STUART, Fla. — The Army Corps of Engineers announced Tuesday a Lake Okeechobee wet season strategy as concern mounts over the level of blue-green algae blanketing the lake.
The Florida Department of Health issued health alerts for three locations along the lake in Palm Beach County. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection showed 85% to 90% of the lake is covered with blue-green algae, with 34 out of 42 samples taken from the lake testing positive for microcystin toxins.
One toxic sample was found in the St. Lucie River and at Port Mayaca. One sample taken on June 20 showed a microcystin toxin level of 233 micrograms/L, which is 29 times the level considered harmful to humans.
"It's thick. It's bad, and if they open those gates it's coming," Mark Perry, the executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society, said.
While the Army Corps of Engineers is not currently discharging east, Perry said discharges are fully possible later this summer with the lake at 14.5 feet., which is 2 feet higher than the Army Corps said they aimed for it to be at the start of hurricane season.
"[It is] almost a foot and a half higher than where we were last year," added Perry,
He said just one tropical storm could raise the lake by 3 to 4 feet, forcing discharges.
Perry said it would help if the Corps began its new water release schedule, called LOSOM, which will send more water south to the Everglades instead of into the Caloosahatchee and St Lucie Rivers.
"For the east coast, we'd have zero discharges at this elevation," Perry said. "We'd be in much better shape if LOSOM was in place."
Lake Okeechobee water levels higher than normal
LOSOM was originally supposed to take effect in June of this year, but its release was postponed to at least December due to water treatment delays and concern about the new schedule's effect on red tide and endangered sea turtles.
"So now we're at a place we have to wait for LOSOM," Perry said.
Col. James Booth, the commander for the Jacksonville District of the Army Corps, said he is sending some water south to the Everglades, just not as much as they'd like.
A spokesperson told WPTV that earlier this month about 4.2 million acres feet of water was sent to the Everglades since 2020.
"It's some, but it's not a lot," Perry said.
Booth also said this year that the strengthened Herbert Hoover Dike holds more water, meaning the Corps can wait longer before having to release due to critical water levels.
In addition, Booth said he will monitor the situation and make discharge decisions weekly.
"While I can't promise that there won't be high releases later this year due to the inherent uncertainty of Mother Nature, we will do our best to avoid them if possible," Booth said in his strategy.
It's an issue personal for Capt. Giles Murphy, a fisherman and owner of Stuart Angler Bait & Tackle.
"Clean my river," Giles, whose business is on the line if blue-green algae seep into the St. Lucie River, said. "Our sales get cut in half when they're dumping water, and people come in here and that's all they talk about, 'How's the water?' and 'I hear it's getting polluted. Is it safe to eat stuff out of the river?' And I say, 'No, it's not actually.'"
Giles said he appreciates the efforts to mitigate the problem but said he'll believe there's a change on the way when he sees one.
"We just really need a change, you know? It's too much of an asset in Florida to put it on hold," Giles said.
Giles also teaches a fishing camp for kids at the YMCA of the Treasure Coast. Their last camp is this Friday. He said he hopes the algae doesn't affect that camp or any in the future.
The Department of Health cited these three locations as having toxic blue-green algae:
Because of the algae, residents and visitors are advised to take the following precautions:
- Do not drink, swim, wade, use personal watercraft, water ski or boat in waters where there is a visible bloom.
- Wash your skin and clothing with soap and water if you have contact with algae or discolored or smelly water.
- Keep pets away from the area. Waters where there are algae blooms are not safe for animals. Pets and livestock should have a different source of water when algae blooms are present.
- Do not cook or clean dishes with water contaminated by algae blooms. Boiling the water will not eliminate the toxins.
- Eating fillets from healthy fish caught in freshwater lakes experiencing blooms is safe. Rinse fish fillets with tap or bottled water, throw out the guts and cook fish well.
- Do not eat shellfish in waters with algae blooms.