MARTIN COUNTY, Fla. — Businesses, organizations and communities have raised concerns over a new budget item that could fuel toxic blue-green algae.
Budget line item 146 in the bill that implements the budget (SB 2500) allots the University of Florida $250,000 to study fertilizer runoff, meaning for the next year, counties and cities are banned from changing or adding to laws that prevent algae-fueling fertilizer from dumping into Treasure Coast waterways.
"Which really hampers the ability for local governments to restrict fertilizer, especially during this wet season," Florida Oceanographic Society Executive Director Mark Perry said. We had to ask if the governor could veto, and he chose not to."
The Florida Oceanographic Society is one of 55 organizations and municipalities that asked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto the budget item.
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As of Thursday, South Florida Water Management said 90 to 95% of Lake Okeechobee is covered in blue-green algae blooms.
Perry said with so much growth and development on the Treasure Coast, adapting fertilizer regulations is key in preventing runoff from fueling even algae even more.
"We're gonna see more blooms," Perry said.
On the other hand, Malcolm McFarland, an associate research professor with Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch, said the study will help fight blue green algae in the long run by identifying long needed shortcomings.
"One of the fundamental things we need to know is where is it coming from and how much is coming from different possible sources before we can figure out what to do about it," said McFarland.
McFarland added it could be a critical first step in better addressing, and better fighting, blue-green algae in our waterways.
Still others wonder, will the long term benefits outweigh a potential lost summer because of it?
"We'll have to just wait and see," Perry said.
The concerns come as community members and advocates at a River Coalition meeting Thursday questioned the Army Corps of Engineers about releasing water from Lake Okeechobee.
Currently, with the blue-green algae as severe as it is, including blooms the size of a basketball court noted at Port Mayaca, the Army Corps of Engineers is not making any discharges from the lake east.
Florida Department of Environmental Protection samples also showed some of the algae in the lake had a microcystin toxin level of 80, which is 10 times the threshold considered harmful to humans.
However, with the lake level more than 14 feet, 2 feet higher than what's ideal during hurricane season, the Army Corps of Engineers said they'll have to discharge east if the lake rises to a critical level, which could happen with a tropical storm on the way.
"If that water comes out of Lake Okeechobee, it's going to come right down to this river here, we'd have to cancel our fishing camp," Captain Giles Murphy said of the St. Lucie River.
Murphy, a licensed captain who often runs fishing charters, owns Stuart Angler Bait and Tackle.
In the summer, he teaches a fishing camp for YMCA kids underneath the Roosevelt bridge at Flagler park.
He said it's long affected his business, his way of life, and now recently, his camp.
Lake Okeechobee almost completely covered in algae
He hopes those in charge actually make a change.
"We've had rallying going on for years and years and years, and nothing's changed," Giles said. "I'll believe it when I see it."
Tuesday, the Department of Health issued a blue-green algae alert for areas of Port Mayaca.
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.