PORT MAYACA, Fla. — Buckle up: it could be a rough summer.
At least, that's what Mark Perry, the executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society is forecasting.
According to the latest report from South Florida Water Management (SFWM), 85-90% of Lake Okeechobee is covered with blue-green algae blooms, with 13 of the 22 samples testing positive for microcystin toxins.
"It's very, very concerning that we're already into this, and it's only the beginning of June," Perry said.
The blooms come while South Florida was under a heat advisory Wednesday with the WPTV First Alert Weather team forecasting triple-digit temperatures.
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Perry said the heat, along with the excess nutrients funneling into the lake, will likely increase the level of algae.
"This blue-green algae is gonna bloom and grow. We're seeing big blooms, over 400 square miles," Perry said. "We'll see it sooner and have longer duration, probably. That's unfortunate because, as you said, we're in the triple digits with the heat index and as the water's getting warmer, the warm water and sunlight conditions, those nutrients being in there is just going to continue to promote that algae to continue to bloom."
According to SFWM, blooms the size of a basketball court were seen at Port Mayaca, with WPTV's news crew spotting dark green waters washing ashore.
"It doesn't look good," Perry said.
It's a concern for Ed Stout too, the owner of South River Outfitters in Stuart.
Stout has already had to completely change his business model because of blue-green algae.
"We don't rent anymore, we have just decided to discontinue that from our business because of the algae," Stout said.
Stout said he dropped rentals three years ago, but before that, rentals accounted for half his revenue. Thanks to blue-green algae, it's no longer profitable.
"Every year in the summertime we're having to discontinue use of the river, and it just doesn't pay to use the river half the year," Stout said.
Thankfully, his kayak sales have kept him in business, but if the river shuts down as it has in years past, even that could take a hit.
"I have a pretty good faith that we'll still be here," Stout said. "It will affect my business, but we're ready for it."
Perry said we could very well see the rivers shut down.
Currently, the Army Corps of Engineers is not releasing any water from the lake into the St. Lucie River or estuary because of the algae.
Col. James Booth, the Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville district commander, said Friday that Lake Okeechobee currently sits at 14 feet. That's about two feet higher than where they'd like it to be during hurricane season.
Here’s a look at the blue green algae at Port Mayaca on Lake Okeechobee. South Florida Water Management says 85-90% of the Lake is covered in blooms, with 13 samples being toxic. We’re checking what this means for the rest of the summer & why lake levels matter. pic.twitter.com/Qn74bWd6Ft— Kate Hussey (@katehussey8) June 14, 2023
Booth said Friday that if lake levels continue to rise to a critical level, which he said is around 16.5 feet, the Corps will have to discharge water — whether there's algae or not.
"Those releases would bring all that fresh water right to this system," Perry said. "Not good. Not good.”
Booth did say what's helping is the Herbert Hoover Dike. Now that it's been strengthened, it can hold more water, leading to reduced water releases to the east.
Booth told WPTV on Friday he doesn't know how significant or how frequent those discharges would be if the Corps does have to release water to the east to lower the lake, but said it would depend on Mother Nature, and how much the lake would need to be lowered.
The concern comes as LOSOM, the new water release schedule to send water south instead of east and west, will not take effect until December 2023 or January 2024 because of delays.