Liquid Heart of Florida: Beneath the Algae An in-depth discussion on southwest florida's algae problems and Lake Okeechobee

“It’s the liquid heart of the Everglades. And if we keep abusing it, that heart’s going to die," Ramon Iglesias said. Lake Okeechobee. It's part of South Florida's intricate water system -- and often pointed to as the root of Southwest Florida's blue-green algae bloom problems that triggered national attention and a state of emergency this year. We looked into the lake, the Caloosahatchee River, the Gulf of Mexico, and this blue-green algae to learn more about the problem, where it started, and what it means for the future of Florida.

Lake Okeechobee

Part 1: History

Lake Okeechobee is the second largest natural freshwater lake in the U.S. Back in the 1920s, the Great Miami Hurricane and Okeechobee Hurricane swept through areas around the lake, killing thousands between the two storms. After the tragedy, the state created the Okeechobee Flood Control District in coordination with the U.S. Army Corps to build a dike, channels, and levees around the lake. The U.S. Army Corps continues to manage the water levels of the lake by pushing water down a series of locks on the west and east side — into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers.

Credit: Southwest Florida Library Network

The problem? Those water releases send fresh water filled with nitrogen and phosphorus (two of the main ingredients in the blue-green algae) into saltwater environments. In 2000, the Lake Okeechobee Protection Plan was put in place. It stated that only 40 micrograms of phosphorus per liter of water was allowed in the lake. In 2017, the phosphorus levels were at 150 micrograms per liter.

Last year, Hurricane Irma stirred up lake soil filled with phosphorus. Combine that with warm temperatures and an abnormally rainy May 2018, and you get larger water releases and the ‘perfect storm’ for algae blooms. These blooms were also a big issue back in 2016 with the El Nino storm season.

In July, Governor Rick Scott issued a state of emergency over the algae. He did so under the Obama presidency as well. Regardless, environmentalists are afraid the algae has already caused permanent damage to Florida. Business owners and fishers are concerned the algae — drawing national attention — will hurt their income. And people who live near the blooms are experiencing health problems.

Part 2: Algae Breakdown

Blue-green algae is a freshwater bacteria, also known as cyanobacteria, and can photosynthesize like algae. Not all cyanobacteria produces toxins, but the particular cyanobacteria in Southwest Florida waters does. The toxin is what’s called microcystis, and with the right conditions, can explode into a large bloom.

Cyanobacteria comes from freshwater and cannot survive in the ocean, but it can handle some salt content. In areas where there’s a mix of fresh and salt water, such as brackish waters or estuaries, this particular algae thrives.

Brian LaPointe, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, has studied algae for more than 40 years. He collected samples of a microcystis bloom starting at Lake Okeechobee, along the Caloosahatchee River and in the Fort Myers and Cape Coral area. He took them back to his lab to measure the nitrogen and carbon levels in the algae.

Blue-green algae

LaPointe, and several other scientists such as John Cassani with Calusa Waterkeeper and Rick Bartleson with Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Marine Lab, have said that nutrient loading contributes to blue-green algae growth. The algae feed on nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, allowing them to expand vastly in areas with high concentrations of nutrients.

These nutrients come from several sources, but mainly septic tanks and fertilizer runoff. Another factor that fuels the bloom is reduction of the salt content in water. Additional flows from Lake Okeechobee contribute to the reduction of the salinity in southwest Florida waters, allowing the bloom to stay alive. The algae could stay from a few weeks to up to several months, depending on the amount of salt in the water.

Part 3: Who's Contributing?

Some have labeled Lake Okeechobee, “toxic,” but what exactly is polluting it? There are a couple of answers, but the main culprit is one element -- phosphorus.

“For anyone who’s had a garden or a houseplant and you’ve used fertilizer, that’s phosphorus. And when the rain falls in your garden or your plant and comes out the bottom it has some of that phosphorus. And when that flows into the lake, it’s not fertilizing your plant anymore. It’s fertilizing algae blooms,” Dr. Paul Gray with Audubon Florida said.

The recommended level of phosphorus discharge into the lake is 140 metric tons annually. For the last 40 years, we’ve averaged around 500 tons.

97 percent of the phosphorus that comes into the lake comes from the North, according to the 2018 South Florida Environmental Report. Most of that land is dominated by dairies, farms and ranches. All of these contribute phosphorus to the lake. All of this frustrates sugar farmers to the south. Big Sugar is often blamed for the problems in Lake Okeechobee. While they were historically a big contributor due to back pumping, only two percent of the phosphorus in the lake comes in from the east, west, and south in recent years, after regulations were put in place on sugar companies. These are the primary locations for sugar cane farms.

Human waste needs to be included in this as well. Runoff from lawn fertilizers, septic tanks, and wastewater all contain phosphorus which contributes to this problem.

Part 4: Health Impacts

Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, has made its way into many neighborhoods in Southwest Florida. If you live near it, you might be wondering if it can impact your health. This type of bacteria produces cyanotoxins and the reactions in humans can vary dependent upon which toxin it is.

“If you have respiratory problems such as asthma or COPD when the blooms are very prevalent, avoid being at the beach during that period of time because the wind's going to bring things up and cause problems.” Dr. Timothy Dougherty said.

The most common type of cyanotoxin is microcystins. Researchers say this is the toxic algae in the waterways of Southwest Florida. Microcystins can impact the liver, kidneys, and reproductive system. The International Agency for Research in Cancer says microcystin-LR might be carcinogenic to humans. The Environmental Protection Agency says there aren't enough studies done on humans to link it to cancer.

