There’s more to the story: Invasion of the Algae Megabloom

OKEECHOBEE — It’s like a horror movie from the 1950s … a tiny, harmless-looking organism experiences something that turns it into a dangerous blob that keeps growing.

The algae outbreak at the St. Lucie River, June 27, 2016. Photo, courtesy Earthjustice.

The algae outbreak at the St. Lucie River, June 27, 2016. Photo, courtesy Earthjustice.

The Treasure Coast Algal Megabloom has people afraid, confused and angry.

And like in the movies, the angry mob wants someone to blame.

Enter Lake Okeechobee.

Where did it come from?

The story starts with the algae.

According to the South Florida Water Management District and Florida Department of Environmental Protection, algae is present in freshwater throughout Florida. This year, the Treasure Coast areas on Florida’s Atlantic coastline experienced a massive algal bloom.

But what happened and why?

Some of the algae that grew into a massive bloom is believed to have come from Lake Okeechobee. Those who enjoy boating on the Big O know that Lake Okeechobee algal blooms are commonplace. And the lake, with an area of more than 700 square miles, is so big that even a large bloom like the 33-square-mile bloom documented in May or the 200-square-mile bloom reported in early July, can’t even be seen from shore.

From an aerial photo it might look fairly close to shore, but the lake is 40 miles across. When viewing the photos, consider the scale.

When a bloom is reported, DEP collects samples to determine what type of algae is present. But monitoring the event is the extent of their involvement.

According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s (FDEP) publication “Freshwater Algal Booms,”: “Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, is a type of algae found naturally in freshwater environments. This algae is a micro-organism that functions like a plant in that it feeds through photosynthesis and derives its energy from the sun. Blue-green algae can be found all over the world, and occurs in Florida’s freshwater and brackish habitats, such as lakes, rivers and estuaries. Hot weather makes the algae bloom.”

Local fisherman say it’s not unusual to see blooms when the weather gets warm. The problem is when a large algae bloom dies, the decomposition takes dissolved oxygen out of the water column and if fish can’t get out of the way in time, they die.

So far this year, there have not been any fish kills reported on the lake. Quite the contrary, local fishermen report catching big bass in record numbers.

The lake is also home to other fish and wildlife — with frequent sightings of herons, ducks, eagles and manatees.

Manatees go back and forth from the lake to the Rim Canal so often that “manatee protection devices” were installed on the locks to prevent manatees from being crushed when the lock gates close.

This summer there have been no problems reported with any of the wildlife species that make the Big O and its shores their home.

“Some — not all — blue-green algae can produce toxins that can contribute to environmental problems and affect public health,” the FDEP publication explains. “Little is known about exactly what environmental conditions trigger toxin production. Over time, these toxins are diluted and eventually break down and disappear.”

DEP documented an algal bloom in the lake in May.

Water has been released from the lake to both the east and west coasts since then. Even though the blooms were more than a mile from the locks, biologists say it’s safe to assume there was algae in the water.

The early warnings

Even before the lake releases, some algae was already in the St. Lucie waterway — just as algae is in the water column of most freshwater in Florida, according to FDEP.

SFWMD records show the Treasure Coast has experienced algal blooms during years that NO lake water was released to the east. Most recently, this happened in 2014.

Still, releases of water from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie waterway likely carried some algae from the big lake into that system, according to algae expert Dr. Brian LaPointe of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI).

Dr. Brian LaPointe

Dr. Brian LaPointe

His role in the story started long before the current bloom.

Long before the green slime made the nightly television news, his team of researchers tried to warn people about the potential danger of algal blooms fed by the pollution from the septic tanks and sewage systems in the Indian River Lagoon basin.

But the scientific data got little attention.

A few articles in area newspapers covered the release of the HBOI study last year, and there was some discussion in online blogs, but a technical scientific report apparently wasn’t interesting to the TV media, who largely ignored it.

What made the algal growth explode?

In recent months, Lake Okeechobee area residents who saw pictures of the Treasure Coast algal megabloom on television and the internet found it hard to believe it could be the same algae that is found in Lake Okeechobee.
In the lake, even when a large bloom is present, the algae looks translucent and feathery. It’s usually patchy — not the thick solid neon green mass depicted in the images of the St. Lucie area on the television news.

