Red tide rising

Red ride algae.

Red ride algae.

From Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in

Florida is sending us a warning about the fragility of coastal and other watery places in the face of over-development. Narragansett and Buzzards bays are particularly vulnerable.

On the southwest coast of the Florida peninsula a highly toxic bloom of red algae – aka, red tide --  is killing sea life, making breathing very difficult for humans and scaring away the tourists who fuel much of the region’s economy. The beaches are covered with rotting fish.

I’ve been on that  very coast during a red tide, and it’s appalling. Residents flee indoors to get away from the aerosolized toxins from the algae, hoping that air-conditioning will clean out most of them.

Meanwhile, a different kind of algae – green stuff – continues to befoul  inland lakes and canals.

Man is the main culprit. The vast quantities of fertilizers and other chemicals dumped on the state for agribusiness, housing-development lawns and golf courses end up in the water, where algae feed on them. Wetlands are filled in, land is paved over and innumerable canals are dug. All this means that much less of this polluted water can be absorbed and filtered by undeveloped land.

Rick Bartleson, a research scientist with the Sanibel-Captiva  Conservation Foundation (named for two barrier islands along the southwest Florida coast known for their lovely beaches and sea shells), told The Washington Post that the region’s Lee County used to be 50 percent wetlands (and close to the Everglades). Now it’s 10 percent.

Warming water temperatures also play a role; the Gulf of Mexico now averages about two degrees warmer than it was in the late ‘70s.

Out-of-control development aided and abetted by local and state politicians well taken care of by those businesses has turned much of Florida, with its famous fresh-water wetlands, into a vast  sprawl of unrestrained exurban and suburban development. Strip malls in the sunset.

The environmental devastation of this gold rush is unlikely to decrease anytime soon.