Who’s to blame for algae mess? Experts say urban growth, not Lake O

Pollution from population growth and urban development — not water releases from Lake Okeechobee — is the primary cause of the foul-smelling slime turning many waterways in Martin County a bright blue-green, an expert in algae blooms said Thursday.

Still, in response to mounting outcry over massive water releases from Lake Okeechobee, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Thursday said it planned to reduce the amount of lake water it sends to the St. Lucie Estuary and Caloosahatchee River.

Beginning today, the Corps said it would cut releases into the St. Lucie Estuary to 756 million gallons per day — a 35 percent drop from Thursday’s level when the discharges totaled roughly 1.1 billion gallons per day. Water releases into the Caloosahatchee River on the west coast of the state also will be reduced, the Corps said.

Gov. Rick Scott also took action late Thursday, extending a previously declared state of emergency for the algae bloom for Martin and St. Lucie counties to include Palm Beach and Lee counties. That's in addition to a Wednesday local state of emergency declaration made by Martin County officials.

“It has been a challenging year for South Florida,” Col. Jason Kirk, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District Commander said in a statement released Thursday. “Our water managers have dealt with such large quantities of rain and runoff entering the lake that it would cover the entire state of Delaware in 2 feet of water. However, after visiting with local elected officials in Martin County yesterday and viewing the algae firsthand, we felt compelled to take action, even though we need to remain vigilant in managing the level of Lake Okeechobee.”

Brian LaPointe, an expert in algae blooms and a research professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, questioned whether slowing the discharges would help much. He said septic tanks, sewage systems and other nutrient-laden pollutants have fueled the widespread algae blooms invading Martin County waters.

“It is not the lake,” LaPointe said Thursday. “It is really the human activities on the watershed. The algae is just the ecological response to excess nutrients. Lake Okeechobee is easy to point your finger at, but the reality is that it is coming from many, many sources.”

On Wednesday, the South Florida Water Management District issued a news release that also made the same argument.

The release, which included the headline “Myth versus Fact,” detailed the district’s response to the algae outbreak. The district said the idea that Lake Okeechobee is the sole cause of blue-green algae is a myth, adding that the blooms have occurred in years when there were no lake releases.

“The nutrients and fresh water that can fuel growth of naturally occurring blue-green algae also comes from local stormwater runoff and septic tanks,” the district wrote in the release.

Also called cyanobacteria, the algae are caused by tiny organisms naturally found in water. It sometimes produces toxins that can cause health problems in humans and pets.

The blooms are fueled by warm weather and by water enriched with nutrients, such as those found in septic tanks and stagnant water. There is no effective treatment to stop the algae or remove it from the water.

The algae were first discovered last month in Lake Okeechobee. Since then, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection has been monitoring blooms across the Treasure Coast and South Florida.

Martin County residents have blamed the blue-green algae outbreak on nutrient-rich water releases from Lake Okeechobee.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the earthen dike around the lake, has been flushing lake water down the St. Lucie Estuary and Caloosahatchee River since last year because high water levels in the lake threaten the fragile dike around it.

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson called on the Corps to route the lake water to the south rather than to the east. Nelson met in Martin County with officials and the media at a marina where the water was thick with the algae.

The stench of the algae forced reporters to cover their noses; some wore paper masks.

“You’re smelling the rotting algae,” Nelson said at the dock. “If you put too many nutrients into the water, this is what’s going to happen.”

The long-term fix is that “you have to reverse the diking and draining that occurred over three-quarters of a century,” Nelson said.

“The short-term fix here so that we stop the algae bloom in the St. Lucie is that you hold the water back from going into the lake on the north side of the lake, and release as much water as you can, without polluting the Everglades, to the south. That’s what we’re trying to get the Corps of Engineers to do on a temporary basis,” the senator said.

Bill Louda, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University’s chemistry department, said diverting water south into the Everglades would be devastating.

“They can’t or they’ll kill the Everglades,” Louda said.

LaPointe agreed.

“There are a number of reasons why you can’t send that volume of water south,” LaPointe said. “It would have very damaging effects on the Everglades and Florida Bay.”

Instead, LaPointe said legislators should focus on regulations for septic tanks and require sewage treatment facilities to reduce the amount of nitrogen in the effluent. Water contamination caused by sewage and septic tanks is like “MiracleGro” for the algae, allowing the blooms to rapidly expand, he said.

“This is something that our Legislature in Tallahassee really needs to get ahold of,” LaPointe said. “They really need some leadership up there to realize that Florida’s economic future really depends on us controlling this problem and getting ahead of this.”

Tequesta resident Marvin Steiding, who runs Reel Candy Sportfishing Charters, has seen the economic damage firsthand. The company is normally completely booked for the Fourth of July holiday, but Steiding said business has slowed as news of the algae blooms has spread. Some customers, he said, have been reluctant to book charters because of concerns about the water quality.

“Almost 30 percent of my calls are people are concerned about the water and whether the fish are good to eat,” he said. “It is definitely affecting business.”

The state declaration of emergency gave South Florida water managers the authority to reduce the amount of water flowing into Lake Okeechobee from the north, ultimately allowing the Corps to send less water to the St. Lucie Estuary and Caloosahatchee River, officials said.

The change also calls for release into the St. Lucie Estuary to be in a pulselike manner to mimic rainfall, replacing the continuous flow of water that was being sent through the St. Lucie Lock near Stuart.

“This should bring some degree of relief to the estuaries,” Kirk said.

On Thursday, the lake stood at 14.9 feet, up more than a foot since May 17 when it hit its lowest level of the year.

Staff writer Eliot Kleinberg contributed to this story.

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