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How A $10 Million Competition Based In South Florida Takes Aim At Algae Blooms Worldwide

A massive algal outbreak in Maumee Bay near Toledo, Ohio. A $10 million competition sponsored by the Everglades Foundation and the Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation is underway to address algae outbreaks, which also plague waterways in South Florida.
Chris Alstrin via Instagram
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The blue-green algae blooms that sometimes swallow Florida’s coasts are thick, green, goopy and smell like sewage. But they’re not a problem that’s unique to Florida.

The blooms gained particular notoriety in the Sunshine State during the summer of 2016, when a massive outbreak choked businesses, wildlife and tourism along both of Florida’s coasts and prompted Florida Senate President Joe Negron to champion a plan to build a massive reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.

But communities from Toledo, Ohio to Zhoutie, China struggle with the impacts of algal blooms and the phosphorus contamination that exacerbates them.

That’s why finalists competing in a multimillion-dollar, South Florida-based competition for phosphorus removal technology are currently hard at work in Canada.

“As much as we want the technology to solve our problems here in Florida… we designed this prize to have the technology remove the phosphorus both in a cold climate and in a warm climate,” said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, which is one of the leaders of the $10 million . “The challenges with excess phosphorus and freshwater are not limited to just the Everglades.”

Ten teams that hail from as near as Wellington in Palm Beach County and as far as Leeuwarden, a city in the Netherlands, are semifinalists in the multi-year contest scheduled to last through at least 2019. They come from a field of more than 200 competitors whose solutions ranged from building mechanical filtration systems to incorporating yeast byproducts from beer-brewing. They’re currently testing their technologies in Lake Simcoe, about an hour north of Toronto.

“There’s been litigation, there’s been legislation and the problem gets worse,” Eikenberg said. The solution, he said, lies “in innovation and the beauty of how humans solve problems.”

By May, the field of 10 will be whittled down to four teams competing for $10 million. Eikenberg said testing for that fourth and final stage will take place starting in 2019 in an area north of Lake Okeechobee, which has struggled with nutrient runoff from ranches and farms.

Read more: Algae Again Threatening Indian River Lagoon

Teams “will have to have these technologies on a larger scale -- billions and billions of gallons of water,” he said. Testing will happen through partnerships with agencies including the South Florida Water Management District and the St. Johns River Water Management District in Northeast Florida.

This week, another partner of the Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation plans to release a documentary miniseries about algae’s impact on communities farther north. Andy Mann, a photographer and videographer for National Geographic, said he first saw the harm inflicted by blue-green algae when he came to South Florida to document some of the Everglades Foundation’s work. On Thursday -- World Water Day -- he’ll be releasing a video that shows scientists at work on solutions near Long Island Sound and a second video about the impact of algal blooms on farmers, fishermen and families near Lake Erie.

“You forget about how important a body of water is to a community,” Mann said. “When that’s taken away from people, what that does to the morale, what that does to the economy is pretty heavy.”

  Harmful #algalblooms are swallowing the shores of freshwaters, making drinking water toxic and killing wildlife. These blooms are everywhere and now affect all 50 states. I recently teamed up with @ScottsMGroFoundation to help tell the story of algal blooms and what's being done to solve this global crisis. Embarking on this project, I had no idea where it would take me, but it quickly became clear that the biggest story of this #watercrisis is not the devastation but the amazing, hardworking people who are working to find a solution. This year, on March 22 (#worldwaterday), I will share stories of our nation's most troubled water bodies and the everyday heroes I've met along the way. This is only the beginning. #waterpositive // @ladzinski @calstrin @3stringsproductions A post shared by Andy Mann (@andy_mann) on Jan 16, 2018 at 6:10am PST

Mann said a third video in the series focuses on his experience documenting the blooms.

“I didn’t really think I had such a large stake in this as the videographer, but by the end, I was completely invested,” he said. “It was crazy how many people were reaching out to me, saying, ‘Oh, I grew up there,’ or ‘I’m so glad you’re shining a light on this issue.’ ”

To see the docuseries, visit @andy_mann or @scottsmgrofoundation on Instagram or the Scott’s Miracle-Gro Foundation homepage.

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Kate Stein can't quite explain what attracts her to South Florida. It's more than just the warm weather (although this Wisconsin native and Northwestern University graduate definitely appreciates the South Florida sunshine). It has a lot to do with being able to travel from the Everglades to Little Havana to Brickell without turning off 8th Street. It's also related to Stein's fantastic coworkers, whom she first got to know during a winter 2016 internship.Officially, Stein is WLRN's environment, data and transportation journalist. Privately, she uses her job as an excuse to rove around South Florida searching for stories à la Carl Hiaasen and Edna Buchanan. Regardless, Stein speaks Spanish and is always thrilled to run, explore and read.