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8 Manatees Found Dead, Toxic Algae Suspected as Culprit

Climate

An illness that might be linked to toxic algae blooms combined with a record number of boat collisions has taken a toll on Florida's manatee population this summer. Since May, eight dead manatees have been found in the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County, a waterway that's been fouled with microscopic toxic algae, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

Florida manatee cow and calf.Keith Ramos, USFWS

"We are still narrowing down the cause, but the hypothesis is still that the change of vegetation that the manatees are eating makes them susceptible to complications in their guts," Martine de Wit, lead veterinarian with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said. De Wit said the manatees have been found with little or no seagrass in their stomachs. The animals digestive systems were filled instead with algae commonly known as seaweed. Researchers say the animals succumb to illness so quickly they drown. Videos from residents have documented the manatee's struggle.

The water coming from Lake Okeechobee contains fertilizer, sewage and stormwater, which is flushed into portions of the Indian River, according to the Sentinel. The stretch of the Indian River has been "a killing field" for brown pelicans, bottlenose dolphins, manatees and many species of fish. The microscopic algae has turned waters a greenish, brown color, some spots as thick as guacamole, as previously reported by EcoWatch.

This isn't the only year toxic algae has impacted manatees. More than 150 manatees have died in the past four years, the Sentinel said.

The manatees are also facing an increased threat from recreational boaters. Manatees are being killed by boat strikes at a record pace this summer, Florida Today reported. "As of July 22, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had counted 71 manatees killed by boats, compared with 58 manatees killed by boats by mid-July 2009. In 2009, a record 97 manatees died from boat strikes," the publication said.

An increase in boat traffic on Florida's waterways—because of less expensive fuel, a mild winter and a hot summer—is causing more collisions with manatees, according to Dr. Katie Tripp, the director of science and conservation at Save the Manatee. Tripp argues the increase in manatee boat strikes shouldn't be attributed to a population increase. "We disagree," said Tripp. "We believe that educated, compliant and watchful vessel operators are key."

Though manatees are already facing enough threats, the species might also lose some of their protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. Save the Manatee is urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to change the status of manatees from endangered to threatened.

"We firmly believe downlisting without better controlling the escalating threats is premature," said Tripp. The organization is calling for residents to sign Florida's Clean Water Declaration in the effort to reduce pollutants in the state's waterways.

However, Fish and Wildlife Service officials don't appear to be rethinking their plan. Aerial surveys show the manatee population has risen from 1,267 to more than 6,300 in 25 years, according to the agency website. Officials also believe there is no direct link between manatee deaths and blue green algae blooms in the St. Lucie River and estuary in Martin County Florida. A decision on reclassifying manatees could come as early as next year. A change in the status could effect boating speeds in waterways and access to protected areas.

The toxic algae problem is not limited to Florida. Algae blooms that have been occurring in Lake Erie since 2013 returned last week. Sections of Presque Isle State Park are closed because of the harmful algae blooms, the Erie Times News reported.

Jim Grazio, Great Lakes biologist for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, told the Erie Times, "Harmful algae blooms are capable of producing toxins that can cause skin irritations, nausea or vomiting in humans, and potentially be fatal to animals."

Climate change may lead to more algal blooms in the future, according to the New York Times.

"Some of the features of climate change, such as warmer ocean temperatures and increased light availability through the loss of sea ice in the Arctic, are making conditions more favorable for phytoplankton growth—both toxic and nontoxic algae—in more regions and farther north," Kathi Lefebvre, a biologist at NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, told the Times.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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