In the Big O, algae comes and goes — showing up, disappearing, showing up somewhere else — wherever the wind blows it. It doesn’t clump into large balls or make thick mats. The pictures of the algal bloom in the Indian River Lagoon and the Treasure Coast shoreline looked like something completely alien from anything our fishermen and boating enthusiasts see in Lake Okeechobee.

While the nutrients in the water from the lake combined with the hot summer weather were enough to cause the algae to bloom in the lake, something in the lagoon apparently made algae growth explode into a “megabloom.”

“This is algae,” quipped a local fisherman referring to algae commonly seen on the lake.

“This is algae on crack,” he added, in reference to photos from the St, Lucy estuary area.

What made the algae grow so fast, so thick, so out-of-control?

According to the HBOI study, the high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus already present in that waterway contribute to rapid algae bloom. HBOI research linked those high concentrations of nutrients to sewage plants and hundreds of thousands of septic tanks that serve the 1.7 million people who live in the Indian River Lagoon watershed.

According to SFWMD data released July 14, between 2011 and 2015, local basin runoff — including water from septic systems, as well as runoff into the C-44 canal from farms and residential areas — accounted for 79 percent of the total nitrogen load and 87 percent of the total phosphorous load in the St. Lucie basin.

Those numbers are similar to studies done by the University of Florida and by HBOI.

Water from Lake Okeechobee enters the C-44 canal at Port Mayaca. From there, as it travels the 23 miles to the St. Lucie Lock and the additional 15 miles from the St. Lucie Lock to the lagoon, it mixes with local runoff that flows directly into the C-44 canal.

By testing the lake water as it enters the C-44 at Port Mayaca, and testing the water entering the lagoon from the C-44, researchers can tell how much of the nutrient load comes from the lake water.

The pundits counter: If the nutrient levels are already high, why doesn’t algae grow there all the time?

According to FDEP, salinity levels and heat affect algae growth. Releases of freshwater from the lake, combined with freshwater runoff from record rainfall into the local watershed during a very wet “dry” season, lowered the salinity level.

The biggest problem with the Lake Okeechobee releases have to do with lowering the salinity in the estuaries, not nutrient load, say the scientists.

When the summer temperatures soared, the conditions were ripe for a perfect storm of an algal bloom.

Low salinity + algae + hot weather + phosphorus + nitrogen = algal bloom.

In 2013, when releases from Lake Okeechobee were blamed for an algal bloom in the Caloosahatchee estuary, noted limnologist Dr. Dan Canfield with the University of Florida. He said the problem was the excess freshwater which lowered the salinity.

“It’s the fresh water that’s causing the problem. The water is not high enough in salinity,” Dr. Canfield explained in an Okeechobee interview published Oct. 20, 2013.

‘Clean it north?’

Lake Okeechobee is a living ecosystem with a thriving fishery. But the lake is in danger.

Thanks to the results of a century of man-made ditching, dredging and draining, the health of the Big O is threatened by inflows of water with high phosphorus levels — well above the target range recommended by FDEP.

Most of the water entering the lake comes from the Kissimmee River basin.

Since the 1980s, state agencies have struggled with the problem of reducing the phosphorus load in water entering the lake.

In the early 1980s, a good percentage of the phosphorus load was believed to come from dairy farms north of Lake Okeechobee. In 1987, restrictions on the amount of phosphorus in runoff from dairy farms forced most of the dairies out of the basin. Those that remained are required to keep the runoff on their property, using retention ponds and spray fields to hold, clean and recycle the water.

Unfortunately, it turned out that destroying most of Okeechobee County’s dairy industry — and putting hundreds of people out of work in the process — did not make a significant impact in reducing the phosphorus in water coming into the lake.

The drainage basin includes the Orlando/Kissimmee urban area as well as ranches, orange groves, farms, RV parks and homes between Orlando and the Big Lake. There is also phosphorus naturally occurring in the soil, and “legacy” phosphorus left in the watershed from previous years.

At the top of the watershed, the Orlando/Kissimmee urban area has grown dramatically. The Greater Orlando area is home to more than 2 million people and attracts millions of visitors. According to Visit Orlando, more than 62 million people visited Orlando in 2014, a new all-time record for the U.S. travel industry.

