Researchers look at impacts Irma might have had on SWFL water quality

Published: September 9, 2020 6:44 PM EDT
Updated: September 10, 2020 5:26 AM EDT

It’s been three years since Hurricane Irma hit Southwest Florida. Many community members remember what it looked like after the powerful storm made landfall.

In Irma’s aftermath, the region’s water quality suffered. It included algae blooms in our waterways and red tide on our beaches at the same time.

We spoke to researchers recently about whether there is a connection between Irma’s aftermath and the water quality issues.

John Paeno of CGT Kayaks in Bonita Springs felt the economic effects of the algae in waterways and the red tide on the beach.

“Nobody wanted to come down here,” Paeno said. “People were leaving, you know. Several of my charter boat friends, captains, left, they don’t work here anymore.”

Researchers, including Cynthia Heil with Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, looked into the possible impact Irma had on Southwest Florida’s water quality.

“Our question is well, the last two very red tide years, ’18 and ’05, have coincided with bad storm years,” Heil said. “Is there a connection?”

Through a five-year NOAA study, which is now in its early stages, researchers will consider factors that cause bad blooms and what ends them.

“We know when there was a bloom and when there wasn’t a bloom,” Heil said. “And we’re trying to link that up with our long-term record of hurricanes and storms and see if we can see relationships there.”

Mike Parsons, a professor at FGCU’s The Water School, has also explored the possible connection as well.

“We did see fairly big red tides after previous large hurricane and large rainfall events,” Parsons said. “So there may be a connection there, and it’s definitely worth trying to prepare so we can make the right measurements.”

Parsons, who sits on the state’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force, has also studied the link between Irma and the toxic blue-green algae.

“Basically, Hurricane Irma brought a lot of rain with it and so if you look at Lake Okeechobee, that raised the lake levels pretty high,” Parsons said. “It caused some significant discharges.”

And those discharges can bring nutrients from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River, nutrients that could fuel harmful algal blooms.

“There was a delay there, and part of it probably had to do with water temperature,” Parson said. “And the other part of it had to do with, there’s a lot of different algae living in the water, so which one was able to basically take advantage and conquer everything else.”

Parsons said people are working on ways to better predict where and when blue-green algal blooms will happen in the future.

Paeno sees past water quality issues and potential future problems as a major community concern.

“It’s not just the tree huggers worried about a couple of manatees,” Paeno said. “This is about our health, our safety and our economy.”