OKEECHOBEE — Record rainfall in May and continuing heavy rains this month are causing ecological damage, according to a report given by South Florida Water Management District Water Resources Director Terrie Bates at the June 14 meeting of the SFWMD Governing Board. Algae found in the St. Lucie watershed is coming from many sources, not just Lake Okeechobee, she said.
“The perception that there is this huge channel of the algae coming from the lake isn’t correct,” she said.
She said there are other sources of algae coming into the estuary from the local watershed.
The watershed that drains into the canals and waterways that discharge though the St. Lucie Estuary received over 450 percent of normal rainfall in May, she said.
“All of the area, when you have 450 percent of normal rainfall, everything has discharged into the estuary system, every canal, every stormwater pond,” she continued. Algae is commonly present in all freshwater, and it tends to grow faster in stagnant water. The heavy rainfall in May flushed out ponds and canals into the drainage system that goes into the St. Lucie estuary.
She said there is even algae in the storm water pond at the SFWMD main office. “We’ve got blue-green algae in the storm water pond. It fills up; it discharges. It’s going to the C-51 canal,” she said.
“The lake jumped very rapidly in the course of a month. It has gone up about a foot and a quarter,” said Ms. Bates. “All of the effects around the system ecologically, the lake is feeling the same thing.”
On June 1, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started discharging water from Lake Okeechobee east to the St. Lucie and west to the Caloosahatchee, she continued.
“The discharge to the estuaries for the last week, about a third of the flow coming into the St. Lucie estuary were from Lake Okeechobee. We’re still having significant discharges coming from those local basins and tidal tributaries,” she said.
Even before any discharges started from Lake Okeechobee, the estuary had already been completely overloaded with freshwater, she said.
“Now the lake is contributing to continuing those low salinity levels,” she said.
On the Caloosahatchee side, about 50 percent of the freshwater flow going to the estuary is coming from Lake Okeechobee. She said the dark water plume seen on the Gulf Coast has to do with the tannin that is in the water from the Calooshatchee.
She said any time there is an algal bloom there are concerns about the potential for toxins. Not all algae produces toxins, and algae that can produce toxins does not always do so. There are many factors involved.
“You can have algae that exists throughout the system that is not toxic,” said Ms. Bates.
She said toxins have been detected in two samples but at such low levels it is barely detectable. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, toxin levels have been less than 1 part per billion. The World Health Organization considers levels under 10 ppb to be safe.
She said satellite imagery shows very little algae in Lake Okeechobee. Algae is buoyant and moves with the wind, she explained. So you might see it one day and it is gone the next.
Board member Brandon Tucker, who represents St. Lucie, Martin, Palm Beach, Broward, Dade and Monroe counties, said he knows that in some areas of central Martin County that drain into the C-44 canal were inundated with 2 feet of freshwater in May.
“The issues that we are seeing right now that are being talked about with any algae signatures on the south Fork of the St. Lucie, I would assume that is from local basin rain runoff,” he said.
“This is not a Lake Okeechobee issue,” said Mr. Tucker. “This is a local basin runoff issue.
He said they need to do more with Aquifer Storage and Recovery Wells to slow local basin runoff into the St. Lucie. They also need to deal with the pollution from septic tanks in that basin to reduce the nutrient pollution to those waterways, he added.
“We need to be doing everything we can do in our local communities to deal with low-hanging fruit,” he explained.
“If the EAA (Everglades Agricultural Area) reservoir were built and working today, it would have had no effect on what we saw in the St. Lucie basin,” he said.
“We need solutions now, in the Caloosahatchee, in the St. Lucie, to deal with these big rain events.”
At the June 14 meeting, Ms. Bates shared an image that was credited to T.C. Palm. She explained the image, which was taken of the C-44 canal about 10 miles east of Lake Okeechobee shows algae flowing south into the C-44 canal from a smaller ‘dead end’ canal.
U.S. Rep. Brian Mast has invited the Army Corps of Engineers to swim in the St. Lucie River’s “increasingly toxic water.”
The Palm City Republican called for Lake Okeechobee discharges east to the St. Lucie River and west to the Caloosahatchee River to end immediately, he wrote in a letter Thursday to Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite, the Corps’ commanding general.
“You are leaving our community to die,” Mast told Semonite, referring to the lake’s polluted freshwater discharges that carry toxic algae to the St. Lucie River.
“If you think this is hyperbole,” Mast continued, “then I’m extending an open invitation to the leadership team at the Army Corps to stand by your policy: Come to Stuart, Florida, for a swim in our increasingly toxic water.
“If you feel the water is acceptable for our children to play in, for us to fish in and for our endangered animals to live in, then it should be good enough for you to swim in also.”
Algae blooms on the Treasure Coast may be spreading outside Martin County,
A viewer sent us a video of what appears to blue-green algae in the Fort Pierce area.
Jordan Schwartz at Ohana Surf Shop bought the Ohana Bus after the 2016 algae crisis so he could take customers out of town for paddleboard lessons when the water is not so great.
“14 people at a time,” said Jordan as he showed us the bus.
So with all the algae popping up recently, he decided to take his crew up to Fort Pierce Tuesday.
“Find some clean water to go paddle board,” said Schwartz.
He instead found algae.
“It’s very disappointing for people visiting Florida for the first time,” said Schwartz.
Jim Sullivan at FAU Harbor Branch says he’d be surprised if this algae came from Lake Okeechobee Discharges.
He says local runoff is an issue as well.
“The algae doesn’t only grow in Lake Okeechobee. It will grow in any fresh water body that has enough nutrients and light for it to grow,” said Sullivan.
Jordan says he’s at the point where he’s thinking about packing up and moving.
“It’s disheartening and it makes it tough to do business on the Treasure Coast,” said Schwartz.