According to data presented by FDEP researchers at Lake Okeechobee Basin Management Plan (BMAP) meetings, the faster the water flows south from the Kissimmee River Basin into the lake, the higher the nutrient load in that water. When the water moves more slowly, there is time for solids to settle out and for vegetation in the floodplain to clean the water by absorbing some of the nutrients.

In the 2013 interview, Dr. Canfield also explained that some of the phosphorus entering the lake is from the soil. Dr. Canfield pointed out that high phosphorus levels in the Harney Pond area are due to natural phosphate deposits.

“When they dug canals, they put all that stuff up and it leaches back into the water,” he explained.

The target phosphorus load for Lake Okeechobee is 40 ppb (parts per billion), but water entering the lake has higher phosphorus levels — sometimes up to four times higher — especially when the flow is rapid.
Reports presented at the BMAP hearings indicated that the key to reducing the phosphorus loading lies in slowing the flow of water and cleaning it in water treatment areas north of the Big O.

At the April 16, 2013, Lake Okeechobee BMAP meeting at the SFWMD office in Okeechobee, FDEP’s Frank Nearhoof said the key to reducing the excess phosphorus entering the lake is slowing the flow of water into the lake from the north.

“If we can’t detain this flow, we are doomed to failure,” he said.

Projects under way

According to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public affairs specialist Jenn Miller, some projects are already under way and others planned to store and clean water before it enters the lake.

“The Lake Okeechobee Watershed project, which we will be initiating later this month, will identify opportunities to increase storage north of Lake Okeechobee,” she explained. “Since planning efforts are just about to begin, it is premature to try to quantify how much storage the project will ultimately provide, but if you look in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), which serves as the framework for our CERP projects, it projected that approximately 280,000 acre-feet of storage could be available through components we’re looking at as part of the Lake Okeechobee Watershed project.”

Additionally, she explained, when the Kissimmee River Restoration Project is completed, a new headwaters regulation schedule will allow the project to provide up to 130,000 acre feet of temporary storage.

“Since water can only be stored temporarily, the project will act more like a buffer than a reservoir, but nonetheless, it will help slow down the flow of water from the Kissimmee Basin entering into Lake Okeechobee,” she explained.

No need to start making “buy the land, clean it north” signs just yet.

Much of the land needed for those projects already belongs to the state. Some of it was obtained by eminent domain from unwilling sellers. The problem has never been the state’s ability or inability to purchase real estate. The problem has been lack of funding for the projects themselves.

And now for the twist …

Monster movie fans know there is always a twist at the end of the story.
In this story, it’s a classic case of vanquishing the obvious “villain” only to discover a bigger threat.

Early in the story, those who were paying attention to the scientists figured out that Lake Okeechobee discharges were just part of the problem.

But some people were still feeling good about throwing blame on “Big Sugar.”

Then the Corps of Engineers officials pointed out that sugar cane fields are south of the lake.

Backpumping of water from agricultural areas into the lake from the south was banned years ago thanks to a lawsuit filed by EarthJustice. The small towns on the south side of the Big O are allowed to backpump for flood control — as in to keep floodwaters out of their homes and businesses.

The water coming in from the south end accounts for only about 6 percent of the nitrogen entering the lake, according to the Jan. 4, 2016 SFWMD report.

So what’s the most treacherous of the hidden dangers?

There are plenty of possibilities — septic tanks, landspreading of treated sewage, digging in areas where natural phosphates occur, the unregulated use of class AA “dry” sludge as fertilizer or even something yet undiscovered.

A May 20, 2016, report in “Florida Today,” headlined “Is sludge also sickening the lagoon?” pointed out the potential danger from the landspreading of residuals from sewage plants and septic tanks.

Quoted in that article, Gary Roderick, an environmental consultant from Martin County and former county and state environmental administrator, called sewage sludge: “The 5,000-pound gorilla that’s not saying anything right in the middle of the room.”

The article pointed out that no one knows how much class AA sludge is spread in the lagoon watershed and eventually winds up feeding algae blooms.

In 2010, the Florida Legislature made the issue even harder to track when new state rules left unregulated this most treated, driest form of sludge, in cases when it’s mixed with mulch and marketed and distributed as fertilizer.

Unless all of the contributing factors are addressed, South Florida can expect to see sequels to “Invasion of the Algal Superbloom.”

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

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