LAKE OKEECHOBEE – There's less risk of harmful algal blooms (HABs) on Lake Okeechobee now than in April and May, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District Commander Col. Andrew Kelly.
“April and May were pretty tough,” Kelly said in a June 4 media conference call. “In the middle of May, we saw the height of algae coverage across the lake. Since that time, the trend has been downward, meaning less visible algae on the lake.
“There are a lot of different reasons for that – wind, lack of rain,” the colonel continued. “Some scientists suggest a bloom spike, like the one we saw in May, takes up a lot of the nutrients that are in the water column and there aren’t enough nutrients for the algae to spike again.
“We don’t know everything about it, but there are prevailing theories,” he said.
From a “big picture level,” algae and cyanobacteria (commonly called blue-green algae) conditions on Lake Okeechobee are a “pretty good trend and we hope it continues,” Kelly explained. “There’s no real way to predict algae on the lake,” he added. “We understand some of the conditions.”
Kelly said with the lake below 13 feet (above sea level), there is capacity in the lake for wet season rainfall, so if there is a harmful algal bloom (HAB), there is less chance the corps will release algae-laden water to the coastal estuaries.
“If the rainfall doesn’t come too hard or too fast, we can potentially not deal with high level releases in the fall when algae could be present,” he explained.
Kelly said there is no known connection between recent algal blooms on Lake Okeechobee and the cylindrospermopsin detected in West Palm Beach water earlier this week. Cylindrospermopsin was detected in the drinking water from the City of West Palm Beach’s Water Treatment Plant that services customers in West Palm Beach, the town of Palm Beach and town of South Palm Beach, according to information shared by West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James on June 3.
Cylindrospermopsin is α hepatotoxin produced by two species of cyanobacteria: Cylindrospermopsis raciborskii and Umezaki natans. Cylindrospermopsin has not been detected in Lake Okeechobee. According to Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), the species of cyanobacteria currently dominant in algal blooms on Lake Okeechobee is Microcystis aeruginosa.
“As you see bloom spikes on the lake, you tend to see bloom spikes in other areas – standing water areas, golf course ponds,” said Kelly. “The conditions are much the same across the state.”
The most recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite imagery of Lake Okeechobee shows moderate algal bloom potential on the western and northern shores of Lake Okeechobee. Kelly noted in early May, imagery showed much of the big lake with moderate to high algal bloom potential.
Kelly said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, along with the South Florida Water Management District and FDEP are involved in algal bloom research, investigating ways to prevent, control or remove HABs from lakes and waterways.
“Not all algae is toxic,” he continued. “If you look at it, you can’t tell if there is a toxic component.” According to the U.S. Geological Study, of the 28 known species of cyanobacteria found in the Lake Okeechobee Waterway, about 25% are capable of producing toxins, and those capable of producing toxins do not always do so.
Corps’ researchers are among those looking for a scalable methodology to deal with HABs on a body of water the size of Lake Okeechobee. At 730 square miles, Lake O is the second largest freshwater lake within the confines of the continental United States.
Kelly said “there is a full court press” by state and federal agencies to find a solution to HABs.
“They are trying to hone in on what seems to work best,” he added.
What do the NOAA ‘bloom potential’ images mean? Learn more here.