WEST PALM BEACH – At their June 23, 2021 meeting, the Florida Blue Green Algae Task Force put the focus on treating the source of the problem rather than the symptoms. They also expressed concerns about unintended consequences of products used to treat algal blooms.
For Lake Okeechobee treating the source means addressing the nutrient load into the lake from the north and the internal loading from the muck at the bottom of the lake.
“The algae are the symptom, and it’s a symptom of nutrient enrichment,” said Dr. Mike Parsons of Florida Gulf Coast University. “We have to treat the algal blooms when they happen, but ultimately, we have to keep our eye on the prize which is nutrient reduction, what can we do to prevent the nutrients from getting in or to remove them once they are in, which is a lot harder to do.”
He said they can treat localized blooms such as the one at the marina, but they can’t treat the whole of Lake Okeechobee.
Dr. James Sullivan, of Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch, said it is important for the task force to promote the ‘prevention first,’ mentality. Legal treatment technology is no substitute for prevention. “We don’t want to just start talking about technology to be firemen, where we are always just putting out fires everywhere around the state. What we ultimately want is for our water to be clean, and for these blooms not to happen at all.
“If we are going concentrate on spending our money, let’s concentrate on technologies that prevent this degradation of our water, nutrient pollution,” said Sullivan.
Other task force members agreed prevention is key.
Dr. Evelyn Gaiser of Florida International University said she noticed on the map of new technology projects funded by Florida Department of Environmental Protection to deal with algal bloom issues, none of the projects are in the watershed north of Lake Okeechobee. She said she would like to see that addressed in future projects.
“Algae are not bad,” said Sullivan. “Without algae, just like land plants, the ecyosystem would collapse. Most algae are perfectly harmless and they are required, or we wouldn’t have an ecosystem. Indiscriminate algaecide application can have a lot of bad effects. If you are going to use something to get rid of specifically blue-green algae, it better just get rid of the blue-green algae. If you wipe everything out, that’s not a solution to the problem. What I’ve seen on a lot of these technologies that we’re talking about today, I want the public to be very clear about this.
“Most of them are geared around blue-green algae that float. They make an obvious surface slick. You see them. You apply a floating peroxide and it kills them ... There are a lot of toxic blue-green algae that do not float, as a matter of fact they hang out at the bottom of freshwater lakes. They can even attach to grass blades or things that are on the bottom. Those technologies are not going to work.
“The people of West Palm Beach just went through this. That was not Microcystis in the reservoir ... It’s a species that sits near the bottom of the lake. When the public hears, we have these great technologies, they’re not going to work for all blue-green algae.
“When most people talk about blue-green algae, they think Microcystis. They think this floating green scum they see on the water. Just the dynamics of that, you do see the bloom if the water is calm enough.
“They can control their buoyancy. Normally what you get is they will start to go down at night and they’ll collect nutrients deeper in the water column and then they’ll float back up.
“While you might have a population on the surface of the lake, there’s usually a deep living population at the same time.
“There’s a layer of population that could be anywhere else throughout the water column,” he said.
“We always have to consider that. Some of them don’t float at all. Some of them are sitting on the bottom,
He said they also have to consider how the blue-green algae who create toxins release them. For example, Microcystis tends to keep microcystin in the cells. If you rupture the cells of Microcystis, this will release the toxins. If you remove the cells whole, you remove the toxin with them. That’s not the case with some other algae. The species that create cylindrospermopsin release it. Almost all of that toxin is released from the cell as soon as it is created. It just dissolves into the water column. If you remove the cells, the toxin is still in the water column.
“There are a lot of species of blue-green algae in the world that can dominate at different times,” said Sullivan.
“If we remove the dominant blue-green algal species like Microcysitis, how do we know what is going to take over isn’t even worse? Nature abhors a vacuum. If we remove a species that has been using up the nutrients, another species is going to grow in its place, and it could be a species of blue-green algae that are just as harmful."
“We can’t just target one single species. We can’t just target one way of getting rid of it,” he said. “It’s really complex.”
Sullivan some of the technologies they have are great to use in some cases, such as at the Pahokee marina. “It’s got to be targeted use,” he said.
“We need to learn where these technologies are most cost-effective,” said Parsons.
“We got into this situation together and we’re going to get out of it together,” said Dr. Mark Rains, Florida Science Officer.
During the public comment, period Newton Cook, president of United Waterfowlers of Florida brought up an idea he has proposed many times of the years.
“It is important to know blooms are symptoms of a disease like a fever. The basic disease causing the symptoms is levels of too high levels of phosphorus in the water, or in the case of red tide, nitrogen. To reduce the symptom, blooms, the level of phosphorus must be lowered,” he said. “Here in south Florida, we have a heart, Lake Okeechobee. That heart is being damaged by over 500 tons of phosphorus inflows into the lake from the north every year for over 50 years. The heart is damaged by thousands of tons of phosphorus-loaded muck in the bottom of that lake. When there is a wind and rain event, that muck is stirred up and flows out of the lake, east and west.
