Governor Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency for seven Florida counties as a result of the toxic blue-green algae bloom that has extended from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie River on the east coast and to the Caloosahatchee River near Fort Myers.
The governor’s office says that the bloom has spread to both coasts because the Army Corps of Engineers has discharged water containing the toxic algae from Lake Okeechobee to several rivers and estuaries.
Following intense rainfalls, the Corps released millions of gallons of water from the lake to relieve pressure on a dam. Okeechobee, however, is full of chemicals and nutrients from agricultural and development runoff, which along with warm temperatures has created the perfect breeding conditions for algal blooms.
The state of emergency enables the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the South Florida Water Management District to ignore several restrictions and move excess water to areas south of the lake. The governor has ordered the DEP to conduct further water testing and to set up a grant program that will allow for the algae-filled waters to be cleaned up.
Blue-green algae are a type of bacteria known as cyanobacteria, which relies on sunlight to flourish. Cyanobacteria can breed in all water types and is usually not visible. Populations extend quickly in warm, nutrient-rich waters, causing layers of algae to spread across waterways. Lake Okeechobee registers algal blooms annually, but this year, the bloom has covered 90 percent of the 730-square-mile lake.
“The current conditions at Lake Okeechobee highlight the challenge of balancing the multiple threats to the public – those associated with floodwaters around the lake that are prompting water to be released and those associated with possible downstream exposure to algal toxins in the released water containing cyanobacteria,” said Dr. Diane Mas, REHS/RS, an associate at civil and environmental engineering consulting firm Fuss and O’Neill.
Though most blue-green algae blooms are non-toxic, certain blooms, like those in Florida, release toxins that can cause skin irritation, respiratory issues, and nerve and liver poisoning. If animals encounter algae-filled water, it can be fatal. Warning signs have been posted around Florida waterways informing residents to not swim or consume fish from infested waters. The algae blooms have also affected Florida tourism with fishing and boating tour guides canceling trips.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have stated that toxic algal blooms will multiply as temperatures rise as a result of climate change, though the federal government says that studies are still needed to determine if algal blooms are becoming more common. Florida residents, however, remain concerned as they see the blooms extending.
“As long as the conditions that encourage bloom formation are present – nutrient pollution, high temperatures, and relatively calm waters – this threat will persist,” Mas said.