SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla. - Mounds of red blanketed southwest Florida's white sandy beaches in 2006 and 2007, an unwelcoming sight to visitors and long-time resident Diane Cortese.
"For as long as the eye could see, we saw red drift algae," said Cortese. "...You know [visitors] come for the shells. They come for the sunshine. They come to relax, and you can't even do that. You can't even walk out into the water, because you don't know what's in the water as well."
Red drift algae don't smell that great but they're not harmful to your health. Algae are really just a nuisance to beach-goers, and guests expecting a sugar-sand shoreline in 2014 may instead get a red eyeful.
Each day this past summer billions of gallons of freshwater were released from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River. That plus southwest Florida's above-average rainy season led to excessive run-off in our local waterways.
"If that fresh water were pristine and coming from a spring or something, it would have a vastly different effect than the freshwater that we get that has lots of 'nutrients'," explained Dr. Eric Milbrandt, Director of the Marine Laboratory at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation.
Found in fertilizer and in human and agricultural waste, "nutrients" like nitrogen and phosphorous help algae grow.
This summer, Dr. Milbrandt followed the brownish-black plume of fresh water ten miles into the Gulf of Mexico, where he and his team of scientists found high concentrations of those nutrients.
Now, the brown water has retreated, but the excess nutrients have taken their toll, allowing the algae to flourish at an alarmingly fast rate.
"There's almost an overgrowth on the hard bottom areas just offshore," said Dr. Milbrandt.
Storms and cold fronts, producing strong wind and big waves, detach the algae from the bottom. The question is how much will wash ashore?
"Whether it ends up being washed up on the beach in huge abundances, we don't know," said Dr. Milbrandt. "There's a good chance that could happen. But there's also a good chance that it could get transported offshore."
Either outcome, excess nutrients in our waterways are impacting our ecology.
"Our water is our future. We're made of water. If we start destroying it, we start destroying our wildlife, our sea life, and where are we going to be?" asked Sanibel resident Diane Cortese.
The Army Corps of Engineers has a plan to improve the timing, quality and amount of freshwater flowing into the Caloosahatchee. The hiccup? Congress. The proposal was submitted in April 2011. But no one knows when or even if the approval and needed funds will come.
For more information on the differences between red tide and red drift algae, visit Mote Marine Laboratory