“Two things must be addressed to cure the disease causing blue-green algae blooms: 1. Reduce the flow of water and phosphorus from the northern basin into the lake during rain events. 2. Remove muck full of legacy phosphorus from the bottom of the lake,” he continued.
“The district and corps (of engineers) are addressing the first cause. No one is addressing the hundreds of thousands of tons of muck on the bottom of Lake O. We need a half dozen strategically placed deep injection wells (DIWs) in the lake to send the muck 3,000 feet down into the massive saltwater river running to the floor of the Atlantic. This will address the second source of nutrients causing the algae blooms in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee.
Over 200 DIWs are currently running in the State of Florida, putting wastewater into the massive saltwater river running west to east under the peninsula of Florida, all approved by FDEP. It is proven technology, environmentally approved by FDEP and tested for decades,” said Cook. “No one project would remove more phosphorus and destructive muck as quickly and economically – because DIWs are cheap – as a half dozen known sinks where the mud is in Lake Okeechobee, and yet I haven’t seen a person talk about that today. We need to investigate that.”
Lindsey Cross of Florida Conservation Voters said the importance of putting prevention first was laid out in the 2019 Blue Green Algae Task Force report. “This should always be our strategy, to reduce nutrient pollution first and then implement mitigation strategies based on strong science and data.
“Focus on innovative technologies can be a double-edged sword,” she said, however, they should be careful not to be lulled into a false sense of security which would allow the public to continue with “business as usual” instead of taking the more aggressive measures needed to reduce pollution into all of the waterways.
“There’s a lot of concern right now about what we are doing to treat the symptoms,” said Nyla Pipes of One Florida Foundation. “We don’t want projects to treat the symptoms. We must get at the actual root of this. We have to reduce the nutrients ... Please fund those projects. Bump those projects to the front of the line.”
Drew Martin of the Sierra Club said he agrees with focusing on the causes of the nutrient overload the feeds the algae. He said the lack of water quality in the state of Florida is the result of the poor practices put in place over the last 100 years, including destruction of wetlands and overuse of chemicals. He said the Sierra Club would like to see Florida get rid of turf and sod on which so much fertilizer is used.
“I’m frustrated because there’s 13 thousand metric tons of nasty, pollutant in Lake Okeechobee,” Mike Elfenbein, conservation chair of the Izaak Walton League Cypress Chapter. He said nothing in the task force meeting included any plans to deal with that muck. “I have spent the last year, engaging, approaching, knocking on doors, making phone calls, sitting in meetings and making presentations to the FDEP, FWC, the Army Corps of Engineers, SFWMD. We have 17 resolutions (by South Florida counties and cities) passed in favor of an AguaCulture project, that was intended to remove – just at the pilot project level – 2,000 pounds of phosphorus from Lake Okeechobee on a daily basis. We have support from Dade County, Collier County, Charlotte County, Glades County, Hendry County, Lee County, Palm Beach County, Osceola County, St. Lucie County, Highlands County, Okeechobee County, the cities of Clewiston, Fort Myers, Stuart, Sebastian, the St. John River Management District, Volusia County. The staff and leadership of all the agencies I mentioned supported this project. We applied for a grant from the DEP. It has been one year since we brought this to your attention. I have not had one follow up call from anyone at the DEP. Not a single one. We presented a solution that everyone at DEP liked, FWC liked, the Army Corps likes, the water management district staff liked, and the DEP has done nothing.” Instead, DEP has thrown a million dollars at an Israeli company to “put a band-aid on a compound fracture,” he said, referencing the company that makes a hydrogen peroxide product to kill algae.
Chris Farrel of Audubon Florida also urged more efforts to address the sources of nutrient pollution and the conditions in the landscape that contribute to algal blooms. “One issue is storage within the landscape. For example, (Hurricane) Irma put 1.5 million acre feet into Lake Okeechobee in one month; (Tropical Storm) Fay put 2 million acre feet into the lake in one month. These are extreme events, but high volume events are fairly common and show you how over-drained the Lake Okeechobee watershed is. This is a problem that is common throughout our state. Our current landscape development patterns do not have the ability to attenuate flows or assimilate nutrients in an appropriate fashion, especially when you consider the rate that we apply nutrients to the landscape.
“One area we definitely need to look at more innovative solutions and technologies is in regard to biosolids. We generate 340,000 tons a year. That’s way too much to handle with land application, especially since local governments are enacting bans and areas of applications become concentrated in specific watersheds. Our past efforts to manage biosolids have created local water quality and nutrient problems. You can’t really spread biosolids thin enough to avoid water quality problems. Biosolids are being created every single day. We need to provide utilities with new management options, likely including some ability to generate energy from this waste product,” he said.