The Impact

Fouled by a toxic algae bloom just over one year ago, Treasure Coast residents enjoy a surprising spike in property values — but for how long?

In the summers of 2013 and 2016, residents living along the St. Lucie, Indian, and Caloosahatchee rivers, which are located east and west of South Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, worried about the inevitable: millions of gallons of toxic water from the lake being flushed into the canals, where it would eventually creep toward the estuaries, killing marine life in its path and putting humans at risk.

Discharging water from the lake is necessary to relieve the earthen dikes that corral the water before it crests the dike system and floods the surrounding area.

The green discharge resulting from the algae bloom of 2016
Photo credit: Les Neuhaus

Last year the water discharged was a rich, thick green concoction, similar in look to healthy Bermuda grass. But the water was harmful, not healthy. An algae bloom had formed in the lake and eventually covered a massive 85 sq. km. — an area so big it could be seen by satellites from space. It was a direct byproduct of storm water and waste from septic tanks — both working their way south to the lake through the Kissimmee River watershed — along with agricultural runoff from cattle and sugar farmers.

Stuart, Fla., in Martin County, bore the worst of the toxic algae when officials eventually had to release overflow from the lake through the canals, coating Stuart’s beaches, estuaries, and residential and commercial property fronts in oozing, “guacamole”-like sludge over the 4th of July holiday weekend. Beaches were eventually closed and people were advised to stay indoors to avoid the bad smell. Scientists and health officials said at the time that the algae blooms, also known as HABs, could cause skin irritation and breathing problems through the air. And for marine life, it was deemed even more detrimental. Throughout the event, state officials remained notably silent.

Tom Campenni, a city commissioner in Stuart, has worked in the commercial real estate market for three decades and owns property on the water. “Last year we were green,” says Campenni. “If I was trying to sell my house last year, I wouldn’t have been able to get any amount of money for it.”

And this cuts to the heart of the issue for some: even though environmental factors are a paramount concern to most residents affected by the blooms, property values become a main concern, too. However, Martin County Property Appraiser Laurel Kelly announced on May 30 that property values throughout the county had increased 5.3 percent, something that many residents were surprised to hear, including Campenni.

“There are a lot of variables that affect home prices … some push the value up, some variables push the value down,” Kelly shared in a follow-up phone interview with Agent Magazine. “I call it diminished appreciation. In the wake of the 2013 bloom, people would walk away in the middle of negotiating a home purchase here.”

However, when asked if depreciation could be expected over time, since a resolution to the blooms had not yet been implemented, she was firm.

“I think they will (diminish),” she says. “A lot of people retire here because of the water communities. And if you fish, but you can’t eat the fish, then that’s just one of many problems.”

Ideas to solve the problem are as abundant as the finger pointing at who, or what, is to blame. Farmers often blame conservationists and conservationists often blame farmers. But Campenni said those communities, along with municipalities, counties, and legislators in Tallahassee — including the governor — “need to come up with a real solution, not a make-believe solution.”

Michael Barnes
Photo credit: Courtesy of Michael Barnes

Enter Michael Barnes, CEO of Galileo Group, a Florida-based tech firm that specializes in hyperspectral remote sensing, or imaging.

Barnes spent 10 years working around the world for the Central Intelligence Agency before leaving to co-found Galileo with his partner Herb Wasserman, a former satellite testing expert for the U.S. Air Force. Galileo has developed applications in imaging technology that could be used to predict and possibly prevent the formation of HABs by using satellites as a platform for their unique hyperspectral remote sensing services.

Though tight-lipped about who Galileo’s clients are, Barnes reveals the company is in early-stage discussions with NASA and NOAA about their technology’s capabilities as it directly applies to environmental causes like HABs forming in Lake Okeechobee. “We have flown test missions on our own to show that red tide and harmful algal blooms (HAB) can be mapped from the air using our hyperspectral capabilities,” says Barnes, adding that the key point of the program is to “regularly map the HAB emergence across the state of Florida to provide a temporal snapshot of progression.”

Barnes adds that Galileo also plans to develop an ARMADA™-based smartphone system so that consumers can play a more direct role as “citizen collectors.”

“It’s about empowering people to understand and contribute to the environmental solutions which affect their health, their homes, and the tourist industry in general,” says Barnes. “The average consumer has far more computing and remote sensing power in their hand than they realize. We plan to put some of that potential to new and better use.”