Water quality advocates concerned about blue-green algae in Caloosahatchee in LaBelle

More than a dozen groups are pushing Gov. Ron DeSantis to declare a state of emergency after blue-green algae was discovered in the Caloosahatchee River at Barron Park in LaBelle recently.

Barry Rosen, a professor with FGCU’s The Water School, has been closely monitoring the algae situation in Lake Okeechobee. He took a sample from the lake earlier in May.

“There was a fair number of colonies that were dead,” Rosen said. “But on the other hand, there was still some that were surviving. Yes, they would either still be producing toxin if they’re alive.”

On the Caloosahatchee, Florida Department of Environmental Protection has not confirmed whether algae in LaBelle is toxic.

Lake levels are higher than what’s comfortable with rainy season upon us.

South Florida Water Management District says it’s doing what it can on its end.

“I can tell you that the water management district right now is moving as much water as it can south and has been and will continue to because we’re super aware that the lake is at the level it’s at,” said Chauncey Goss, the SFWMD governing board chairman. “Two and a half feet higher than it was last year.”

The blue-green algae that has been seen in parts of Southwest Florida recently has not been anything like the thick gunk seen in the past, but rather more of a thin film on the surface of the water.

The hope is to not seen anything close to a repeat of blue-green algae from 2016 and 2018.

“The status quo really was not sustainable,” Goss said. “We cannot continue to use our coastal estuaries as dumping grounds for freshwater when we have too much of it at zero risk. There is a risk, and that risk is our economies, and we felt that very much in 2016 and 2018.

Goss hopes new construction projects and an updated Lake Okeechobee operating manual can help save our estuaries.

“We also have to make sure that we manage the lake properly,” Goss said. “Because if we don’t manage the lake properly, all that infrastructure is for nothing. So we want to make sure that we manage the lake properly.”

Rosen explains water quality concerns in the region are not caused by water releases from Lake Okeechobee alone.

“Now the watershed itself supplies a lot of nutrients, even more southern come out of Lake Okeechobee,” Rosen said. “So the nutrients from any kind of lawn fertilizers that flow into the Caloosahatchee feed these organisms. They need nitrogen. They need phosphorus.”

As of right now, there are no health alerts posted in at Barron Park. We reached out to Florida Department of Health in Hendry County to ask why.

The governor has not acted on a request from water advocates who requested an emergency order declaration about the algae.

Anyone interested in keeping an eye on blue-green algae in the region and the state can visit the algal bloom dashboard.

Reporter:Stephanie Byrne
Writer:Jack Lowenstein
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