Indian River Lagoon council hears algae woes
Expect more dead fish in coming weeks
SEBASTIAN, Fla. – Expect more dead fish and increasingly toxic, bacteria-laden water as more blue-green algae from Lake Okeechobee flows to the St. Lucie River and the southern Indian River Lagoon, a Martin County official warned Friday.
"We are in dire straits right now," Deborah Drum, Martin County's ecosystem restoration manager, told the Indian River Lagoon Council at its meeting at Sebastian City Hall Complex. "I don't have any good news."
News 6 partner Florida Today reports that Drum described an estuary devastated in recent weeks by a thick blue-green algae that has fouled coastal waterways, closed beaches and outraged the community.
"We've been assessing the beach conditions on a daily basis," Drum told the council. "If algae is visible, we are flying double-red flags."
An algae called microcystis aeruginosa has been flowing from Lake Okeechobee to coastal waters in St. Lucie and Martin counties. The algae can emit a toxin called microcystin.
Swallowing small amounts of water can cause abdominal cramps, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting, according to the Florida Department of Health. When animals drink water with blue-green algae toxins, they can suffer liver and nervous system damage and can sometimes die from the toxins.
Dead fish have been reported recently near the old Palm City Bridge, Drum said.
"It sounds like the conditions are going to get worse before they get better," she told the council.
Drum said ideas such as adding copper algicide in the water to the kill the bloom won't be pursued if they create other ill consequences.
"We're really conscious about not creating more environmental problems," Drum said.
The council directed staff to gather information to prepare a letter to state and federal lawmakers and to President Barack Obama outlining the algae crisis and what help the region needs.
In a July 7 letter, St. Lucie County Commission called on Obama to "advance overall Everglades restoration," including finding more land to store water north and south of Lake Okeechobee. The letter also asks Obama to fund repairs of Herbert Hoover Dike; make a presidential disaster declaration; create a program to partner with state and local governments to help homeowners convert from septic tanks to sewer systems; and several other actions to help improve water quality.
St. Lucie and Martin county officials also are asking for state help to test for and to prevent algae blooms from Lake Okeechobee.
Martin County also wants the state to test for hydrogen sulfide for three of four locations where the algae is the worst, Drum said. Algae mats clump up almost a foot thick in some spots and emit hydrogen sulfide gas as they rot.
"We are concerned about what the health effects could be," Drum said.
Martin County is asking state officials to test the livers of dead wildlife or livestock for any signs they died from algae toxins.
"It could have acute, or accumulated impacts," Drum said. "It has a horrible stench. I can't really describe it. All I can say is that it stays with you for a while."
And more algae is on the way. Recent satellite images show an algae bloom in excess of 200 square miles in Lake Okeechobee, Drum said.
Martin County beaches saw a recent die-off of sand fleas, Drum added, which the county is having tested for algae toxins.
St. Lucie County closed its beaches in the first time in its history, said Chris Dzadovsky, a lagoon council member and St. Lucie County commissioner.
Dennis Hanisak, a scientist with FAU-Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, presented real-time water quality monitoring data that shows how quickly the estuary becomes fresh water after Lake Okeechobee releases.
"It's really about what comes down the Kissimmee River and what goes down Lake Okeechobee," Hanisak said. "This is a bloom that's basically coming from outside the system ... It (the algae) will continue to live as long as that salinity is low," he added. "The toxin does not disappear right away, and that's why you're able to get these higher levels downstream."
Phosphates are coming mostly from Lake Okeechobee, but from other sources as well, he said.
"There's still a lot of impacts going on to the estuaries," Hanisak said. "It's not all (Lake) Okeechobee."
Chuck Jacoby, a scientist with the St. Johns River Water Management District, said that the northern lagoon is doing much better than the southern lagoon but experiencing "patchy" conditions from an ongoing brown algae bloom.
Water quality is benefiting as salt levels rise because of warmer temperatures increasing evaporation, Jacoby said, and fewer tributaries in the northern lagoon.
"It still looks like there is some brown tide around," Jacoby said, adding that the brown tide is mixed with other algae species.
"The lagoon's fighting as hard as it can, but it's definitely rocky," Jacoby said.
And the recent blooms have been a strain on local government, officials said.
"This is uncharted territory for us. There is so much that we don't know," Drum said. "We don't have any response in place that's tried and true."
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