunt For Gold.

Also on Divernet: Coral Farmers Reshaping The Future, Sponges: Glue Of The Reef, Ten Ways Tech Is Rescuing Coral, A Dive Pioneer Turns 80 On Bonaire

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Nick
Nick
1 year ago

If I had one magical wish, I would use it to restore the oceans to the year1850.

Robert Sutcliffe
Robert Sutcliffe
11 months ago

The next great mass extinction will include man as our environment is collapsing around us and too little is being done. As of now man has not learned from his mistakes and I doubt he ever will. The political process to getting anything positive done in this country is a farce.lt is all about the money, power and the horrible mismanagement of it. Man’s legacy will be a planet destroyed by his own hand. The warning signs have been there but man has chosen to ignore them except for a few. Shame on man!

W Glen Bateman Jr
W Glen Bateman Jr
Reply to  Robert Sutcliffe
11 months ago

hope ONLY Homo sapiass is extinct SOON

Rose
Rose
Reply to  Robert Sutcliffe
11 months ago

Talk to Deathsantis. He is letting his biggest campaign donors dump their sludge from their factories into the waterways that flow into the gulf. That why the manatees seagrass is dying and manatees are starving! RON DESANTIS! Now he wants to eliminate the epa in Florida altogether!!

Jayne
Jayne
11 months ago

Humans are decimating the places we are dependent on for our own lives. But there are alternatives that no one wants to take up. A sad state of affairs

W Glen Bateman Jr
W Glen Bateman Jr
11 months ago

Slay some municipal wastewater shotcallers. And send BIRTH CONTROL TO ALL THE WORLD. Florida- WE FULL, DO NOT MOVE HERE, ABSCOND HERE NOR VISIT.
Pray Florida wildlife.. plant, animal, fungi,alga not suffer anymore anthropofuggery

Kathleen
Kathleen
11 months ago

With a constitutional amendment for the right to clean water in our state Bill of Rights, we can finally fix what our regulatory agencies have not. Please join us and sign and share the petition to get this on the ballot: http://www.FloridaRightToCleanWater.org

ABC
ABC
11 months ago

What a shame, with all that communities like Boca Raton do to keep the beaches clean this is just huge backpedaling. Boynton Beach is beautiful diving. Humans suck.

robert sutcliffe
robert sutcliffe
11 months ago

I’m sure most of us have heard of the Fecal to Oral route. I remember that being mentioned over and over in Environmental Science class back in the 80’s. Think about it , repulsive ain’t it! I dove in pristine waters as a kid in Micronesia in the 60’s I shudder to think what’s floating in those waters now!

Jak P
Jak P
11 months ago

I interviewed an environmental law expert in Tallahassee who stated the agricultural runoff is less of an issue than countless leaking septic tanks across the state.

Rose
Rose
Reply to  Jak P
11 months ago

Talk to Deathsantis. He is letting his biggest campaign donors dump their sludge from their factories into the waterways that flow into the gulf. That why the manatees seagrass is dying and manatees are starving! RON DESANTIS! Now he wants to eliminate the epa in Florida altogether!!

Ron
Ron
11 months ago

And we have Cape Coral on the west coast about ready to remove the Chiquita lock that will just be like emptying a toilet bowl into a bath tub. I’m not a climate alarmist but you can’t keep shitting in the backyard.

James
James
11 months ago

Tell Desantis that the sewage is woke. It will be gone quickly before it can woke the fish.

Wanda
Wanda
11 months ago

This is terrible its because people and companies up north are sending their scouts down here to buy up land so they can do just what you said destroy our beautiful land and make it like they made theirs that people are trying to escape from now because of over crowding and pollution and concrete and NOOOOO BEAUTIFUL LAND TO ENJOY BEING AROUND WITH ALL ITS ANIMALS!!!! and since people left up north and came down here they seen it as an opportunity to make FLORIDA be overcrowded, taken over buy concrete, overpolluted, and being like the place that people are running away from to be in a beautiful place and if FLORIDIANS DON’T GET TOGETHER AND START BUYING OUR BEAUTIFUL LAND TO KEEP AWAY FROM NORTHERN DEVELOPERS AND MONEY HUNGRY DEVELOPERS PRETTY SOON FLORIDA WANT BE BEAUTIFUL!!!!!!!!!

Wanda
Wanda
11 months ago

I live in a small town with a creek running beside our property and jusr found out that the water in our creek is sewage water the officials told me thats why its not dry and thats gross so people that eat fish out of this creek and where it drains off too is eating fish that has been living in peoples crap and pee seems to me that is not very sanitary or safe at all!!!!!!!!

bryan Christopher kirshon
bryan Christopher kirshon
11 months ago

i know that hazardous materials in our waterways are affecting our marine wildlife can we nip this problem in the bud?

Lisa
Lisa
Reply to  bryan Christopher kirshon
11 months ago

Only way is everybody stop using pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Live in harmony with nature not in conflict with it.

Rose
Rose
Reply to  Lisa
11 months ago

Talk to Deathsantis. He is letting his biggest campaign donors dump their sludge from their factories into the waterways that flow into the gulf. That why the manatees seagrass is dying and manatees are starving! RON DESANTIS! Now he wants to eliminate the epa in Florida altogether!!

Rose
Rose
Reply to  bryan Christopher kirshon
11 months ago

Talk to Deathsantis. He is letting his biggest campaign donors dump their sludge from their factories into the waterways that flow into the gulf. That why the manatees seagrass is dying and manatees are starving! RON DESANTIS! Now he wants to eliminate the epa in Florida altogether!!

1672875759600.jpg
bryan Christopher kirshon
bryan Christopher kirshon
Reply to  Rose
11 months ago

i won’t vote for him then

Rob
Rob
11 months ago

Since he has seen discharge from condemned pipe, did he report it? Why not report the exact pipe and municipality to us? That’s called credibility to your account sir.

I agree we all need to do better. And all of us Florida beach lovers are especially. Seems like the red tide has been dang near non-stop last three years.

Ron
Ron
Reply to  Rob
11 months ago

Red tide is stubborn for two years after every hurricane

W Glen Bateman Jr
W Glen Bateman Jr
Reply to  Rob
11 months ago

year-round in ABOVE background levels in the FFWCC reports

Rose
Rose
Reply to  Rob
11 months ago

Talk to Deathsantis. He is letting his biggest campaign donors dump their sludge from their factories into the waterways that flow into the gulf. That why the manatees seagrass is dying and manatees are starving! RON DESANTIS! Now he wants to eliminate the epa in Florida altogether!!

David Knapp
David Knapp
11 months ago

I’m an Engineer in Electronics with Earth Science and history background. Temperatures and Acidification are major concerns in Marine Biology of Ocean stability.

G. Spencer Myers
G. Spencer Myers
11 months ago

In my first Derk Bryan ecological thriller, Pest, I expose how the Pesticides are polluting everything. In my current book, The Girl with the Red Nails, the saturation of our water with plastics is the focus. Keep up the good work. We’re all in this together. G. Spencer Myers. EcoBuzzBooks.com

Korena Byers
Korena Byers
11 months ago

This is irresponsible to blame on pollution when it’s clearly warm water bleaching – the same phenomenon is hitting the GBR and all other major coral systems.

Scott Trickett
Scott Trickett
11 months ago

I just moved here, and will be diving, hope I see the true beauty, not poullion

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