Another type of toxin created by blue-green algae is anatoxins, which attack the central nervous system. A third is called Saxitoxins which are known as Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP). This type of toxin impacts the nervous system and paralyzes muscles if you consume a shellfish that ate this type of algae.

Part 5: Impacts on the Environment

Humans, the environment, the wildlife — we all are part of an ecosystem. Grass in Lake Okeechobee, clams at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River, and other organisms like worms are dying from polluted waters. Lake O contains several different species of freshwater grasses in the lake and basically act as filters for the water.

Heavy rainfall from last spring and excessive nutrient loading into the lake have caused water levels to rise and nutrient concentration to explode, drowning the grasses. This kills the natural filters in the lake — ones that could filter out algae like cyanobacteria.

Once the dirty water gets to the coasts, seagrasses, clams and other living organisms start to hurt. Cyanobacteria, a freshwater bacteria that comes from Lake Okeechobee, creates a microcystis bloom, commonly referred to as ‘blue-green algae’. These blooms are so thick, they block sunlight needed for the seagrasses to survive.

When cyanobacteria decomposes, the oxygen levels in waters get very low, to what scientists call ‘hypoxia’. This can cause seagrass, clams, and sometimes fish to die. But microcystis, or blue-green algae, is not the only one playing a part in these plants and animals dying. Karenia Brevis, commonly known as red tide, is another factor. However, red tide thrives in saltwater environments. This particular type of algae comes from the ocean and produces toxins that kill fish.

Blue-green algae coming from the lake and red tide coming from the ocean are what Bruce Neill calls a ‘perfect storm’. “We need to recognize too that our community and our economy are based on our ecosystem health. And we can’t pretend that we can continue to do small things to our ecosystem and not have long term challenges,” said Bruce Neill, Executive Director of the Sanibel Sea School.

Part 6: Impacts on the Fishing Industry

The fishing industry was worth $5 billion to the state of Florida in 2013. Since then, it’s grown. But now freshwater discharges and algae blooms coming from the lake are threatening the industry. Blooms in 2016 caused a major hit to the industry.

“We were losing 80 percent plus of our business,” Chris Wittman with Captains for Clean Water said. Chris Wittman and and Daniel Anderson started Captains for Clean Water in 2016 to advocate for clean water policies. They say they’ve seen the destruction of some of the most productive fishing areas in the world.

“The oyster bars I grew up fishing I couldn’t take my clients there to catch snook where I caught my first Snook because it’s a dead-zone,” Daniel Andrews with Captains for Clean Water said.

Part 7: Business Impact

Algae -- or at least the perception of it -- has impacted businesses. We talked to businesses in Clewiston on Lake Okeechobee and in Fort Myers Beach at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River to understand the impacts on local businesses.

In March, Governor Rick Scott announced that Florida was at an all-time record of more than 33 million visitors in the first quarter if 2018, up more than seven percent in 2017. Clewiston businesses said the algae hadn't really impacted them, but the perception of how bad the problem is in the news may have scared some people away. "There is algae on the lake, we don't deny that, but it's not what you're seeing on the news," Ramon Iglesias with Roland Martin's Marine Center in Clewiston, FL said.

On the coast at Fort Myers Beach, business owners saw a good flow of tourists and paying customers, especially during season. However, with the possibly of blue-green algae mixed with episodes of red tide, businesses decided to be on the defensive to play it safe. "The local people are starting to pull back and hold on to their money," Scott Safford, owner of the Sea Gypsy Inn on Fort Myers Beach, said. "It's the number one topic. You can't go anywhere without talking about the water."

Part 8: Grassroots Efforts

Protests in Southwest Florida have become more frequent as blue-green algae has made its way into the area. Activists want their voices heard. “What we are seeing here is an ecological disaster to be quite honest with you. There’s nothing short of it. This is our BP oil spill and for people not to be outraged, they must not be paying attention,” John G. Heim with the South Florida Clean Water Movement said.

The South Florida Clean Water Movement is just one group of concerned citizens wanting to end the toxic algae discharges it says destroy the Caloosahatchee River, estuaries, and gulf waters.

Activists aren't the only ones who want change. Governor Rick Scott took a tour on the Caloosahatchee River on July 9 with representatives from the Department of Environmental Protection and Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman to see the blue-green algae impact first hand. “I know it’s frustrating for people first off, I’m going to tell you I’m going to keep fighting for Florida families,” Governor Rick Scott said.

After the tour, Governor Scott issued a State of Emergency, ending September 8th. This will wave restrictions so water can be stored south of the lake, water testing can be increased, and people can be notified of the algal blooms.

Part 9: Future Solutions

The problems with Lake Okeechobee can be described with two words -- pollution and plumbing. Over a century of ditching and draining has left Florida with a plumbing problem. Other factors like overpopulation and lack of oversight have led to pollution in the waterways. So where do we go from here?

The solution that most people point to is the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program, or CERP. CERP is a series of 68 projects designed to repipe the state's water ways by storing and cleaning water, before sending it south into the Everglades.

The plan was approved in 2000 but so far only 3 of the projects have been completed. However one project, the EAA Southern Reservoir, could change the fight for clean water in Florida. If it's completed the project would send more than 120 billion gallons of water south every year and cut discharges to the east and west by more than 60%.

The project has been approved, but Congress still needs to pass it and the president needs to sign off on it. Still, it's just one of 68 projects and researchers say we may need them all for clean water in Florida.

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