Blue green algae been all over the news. As we hit the rainy season of June, Lake Okeechobee’s water level began to rise. Concerned with these rising water levels, federal managers released some of the water into the ocean. The nutrient rich water and summer heat provided perfect conditions for a bloom of “Blue-Green Algae”. This algae has caused an uproar around the state and has become national news.
With our love of the ocean, Island Water Sports wants to break down the facts of this declared “state of emergency” and tell you what you can do to stay safe and help save our waterways for future generations.
What is blue-green algae?
Also called “cyanobacteria,” this stinky, foamy scum is defined by the Florida Department of Health as “tiny organisms naturally found in water, sometimes producing toxins.” Although they are most closely related to other bacteria, these organisms can photosynthesize like green plants and reproduce rapidly in bodies of water with large amounts of sunlight, high air/water temperatures and excess levels of nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen.
Blue–green algae can be found all over the world, and occurs in Florida’s freshwater and brackish habitats, such as lakes, rivers and estuaries. Blue-green algae is common throughout the United States. Some, but not all, blue-green algae can produce toxins that can contribute to environmental problems and affect public health.
Scientists know little about what causes the algae to produce toxins.
Is the water safe?
The Florida Health Department tests these spots for enteric bacteria (a fecal pollution indicator), and rates them on their levels: “good” (green), “moderate” (yellow) or “poor” (red). Also noted are “avoid-water advisories” (triangle), “algae” (splotch) and toxic algae (skull and crossbones).
Is Lake Okeechobee water polluted or “toxic”?
Biologists from Audubon Florida, the United States Geological Survey office in Orlando and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection were interviewed by the Palm Beach Post and said Lake Okeechobee water is not polluted or toxic. However, the lake does have too much non-toxic phosphorous and nitrogen from human activities, which lead to blue-green algae blooms.
According to the Palm Beach Post article, Paul Gray, a lake expert for Audubon Florida, said the goal for Lake Okeechobee is a level of 40 parts per billion of phosphorous. However, recent levels have been between 100 and 200 parts per billion. Although, this is level is nothing to be highly alarmed about, the high phosphorous levels makes blue-green algae blooms a pertinent threat.
“The terms ‘polluted’ and ‘toxic’ are not accurate,” said Barry Rosen, a biologist with the USGS in Orlando. “The nutrients in the lake make it eutrophic, i.e., rich in nutrients. These come from the watershed, and there is a significant contribution from the sediments in the bottom of the lake.
How can I stay safe and still enjoy the water?
- Avoid contact with water that is discolored or has scum on the surface. This includes, but is not limited to: swimming, surfing, paddleboarding, skimboarding, snorkeling, jet skiing, water skiing, tubing, boating, etc.
- If contact does occur, immediately wash with soap and water or rinse thoroughly with clean water to remove algae.
- Never drink untreated surface water, whether or not algae blooms are present. Water from lakes, rivers, or streams may contain other bacteria, parasites or viruses, as well as toxins that could cause illness if consumed.
- Do not fish from lakes where algal scum is present, and do not eat fish caught in areas where blue-green algae is in bloom.
Are blue-green algae blooms a new problem?
No. Evidence suggests that blue-green algae have been around for generations. Recorded blue-green algae blooms date back to the 12th century. Toxic effects to livestock have been documented for more than 100 years. However, the frequency and duration of blooms are increasing in some waters as a result of increased nutrient concentrations. Nutrients, particularly phosphorus and nitrogen, can be carried into water bodies as a result of many human activities, including agriculture, discharge of untreated sewage, and increased use of phosphorus-based fertilizers and detergents. (see more here)
“When you supply phosphorus and nitrogen, algae grows and reproduces exponentially, causing a bloom,” said Henry Briceno, a geologist at Florida International University. Briceno told AFP that, “the fertilizer used in the area for farming, gardens and golf courses are to blame for an excess of phosphorus in the lake.
The occurrence of blue-green algae is natural and has occurred throughout history. Still, to better understand the phenomenon, Florida monitors blue-green algae closely because nutrient pollution appears to intensify blue-green algae outbreaks. The state is taking long-term measures that will reduce nutrient loading and improve water quality.
How can I help?
We can all take action to reduce nutrient pollution through the choices we make around the house, with our pets, in lawn maintenance, and in transportation. Families, individuals, students and teachers can access resources online to find out more about the health of their local waterways and participate in community efforts to make their environments healthier and safer.
Here are some tips. Read more at EPA.gov:
Personal Products, Cleaning Supplies-Detergents and Soaps
- Choose natural soaps and sunscreens without phosphates and parabans
- Choose phosphate-free detergents, soaps, and household cleaners.
- Only run your clothes or dish washer when you have a full load.
- Always pick up after your pet. Avoid walking your pet near streams and other waterways. Instead, walk them in grassy areas, parks or undeveloped areas.
Energy & Water Efficiency
- Choose low-flow showerheads and energy efficient appliances.
- Repair leaking faucets.
- Take short showers instead of baths and avoid letting faucets run unnecessarily.
- Use less electricity and turn off appliances when not in use.
- Replace old light bulbs with new energy efficient bulbs.
- Hang-dry clothes instead of using the dryer.
- Use a commercial car wash; commercial car washes are required to properly dispose of wastewater and many filter and recycle their water.
- Plan out your errands for one trip so you can reduce the amount of time you have to drive, take public transportation and/or carpool with friends or coworkers.
- Telecommute from home.
- Get better gas mileage: Choose flex fuel, diesel, hybrid, compact, or other fuel-efficient vehicles, regularly perform maintenance on your car, and routinely check tire pressure.
- Plant native plants that require less water, fertilizers and pesticides. When needed, apply fertilizers at the recommended amount.
- Install a rain barrel to collect rainwater; the rainwater can later be used to wash your car or water your plants and lawn.
Get Involved In Our Community Events:
- Did you know that Island surf and skate camps teach our campers about environmental impacts of pollution and waste. The surf campers learn about the environmental impact on the ocean, and skate campers learn about the impact of deforestation as trees are used to make boards. Then the campers participate in beach and skate park cleanups.
- The shop hosts quarterly beach clean-ups and works with Dixie Divers for under-water pier clean-ups. By practicing conservation and environmental awareness, together we can keep our waterways safe for generations to come.
- Head to IslandWaterSports.com and sign up for our email list to get info about our next clean-up.