STUART, Fla. — Toxic algae concerns and the possibility of past water quality problems of previous summers are growing in Martin County and communities along Lake Okeechobee.
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Water discharges from the lake are controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers as a way to control lake levels during the rainy season.
U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., spoke Wednesday morning about the current algae issues already hampering the Pahokee Marina.
A sample taken Monday afternoon at the marina shows the toxicity levels in the algae is more than 100 times the health advisory limit of 8 parts per billion, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County issued a health alert Wednesday near the Pahokee Marina because of the toxic algae.
Officials said the public is encouraged to use caution in and around Lake Okeechobee near the marina.
In past years, the algae caused health concerns about how toxic the algae is and whether the offensive fumes are a health concern.
Residents are reminded that exposure to toxic algae may cause gastrointestinal effects if swallowed and an irritation or rash if touched or inhaled.
Experts say swimming in water with blue-green algae blooms may cause ear, eye and skin reactions, hay fever symptoms and diarrhea.
Health officials said children and pets are particularly vulnerable, so keeping them away from the water during an algae bloom is imperative
The spring algae blooms are giving local leaders added concern with warmer weather and the rainy season only months away, which will only fuel the problem.
Currently, the Army Corps is strengthening the levee around the lake and there are plans to create an overflow reservoir for lake water.
Multiple businesses on the Treasure Coast need clean water to successfully operate, and anxiety is growing that the algae problems could be similar to the summers of 2013 and 2016.
Danny Robitaille, who owns Liquid Aloha Paddle Co. in Port Salerno, is among those worried business owners.
His industry relies heavily on the Intracoastal Waterway that gets fed by the St. Lucie River. Freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee into the river bring toxic algae into the waterway.
"When they start discharging that water, the water becomes unhealthy. I can't let runners out. I can't do tours. I can't do anything, basically shutting down 60 percent of my business," Robitaille said.
Dr. Malcolm McFarland at Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch studies the algae, the toxicity levels and the dangers.
"When you start to see these thick slicks that form on the surface this green surface slime, in those particular places, toxin levels can be really, really high, way above regulatory limits," McFarland said.
Those high toxicity levels mean irritating, foul smells and no swimming for people and pets.
"The one thing I hate doing is telling people they can't go out," Robitaille said.
McFarland said studies are still ongoing into whether the fumes are a health hazard.
"It is something dangerous to consume. You don't want it in your body, don't want to drink the water and avoid eating things that have been swimming in the water," McFarland said. "There is concern it can get in the air and be breathed in as well."
However, it is clear that the algae is a hazard to businesses that depend on the water around Stuart.
"Absolutely, we're really concerned," said Jordan Schwartz, owner of Ohana Surf Shop. "Our business has survived through the pandemic and a lot of these businesses are coming back to life, the fishermen, the surf shops, and something like this can really set us back."
It's unclear if water will be released into the St. Lucie Estuary this summer, but fears are growing.