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Finalists Announced In $10 Million Contest To Solve Algae Problems Plaguing Florida... And The World

Blue-green algae along the shore of Martin County in 2016. The blooms are fueled by phosphorus that runs off from lawns and agricultural land, and the Everglades Foundation is sponsoring a multi-year, multi-million dollar competition for solutions.
Martin County Health Department
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

They sound like environmental superheroes.

"These teams are the planet's best hope to solve this problem," said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, describing finalists in the foundation's $10 million competition for technology to remove phosphorus from water.

"We have toxic algae that's choking communities. It's impacting local economies, the environment, public health. It has to be dealt with," said Eikenberg. 

At a ceremony in Chicago on Thursday, the foundation announced which 10 competitors from its initial field of 104 may have the best technology to knock out villainous phosphorus runoff and the algae blooms it fuels in the greater Everglades ecosystem. All 10 teams advance to stage three of the four-year competition, and the top three finalists earned monetary awards totaling $80,000.

"We have to innovate and that's what this prize is doing. ... It's highlighting innovation," Eikenberg said.

The finalists hail from the United States, the Netherlands and Canada, and their diverse origins reflect the devastation algae blooms have wrought on communities worldwide.

In recent years, massive blooms have choked wildlife and local economies in places from Lake Erie and the Chesapeake Bay to the Arabian Sea. And, of course, Florida's coasts: In the summer of 2016, an eruption of blue-green algae devastated tourism and fishing in coastal communities. 

The outbreak prompted Florida Senate President Joe Negron to champion a water storage reservoir intended to reduce discharges of phosphorus-heavy water that contribute to the algae. Negron's bill ultimately passed despite controversy over the reservoir's possible location, and on Thursday, the South Florida Water Management District held the second of at least three public meetings to discuss progress.

Read more: What We Talk About When We Talk About Everglades RestorationEikenberg said the goal of the Barley Water Prize is to encourage private sector solutions to the algae problem. 

"We can't regulate, we can't litigate, we can't legislate -- there's no time for that," he said.

The competition is co-sponsored by Scott’s Miracle-Gro, a major fertilizer manufacturer that removed phosphorus from its products in 2011.

In the third stage of competition, finalists will go to Ontario for several months to test their technologies in cold weather.

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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.