Will technology save us from toxic algae?

Cyanobacteria Outbreak, 2018

In a frightening 2009 article titled “Re-Engineering the Earth,” The Atlantic magazine predicted that as the impacts of climate change worsened, mankind would turn to technology for salvation.

Perhaps we’ll pump pollutants into the sky, turning it a reddish-orange, to keep the earth cool. Or we might create “a permanent fleet of up to 1,500 ships dragging propellers that churn up seawater and spray it high enough for the wind to carry it into the clouds. The spray would add moisture to the clouds and make them whiter and fluffier, and therefore better at bouncing sunlight back harmlessly into space.”

But, warned the magazine, there could be unpredictable, even disastrous side effects. And of course turning to technology to solve our environmental problems does nothing to address the roots of those problems — and as such, the need for a high-tech “fix” becomes perpetual.

Which brings us to Florida’s own perpetual challenge, and our hope that high tech will fix it.

As we’ve reported, both federal and state water managers are predicting another toxic algae bloom on Lake Okeechobee this summer. With ongoing discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers from the lake, there’s a very real chance the blue-green blooms could be flushed into these fragile estuaries, triggering another “summer of slime.”

Florida officials, with tentative encouragement from the state’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force, have invested some $45 million in “innovative technologies” to fight such blooms; this includes using a hydrogen peroxide-based product called “Lake Guard Oxy” to kill algae, among other ideas.

Now the feds are getting into the act.

In early February, U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Naples) introduced House Resolution 873, which would enable the Environmental Protection Agency to make grants for projects that use “emerging technologies to address threats to water quality” — like toxic algae.

According to the Fort Myers News-Press, the grants would go to private sector firms developing “emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, distributed ledgers (think blockchain) aquaculture, mechanical harvesting of aquatic vegetation along with muck removal, living shorelines and seawalls.”

For the record, we love the idea of mechanical harvesting and muck removal, tried and true old-school ways of tackling pollution.

And new-school ways might make an even bigger dent. Then again, maybe they won’t, maybe Florida will shower money on “solutions” that don’t really achieve much.

Moreover, Florida’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force has called for more peer review of these higher-tech methods to ensure they’re safe, notes Eve Samples, Executive Director of VoteWater’s strategic partner Friends of the Everglades.

“What safeguards would be in place to ensure these ‘emerging technologies’ are safe and effective?” she asked.

But our concern is more fundamental. While we don’t oppose the Donalds resolution, we see all these attempts to harness tech to solve our algae problem as sidestepping the main problem.

That is, we know how to reduce pollution: Crack down on polluters. Strengthen Florida’s “Basin Management Action Plans,” as Gov. Ron DeSantis suggested in his recent Executive Order 23-06. Test to see whether “Best Management Practices” are actually reducing pollution rather than affording those who adopt these BMPs the “presumption of compliance.”

But all this is politically difficult. It’s so much easier to cry “Technology save us!”

And maybe it will.

Or maybe our failure to summon the political courage needed to tackle the overriding problem means the cure ultimately becomes the new disease.