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Army Corps warns of Lake Okeechobee algae bloom

NOAA

By KIMBERLY MILLER | The Palm Beach Post | Published: July 16, 2020

(Tribune News Service) — The Army Corps of Engineers is warning of potentially harmful blue-green algae on Florida's Lake Okeechobee as NOAA satellites find about 42% of the lake ripe with a bloom.

A Tuesday image taken by the Copernicus Sentinel-3b satellite of Lake O found about 300 square miles infected with the single-celled cyanobacteria but only a sliver in the very center of the 730-square-mile lake suffering from the highest levels of concentration.

The Corps' alert, issued Wednesday, says it is possible boaters, fishermen or others near the lake may encounter blue-green algae, which can make people and animals sick if it becomes toxic. Wednesday's alert says the algae can be blue, bright green, brown or red and may have a strong odor like rotting plants.

"People who are very sensitive to smells may have respiratory irritation," the alert notes. "If you come into contact with blue-green algae, get out of the area and wash off with soap and water. See your doctor if you think blue-green algae has made you sick."

Fish caught in an area with algae should have the fillets rinsed with tap or bottled water, while shellfish should be avoided altogether.

"We know that if you ingest it, it can get in your bloodstream and cause liver damage and all sorts of other problems," said Malcolm McFarland, a research associate at Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in an October interview about the potential health effects of toxic algae. "But we haven't really known how exposed people are when they are regularly boating and fishing and how being aerosolized is a potential route of exposure to people."

It's common for blue-green algae to thrive in Lake Okeechobee during the summer months when warm water, longer days and nutrient-laden runoff from wet-season rains create ideal conditions for a bloom. It attracts less attention, however, when it's confined to the lake and not infecting the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.

With no lake water being discharged into the St. Lucie and minimal amounts going into the Caloosahatchee, blooms haven't gotten a foothold in the waterways where the ecology thrives in brackish conditions.

South Florida Water Management District governing board member Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch regularly flies over the lake looking for algae growth, and said during a July 9 meeting that the algae conditions appeared better than in June.

"That's good news," she said.

When Lake Okeechobee gets too full, threatening the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike, water is discharged to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries in amounts that dilute the salinity levels and seed the waterways with blue-green algae. In 2016 and 2018, the estuary blooms reached highly toxic levels forcing businesses to close and hurting summer tourism.

The state increased the number of algae monitoring stations in Lake Okeechobee from 6 to 32. Sampling also increased from once a month to twice monthly.

Lawrence Glenn, water resources division director at the district, said last week a handful of areas were showing higher levels of toxins, but that results fluctuated week to week.

"There is a theory that rains can disrupt the bloom," Glenn said. "We are trying to tease out factors of what might be promoting the growth."

©2020 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)
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