Environmental groups ask DeSantis to declare state of emergency over Lake O algal blooms

Some Florida groups concerned about water quality are asking Gov. Ron DeSantis to declare a state of emergency over algal blooms.

“Harmful algal blooms are again threatening public health, local economies and ecosystems of Florida. Lake Okeechobee has become the Florida epicenter of algal blooms, and discharge of these toxic blooms from the Lake is contaminating the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers and associated waterways,” states a May 8 letter to the governor.

The groups cite recent health alerts warning of blue-green algae in the Okeechobee Waterway, Lake Worth Lagoon and other water bodies in South Florida. There was also a presence of the toxin microcystin, produced by blue-green algae, in Lake Okeechobee, which feeds the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

“The request is an effort to get out in front of what could potentially be a very calamitous situation here in the near future,” said Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani. “The bloom on Lake Okeechobee has been as spacious as 300 square miles. We’ve seen toxin concentrations over 100 times the EPA recreational guideline.”

DeSantis said during a press conference Monday afternoon in Hobe Sound that the water in Lake O is simply too high. He said his administration has dedicated billions to the environment, but you’re only as great as your weakest link. He blamed the Army Corps of Engineers for not releasing enough water from the lake as they did in past years.

The governor said the lake is now 2.5-feet higher than what it has been the last two years, and the Corps needs to reduce water from the lake during the dry season to places like Fort Myers that wanted it. He believes this is an opportunity to recognize that man created this abnormal way to release water decades ago from the lake and we’ll always have to be careful with our water quality.

DeSantis didn’t call for a state of emergency like the groups asked him to do Monday. He admitted it’s only going to get hotter and we’re bracing for the worst.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported May 1 that Lake O’s algae bloom had expanded to an estimated 300 square miles. Blue-green algae were seen on the lake’s surface as recently as May 3.

“Compounding this crisis, an ongoing Gulf of Mexico red tide bloom occurring since November 2020, continues threatening public health at locations nearshore and in back bays of Southwest Florida causing fish and other marine life mortality,” the letter states. “The ongoing Lake Okeechobee discharges to the Caloosahatchee River with high levels of blue-green algae could worsen the current red tide bloom by providing additional nutrients and acting as a nutritional source for the Karenia brevis dinoflagellate (red tide).”

WINK News on Monday had a crew at Barron Park in LaBelle, right along the Caloosahatchee River. Streaks of green could be seen on the surface of the water, and Cassani said it’s a cyanobacteria bloom and a big concern moving forward. We reached out to the Florida DEP to find out what kind of algae it is and if it’s toxic. We’ll let you know once we hear back.

Water advocates came together Monday to discuss the algal blooms, current projects and the Florida legislative session in a water summit hosted by The News-Press.

One piece of legislation they talked about was a bill to implement more recommendations from our state’s blue-green algae task force, which didn’t make the cut.

One of the task force members said it’s understandable with the pandemic top of mind, but he’s concerned about what’s to come.

“Last year, we really didn’t have that bad of an algal bloom problem statewide. Red tide was not that serious; blue-green algal blooms did occur, but they weren’t devastating like they’ve been in previous years. This year is different. This year is starting to look like it could be a bad summer,” said Dr. James Sullivan, executive director of the FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

Southwest Florida was hard hit in 2018 by an algal bloom and red tide that impacted businesses along the coast, and the letter says the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce reported economic losses of approximately $47 million, and the City of Sanibel removed more than 425 tons of dead marine life from Sanibel’s beaches, at a cost of $1.6 million.

James Evans with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation said during the summit it’s crucial the governor follow through with an emergency order.

“Have measures in place that allow us to move that water south, into the Everglades, where it’s desperately needed. barely any water is actually moving south,” Evans said. “And so if that water were making it to the Everglades and moving through the system, then we could put more water through the stormwater treatment areas.”

Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fort Myers, who joined the summit, believes it’s too early to make the call.

“I’m a little hesitant on a state of emergency being filed as of yet, or being called as of yet. I don’t think we’re quite there. I think there’s still mitigation that can happen. Number one is to continue discharges that do occur from Lake Okeechobee. Number two is also going to be just how much rain we’re going to get over the next couple of months.”

By then, it could be too late, experts believe.

The groups ask that the governor’s emergency order:

● waives any restrictions and regulations which constrain FDEP, SFWMD, Florida
Department of Health and other relevant state agencies from working collaboratively to
store or move more water south from Lake Okeechobee and away from heavily
populated coastal areas;
● provides relief opportunities for affected homeowners and businesses;
● issues consistent and widespread on-site public notifications that clearly indicate
health risks associated with the harmful blue-green algae blooms and red tide.

Apalachicola, Suncoast, Kissimmee, Calusa, Indian, Lake Worth, and Peace/Myakka waterkeepers, along with Indian and St. Johns riverkeepers, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, Center for Biological Diversity, Florida Oceanographic Society, and Friends of the Everglades all signed the letter.

Click here to read the letter.

Click to access HAB-State-of-Emergency-Final.pdf

Reporter:Morgan Rynor
Stephanie Byrne
Writer:Jackie Winchester
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