STUART, Fla. — Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in Martin and St. Lucie Counties Wednesday in response to algae blooms in local waterways.
Scott's executive order will allow state and local governmental agencies "to take swift action to mitigate the spread of algal blooms in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries by redirecting the flow of water in and out of Lake Okeechobee," according to a news release from the governor's office.
Scott is also directing the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to take specific actions to address the issues caused by blooms, including increased testing for toxins and more water storage projects.
Martin County also declared a state of emergency allowing officials to speed up processes to deal with the toxic blue-green algae.
But the county doesn't have any plans "up our sleeve" for using the additional powers, said County Engineer Don Donaldson.
The algae problem also is garnering lawmakers' attention. U.S. Rep. Patrick E. Murphy made a visit Wednesday to see the algae. U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio announced Wednesday they will visit the Treasure Coast this week.
The declaration signed Wednesday morning by County Administrator Taryn Kryzda and Emergency Management Director Debra McCaughey allows the county to "waive the procedures and formalities otherwise required by law" to take "whatever action is necessary to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the community."
That includes streamlining procedures to enter contracts, hire employees, use volunteers and spend public money on anti-algae projects.
"Given the nature of the algae, there's no immediate or obvious solution for dealing with it," Donaldson said. "I'm not aware of any safe, practical way of getting rid of it. We're looking to the state to provide us expertise in that area."
Declaring a state of emergency, he said, "gives us the ability to act immediately, to jump right in, once a course of action is determined."
The declaration calls for a seven-day state of emergency, but Kryzda has the authority to extend the time, said county spokeswoman Gabriella Ferraro.
Stuart city officials voted at a special meeting Wednesday to join the county in declaring a local state of emergency.
Since mid-May, algae blooms have been spreading throughout the St. Lucie River: along the Palm City and Stuart riverfronts, into the Indian River Lagoon and out the St. Lucie Inlet. Stuart Public Beach and Bathtub Reef Beach, both county-run oceanfront facilities on Hutchinson Island, were closed to swimming Wednesday because of algae in the water.
Bathtub Beach, which reopened June 18 after a three-month, $2 million sand renourishment project, has been closed since algae was sighted there Friday.
In most places, the algae is a thin layer of green slime on the river surface with scattered cells in the water below. At other sites, particularly bays and backwaters, the bloom has grown into mats several inches thick with a strong, acrid smell as some of the cells die.
Some blue-green algae in the river has tested positive for hazardous levels of toxins, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
U.S. Rep. Patrick E. Murphy, D-Jupiter, who saw the algae-choked river Wednesday, called on the governor to see the blooms for himself and declare a statewide state of emergency "to provide our suffering communities the resources needed to address the serious threats these toxic algae blooms pose."
Scott on Wednesday evening declared a state of emergency in Martin and St. Lucie counties in response to the algae.
Nelson and Rubio are scheduled to visit the Treasure Coast this week to check out the blooms.
Nelson, a Democrat, will be taking a boat tour Thursday with local county officials and researchers from Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution.
Rubio, a Republican, is visiting the area Friday, but details about a location and time were not available Wednesday.
Nelson, Rubio and six Republican state lawmakers penned a letter Wednesday asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to temporarily halt Lake Okeechobee discharges and allow more water in the lake because of repairs in the dike surrounding it.
Legislators, including state Reps. Gayle Harrell of Stuart and MaryLynn Magar of Tequesta and Sen. Joe Negron of Stuart, also asked the corps to hold more water north of Lake Okeechobee and send more water south of the lake.
Despite repairs in parts of the dike, raising the lake level could create the risk of a breach in others, said Army Corps spokesman John H. Campbell.
The corps plans to revisit maximum lake levels in six or seven years when more repairs are completed, Campbell said.
The Martin County Commission and Stuart City Commission also asked the corps to suspend discharges of nutrient-rich fresh water from Lake Okeechobee that helped cause and feed the algae blooms, and members asked Scott to seek a federal state of emergency from President Obama.
In a prepared statement, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he supported the county's actions and would give Scott "my full support should he request President Obama declare the area as a federal disaster."
Contributing: Isadora Rangel, St. Lucie (Fla.) News-Tribune.Follow Tyler Treadway on Twitter: @tcpalmtreadway