Lake Okeechobee coverage mired in misinformation

OKEECHOBEE — Misinformation, partial truths, vague but colorful descriptions and puzzling statements plague media coverage of the second largest freshwater lake within the continental United States. Political spin by candidates for local, state and national office add to the confusion about the water released from Lake Okeechobee, and the part those releases play in the coastal blooms of cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae).

Lake Okeechobee residents and officials are tired of hearing Lake Okeechobee blamed for all of South Florida’s water issues, but they have come to expect it. One reader noted there was recently a cyanobacteria bloom in a lake in Poland and joked “how did Lake Okeechobee water get all the way over there?”

It’s not hard to find examples of articles and broadcasts that oversimplify or misrepresent the issues.

A CBS evening news story headlined “Toxic algae a slimy mess for Florida’s Lake Okeechobee,” states “The problem starts at Lake Okeechobee. After heavy rains, the Army Corps of Engineers released millions of gallons to relieve pressure on the lake’s old earthen dam. But the water is chock full of chemicals and nutrients — much of it runoff from commercial agriculture and sprawling development.”

Lake area residents argue the problem starts not with the lake, but north of the lake, where the man-made drainage system funnels the rainwater from a 2.8 million acre drainage basin quickly south into Lake Okeechobee. The water flows through the lake, not from the lake.

Before the drainage system was built, the water sheetflowed slowly over a vast floodplain, with much of the volume evaporating into the air or percolating into the earth before it reached the lake.

As for the nutrient load, “chock full” is not exactly a measurable quantity; the reporter fails to give the viewer any comparison. Would the CBS viewer be surprised to learn that the water released from the lake is lower in phosphorus than the local basin runoff that flows into the St. Lucie canal? Would that make the local basin runoff “chock fuller”?

“Sprawling development” is accurate considering the explosion of the human population in the Orlando/Kissimmee area north of the lake. But the reporter doesn’t explain where the development is.

As far as “commercial agriculture,” it’s true that farms are businesses. But why add the description “commercial”? Does the reporter really consider ranches covering thousands of acres, with a ratio of one cow/calf pair per 5 to 10 acres, held by the same families for generations, to be “commercial agriculture”? Or is that “commercial” phrase more likely bring to mind some kind of factory farming with many animals crammed into a small space? The Wikipedia definition of “commercial agriculture” is: “Intensive farming or intensive agriculture also known as industrial agriculture is characterized by a low fallow ratio and higher use of inputs such as capital and labor per unit land area.” Does that describe the agriculture north of the lake?

A Fox News report “Blue-green toxic algae invades Florida River,” stated: “Heavy May rains caused Lake Okeechobee to discharge water containing blue-green algae into rivers and canals. The bright green sludge oozed onto docks, dams and rivers.”

Does the water from the lake contain blue-green algae? Of course it does. It is well documented by university studies that a dozen types of microscopic cyanobacteria are commonly found in Lake Okeechobee and are part of the lake’s natural ecosystem. But the water leaving the lake was hardly “bright green sludge,” as implied by the TV report. Boaters have been photographing the lake all summer, and while they report an occasional feathery bloom on the surface, or windblown algae matted on a section of shoreline, for the most part the algae in the lake has not been visible to the casual observer.

The cyanobacteria concentrations and toxins were much higher in the St. Lucie canal than in the lake, per FDEP sampling. It is certainly possible that the releases from the lake seeded the blooms in the coastal waterways. (Possible, but not certain according to Dr. Karl Havens at Florida Sea Grant.) But the blooms in the coastal waterway continued to increase in concentration when the lake releases stopped for 9 days. Something besides lake water had to be feeding the algae bloom at the St. Lucie lock, nearly 24 miles from the Port Mayaca lock where lake water enters. That something, according to a study by Florida Atlantic University, is local basin runoff. In particular, the 2017 FAU study found nitrogen levels in the basin runoff much higher than the nitrogen levels in the lake water.

A New York Times report “A Toxic Tide is Killing Florida Wildlife,” states: “These blue-green algae, which appear in the lake almost every year, are promoted by stagnant water, high temperatures and nutrients from sources like fertilizers, said Christopher J. Gobler, professor of marine science at Stony Brook University.

“That lake is heavily impacted by citrus agriculture,” he said.”

While it is true that algae blooms are more likely in stagnant water, the lake water is not stagnant. The story could have explained that the stagnant water in the coastal canals promote algae blooms.

It is an interesting development that the New York Times is blaming the nutrient load in Lake Okeechobee on citrus groves. Where are the studies that document in the “heavy impact” on the lake? Perhaps it would have been more helpful if the reporter had contacted a source from a university in Florida instead of one in New York.

A Politifac.com story by Amy Sherman, posted Aug. 20, states: “A blue-green algae bloom is covering most of Lake Okeechobee, filling it with slimy toxic goop.

That’s quite an image, but not one actually seen by lake area residents and visitors.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite maps, there was a large cyanobacteria bloom in July in the lake, which later died back to 10 percent.

Another bloom — of a different species of cyanobaterica — is growing in concentration in the lake this month. The most recent NOAA images showed it in about 45 percent of the lake (not “most”). However, even at it’s highest concentration in July, the cyanobacteria was in the water column, not “covering” the lake’s surface. And eyewitnesses did not describe it as “slimy” or “goop.”

Anglers who are out on Lake Okeechobee every day — and who have been bragging about the great bass fishing on the Big O all summer — read media reports of algae blooms on the lake and shake their heads. Even when visiting the areas of the lake with the highest probability for blue-green algae concentrations according to the NOAA satellite images, they say they have not see any surface scum. The NOAA images are computer-generated using spectrums of light not visible to the human eye.

Also, the author might be interested to know that with the sole exception of one sample taken Aug. 14 near Port Mayaca which had 11 micrograms per liter of microcystin, the FDEP samplings of algae blooms in Lake Okeechobee this summer have found either no toxins or very low levels of toxins — below the 10 micrograms per liter considered safe for recreational contact by the World Health Organization.

While the New York Times put the blame on citrus, the Sarasota Herald Tribune blamed sugar farms. The article headlined “As algae slimes waterways, Ron DeSantis open to new business regulations,” states: During a campaign event Monday in Fort Meyers, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis – who is seeking the GOP nomination for governor against agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam – accused his opponent of being beholden to the sugar industry. South Florida sugar farms are blamed for contributing to fertilizer runoff in the lake that helps fuel the algae blooms.”

It is true the “sugar farms are blamed” by some people. But the article does not give the reader any information to determine if the blame is warranted. The sugar farms are south of the lake, and according to SFWMD data, water from south of the lake (backpumped only in emergencies to prevent flooding in the cities south of the lake) contributes less than 5 percent of the nutrient load going into Lake Okeechobee each year.

Perhaps the reporters have mistaken the 2016 video images of algae blooms in Treasure Coast waterways with the Lake Okeechobee algae bloom. Perhaps they are just repeating each other instead of reading the extensive research available from the University of Florida and Florida Atlantic University. Perhaps they should visit Lake Okeechobee to see the lake for themselves.

Search for the truth about Lake Okeechobee

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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