Company wants to use robots to clean up algal blooms

OKEECHOBEE — Could robots be dispatched to clean up algae?

Dyana Voss, of Marine Cleanup Initiative, visited the July 26 meeting of the Okeechobee County Commission meeting to invite the commissioners to a demonstration.

She said Lee County has already provided funding to build the robot.

“We will do a week-long trial in the Caloosahatchee River sometime in the next three weeks,” she continued.

She said they plan to go to all seven counties eligible for grant funding to clean up algae blooms.

She added that the dates for the trial have not yet been set.

She said the robot uses the algae to make synthetic diesel.

Later in the meeting, the commissioners discussed the grant funding
a $3 million grant program for local governments to clean toxic algae blooms in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries was announced by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection on Monday, July 23. Glades, Hendry, Lee, Martin, Okeechobee, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties are eligible for grants.

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein said the money is to help local communities address immediate impacts, as efforts move forward on longer-term projects. He said grant money is intended to target cleanup in significantly impacted public areas, such as marinas and boat ramps.

County administrator Robbie Chartier said there aren’t any areas of algae blooms in Okeechobee County to clean.

“It’s very interesting to me how these dollars will be used in other counties,” said. Mrs. Chartier. “There are no reports of algae in our area. I don’t see a reason to apply.”
She said there is algae in the lake, but that is not Okeechobee County’s jurisdiction.

Commissioner David Hazellief said he would rather see money be used for septic-to-sewer conversion projects to reduce the nutrient load in runoff, which feeds the algae and causes it to grow rapidly into a “bloom.”

Earlier this month, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration imagery based on data from satellite images estimated that 90 percent of Lake Okeechobee contained cyanobacteria, commonly known as “blue-green algae.” This cyanobacteria was mostly in the water column, not on the surface of the lake. More recent images have shown the cyanobacteria in the lake has decreased, with the most recent image from July 18 showing cyanobacteria in about 30 percent of the lake. Dr. Karl Havens, Florida Sea Grant director, said it is likely that the cyanobacteria reproduced rapidly because of the high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen in the water due the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Based on his decades of research on other lakes as well as his study of Lake Okeechobee, he theorized the cyanobacteria consumed all of the available nitrogen in the water and then started to die off because it was starving. He added that the original bloom could be replaced by growth of algae that has the ability to “fix” nitrogen from the air. Scientists are in a “wait and see” period for the big lake.

Dr. Havens stated the way to reduce harmful algal blooms is to clean up the watershed north of the lake, as well as the Calooshatchee and St. Lucie watersheds, to prevent excess nutrients from entering the lake and rivers. The excess nutrient load fuels the algal blooms.

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