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Judge orders engineers study Lake O water release effects on algal blooms, endangered species

Lake Okeechobee is going under the microscope to protect Florida’s endangered species and its habitat from toxic algae.

A judge ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study the impact water releases could have on manatees and other creatures.

Engineers must study the effects of lake operations on harmful algal blooms and the impact those blooms, such as blue-green algae and red tide, have on waterways such as the Caloosahatchee River and the endangered species living in and along them.

Bob Bigelow in Cape Coral spends his free time out on the water.

“Just enjoying the water is a very relaxing afternoon,” Bigelow said.

He also enjoys the marine animals he can see in the water too.

“If you go out, you know, around the barrier island you can certainly see a lot of dolphin and occasionally manatee,” Bigelow said.

In 2018, the harmful algal blooms in Southwest Florida took a toll on the wildlife many love to see.

“The beaches were just littered with tons and tons of dead sea life as a result of the red tide effect,” said John Cassani, the director of Calusa Waterkeeper. “And what synergized that was we had a blue-green algae bloom at the very same time.”

That’s why a judge asked water advocacy groups to come up with a proposal for the Army Corps to address harmful discharges from Lake O.

“I think that this is a long time coming,” said Jaclyn Lopez, the Florida director for Center for Biological Diversity. “People living in this area have observed the harm.”

The judge ordered the Corps to take toxic algae blooms into consideration through what’s called a “biological assessment,” meaning assessing the effects of lake operations on blue-green algae and red tide. At the same time, engineers must look at the impact on manatees, nesting sea turtles, wood storks and other endangered wildlife.

Once the Corps finishes its assessment, it will then share its findings with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It’s a step toward protecting water for all.

“That’s why a majority of people live here,” Bigelow said. “That’s why the boating life is as great as it is in Southwest Florida. People enjoy it.”

Reporter:Stephanie Byrne
Writer:Jack Lowenstein
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