Blue-green algae growth forces state to issue another emergency order

Seven counties, including Palm Beach County, were named in a sweeping emergency order issued Monday that increases monitoring of blue-green algae and cuts red tape that could delay mitigation of its harmful spread.

It’s the second emergency order issued by Gov. Rick Scott in two weeks regarding the cyanobacteria, and follows an unusual 10 p.m. Sunday announcement by the Army Corps that put a lid on Lake Okeechobee discharges while engineers search for other ways to reduce lake water levels.

Included with Monday’s order are demands for the state Department of Health to increase community outreach, including adding signs warning of algae, and a mandate for Florida’s official tourism group to step up communication with local businesses.

Scott issued the order after touring areas on the Caloosahatchee River infected by the vibrant green goo. Counties covered by the order, which also include Martin, St. Lucie, Lee, Glades, Hendry and Okeechobee, already are seeing the algae spread or may be at risk.

Lake O releases may have to resume later this week

The Corps’ late Sunday message suspending lake discharges was marked “urgent” and came after all signs Friday pointed to the continued flow of lake water into the Caloosahatchee River and a resumption of flows into the St. Lucie Estuary, which had been paused for nine days.

With the lake at 14.44 feet above sea level, the pause in discharges is temporary. Jacksonville District Commander Col. Jason Kirk said the Corps “will likely have to resume releases later in the week to reduce the flood risk that a rising lake presents to people living and working around it.”

>>RELATED: One tropical system can push Lake O over the edge

Some residents are skeptical the respite will have much affect on the algae blooms, and called the decision to stall discharges politically motivated.

“This massive water quality issue is framing the campaign. It’s just so obvious,” said John Cassani, whose group Calusa Waterkeeper is a member of the national nonprofit Waterkeeper Alliance. “Perhaps Rick Scott’s legacy on environmental policy is creating some problems.”

Scott is hoping to take the U.S. Senate seat that has been held by Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson for 18 years. Scott has repeatedly criticized the federal government for dawdling and shortchanging Florida when it comes to Everglades restoration.

Many lawmakers weigh in on algae

John Capece, a regional director for the Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida, challenged Scott’s record on environmental protection after the Monday tour.

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“He slashed the Department of Environmental Protection’s budget, eliminated the DEP’s ability to enforce their protection mandates, drastically reduced key local planning requirements, and spent years vehemently fighting water quality standards,” Capece said in a statement.

But many lawmakers are weighing in on the algae issue. U.S. Rep. Brian Mast toted a jar of algae scooped from the St. Lucie River to the floor of the House last month. Mast said in a letter to the Corps on Monday that the safety of his constituents on the Treasure Coast has been “systemically ignored and deprioritized.”

On Sunday, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking him to order the Corps to consider the harmful algae blooms when making decisions about releasing lake water.

>>PHOTOS: Toxic algae spreads along beaches in 2016

Nelson spent time last week in Stuart and Fort Myers discussing the algae concerns and spoke on the Senate floor Monday about his request that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide “emergency assistance” to research the long-term health risks of blue-green algae.

Corps spokesman John Campbell said he doesn’t have details about the Sunday discussions that led to the late-night announcement, but there were “certainly a number of conversations here in Jacksonville, Atlanta and in Washington.”

“Collectively, the decision was made to do a very thorough assessment and review of operations of Lake Okeechobee and the entire central and southern Florida system,” Campbell said. “It’s stuff we do fairly routinely, but we’re having additional eyes take a look to ensure we have identified every option we have.”

Releasing fresh lake water into the brackish estuaries reduces salinity levels, giving cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, a better environment to grow. Lake Okeechobee is also suffering its own algae bloom this summer, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration saying last week about 90 percent of the lake was showing concentrations of cyanobacteria.

A new storm could be problematic for Lake O

“If they let go of more water, we are just going to get clobbered with more green algae,” said Tom Nolin, the maintenance man at Riverland Marina in Stuart. “Who wants to go boating in a slime-covered river.”

The Corps prefers to keep the lake between 12.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level, but one tropical system can quickly push the lake to levels that can cause the Herbert Hoover Dike to erode and leak.

Rainfall from September’s Hurricane Irma caused Lake Okeechobee to gain three feet in a month, pushing it to 17.16 feet in October, which was a 12-year high.

“We have to assume there is a storm out there on no one’s radar that could make the lake rise that much again,” Campbell said.

The Corps said Thursday that $514.2 million is earmarked to speed repairs of the dike. An overall $17.4 billion in funding for the Corps includes additional money for beach restoration and coastal flood control in Florida.

RELATED: Septic tanks contributing factor for Treasure Coast water woes

Increasing the dike’s structural integrity could allow it to hold more water and help reduce discharges, but higher water levels could also hurt the ecology of the lake.

Raymond Iglesias, general manager at Roland Martin Marina in Clewiston, said he’s heard few people talking about reducing or slowing the flows coming into the lake from the north through the Kissimmee basin.

He thinks stopping the discharges was a mistake.

“It’s easier to blame Lake Okeechobee than Mickey Mouse,” Iglesias said referring to the runoff that comes from agriculture and suburbs north of the lake. “If they store more water in the lake, they will kill the liquid heart of the Everglades. Then what?”

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