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

Chris Alstrin via Instagram
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.

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 George Barley Water Prize. “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.”

Credit Stephanie Tiangco Carrion / For the Everglades Foundation
For the Everglades Foundation
The 10 finalist teams in the George Barley Water Prize participated in a ribbon cutting at the test site on Lake Simcoe, about an hour north of Toronto.

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.”

  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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