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Florida Water Expert Karl Havens' Death Leaves Void In Algae Research

University of Florida
Florida Sea Grant Director Karl Havens

The sudden death last week of Florida water expert Karl Havens leaves a void in fighting the state's ongoing water problems, his colleagues said.

"It's such a tragedy," said Jack Payne, senior vice president at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agriculture Resources and Havens boss. "It leaves a huge hole in who we are and what we do."

Havens, 61, was director of the Florida Sea Grant and among the first to sound the alarm last year when blue green algae swept across Lake Okeechobee. Blooms eventually filled nearly the entire lake, the largest east of the Mississippi. They also helped spread toxic cyanobacteria in the Caloosahatchee River. The freshwater blooms coincided with a saltwater red tide that swept up and down the Gulf Coast, littering beaches with dead sea life.

Despite potential backlash, Havens pointed out a significant obstacle in trying to understand the problem: lack of monitoring. Under Gov. Rick Scott, water quality monitoring programs had been significantly scaled back.

"We're flying blind," Havens said at the time.

Havens moved to Florida in 1993 from Kent State University for a job as a lake ecologist at the South Florida Water Manamement District, said U.S. Geological Survey regional supervisor Nick Aumen, who hired him. Three days after he arrived, despite the big move and having a son with Down Syndrome, Aumen said Havens and his wife Pam invited him over for dinner. 

"They were just superhumans," he said.

In 2004, Havens became chief of fisheries and aquatic sciences at the University of Florida and three years later took over the Sea Grant program.

Just last week, Havens addressed hundreds of researchers gathered at the Greater Everglades Ecoystem Research conference in Coral Springs and explained the complex mix of factors that drive algae blooms. With more extreme weather patterns forecast under climate change, he warned that algae blooms  could become a worse threat.

"We need to be thinking about climate change and not just how things are now," he said.

But he also warned that scientists need to get a better handle on what's fueling the blooms now.

"Why are the things we're doing not controlling thse blooms?" he asked.

On Thursday, after the conference ended, Havens had dinner with Payne and Aumen. The next day, he drove back to Gainesville, and after having lunch with a colleague began feeling ill and  headed home where Payne said he died of an apparent heart attack.

"I try to take a little solace in knowing his final day before he passed was a day spent doing what he loved," Aumen said.

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
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