Rinse & repeat: Blue-green algae covers Lake Okeechobee
LEE COUNTY, Fla. – Lake Okeechobee is plagued with blue-green algae, again.
Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, can produce harmful toxins in our water and along our coastline, killing the animals, fish, and wildlife of Southwest Florida.
Lake Okeechobee is the largest lake in Florida
‘Lake O’ has a surface area of about 730 square miles. New satellite images from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), show algal blooms cover about 500 square miles of the lake — quick math — that’s 68.5% of the lake.
Remember — we’re talking square miles — 500 of them. So how big is that?
Sanibel Island is 33 square miles — That means if you put 15 Sanibel Islands together, the surface area would be equivalent to how much algae is currently covering Lake Okeechobee.
Another example — football fields — the amount of algae covering Lake O is equivalent to the size of 242,000 football fields.
The height of the lake & water releases
High concentrations of cyanobacteria have been detected in all directions of the lake, prominently on the west side. Many water experts are concerned because most of the water released into the Caloosahatchee River is essentially pulled from the west side of the lake.
The Caloosahatchee River feeds canals and estuaries across Lee County. Water from the river, which mostly comes from the lake, creeps up along waterfront homes from LaBelle, downtown Fort Myers, Cape Coral, to the McGregor Boulevard corridor.
Right now, the Army Corps of Engineers, who manages Lake Okeechobee, has made the decision through careful consideration to pump water out of the lake at about 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) into the Caloosahatchee River due to the current height of the lake. As of May 12, the lake measured at 13.68 feet.
Let’s do some more math — 2,000 cfs is = 15,000 gallons per second. There are 86,400 seconds in a day. That means 1,296,000,000 gallons of lake water, and any local runoff, is rushing into the Caloosahatchee River every day.
That’s enough water to fill 1,964 Olympic size swimming pools!
The ideal, manageable lake level for the Army Corps of Engineers is 12 to 15 feet. Rainy season in the summer months adds inches to the lake’s height, resulting in water releases throughout the year.
Earlier this week, South Florida water leaders sent a letter to Governor Ron DeSantis urging him to issue an emergency order due to the algae and amount of water heading west. Later in the day, in a press conference, Governor DeSantis urged the Army Corps to manage the lake better, and take advantage of water releases in the dry months.
Algae spreads and grows faster with warmer weather, so the idea is to send water west from the lake when there is little to no algae on it, versus in the spring and summer months when algae can plague the surface, and ultimately the Southwest Florida coastline.
What feeds the algae?
Blue-green algae, cyanobacteria, needs nutrients to survive, which is why it grows and spreads quickly in the lake.
“The nutrients in Lake O come from a variety of sources, with over 75% coming from agricultural runoff,” according to Captains For Clean Water. Due to loose regulations about farming, chemicals, and pesticides used in Florida agriculture industries, runoff has and will continue to feed blue-green algae for years to come.
In a news conference Wednesday, Governor DeSantis said the agriculture runoff is a Florida Department of Environmental Protection issue and hopefully they can work quickly to fix the problem.
The dangers of blue-green algae
“Cyanobacteria and their toxins can disrupt and damage sensitive ecosystems, and threaten public and natural resources health and the environment,” according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The good news — not many cases of human illnesses related to blue-green algae have been reported in the United States. However, direct contact with a cyanobacteria bloom from recreational activities like boating and swimming can cause a fever, itchy eyes, sore throat, congestion, skin rashes, wildlife experts report.
As for animals — fish and marine life typically have it the worst. Mixed with red-tide during the summer months, blue-green algae is responsible for fish kills, dead birds, sea turtles, and dolphins.
How to stop blue-green algae from growing
The bad news — algae is naturally occurring — there will always be algae. However, like mentioned above, cyanobacteria needs nutrients to thrive. Since most of the nutrients in Lake O come from agriculture runoff, there needs to be a collaboration between state lawmakers and farmers to get a control on pollution.
An easier fix just for Southwest Florida: reduce the amount of water, especially during the spring and summer months, heading down the Caloosahatchee River from Lake Okeechobee. Water scientists have been advocating for projects like the EAA Reservoir for years, which would ultimately send water south into the Everglades, versus to heavily populated areas like Lee County.
The EAA reservoir is currently being built and it is expected to reduce water discharges by 60% through sending that water south, away from Southwest Florida.
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