Effects of Lake Okeechobee Algae Blooms
Algae blooms pose a dangerous threat to both humans and wildlife in the area, as well as Florida’s coastline.
Algae blooms are a common occurrence in Florida, and though this is featured in news articles every year, the severity of the situation seems to be increasing. What is this talk of “toxic” algae in Lake Okeechobee? What causes this, and what is it doing to our ecosystems? Can it be stopped? Algae growth is a natural occurrence caused by sunlight, nutrients, and stagnant water. However, pollution can raise the nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the water, increasing the sizes of blooms to harmful quantities.
What exactly is an algae bloom?
The algae being discussed here is actually a toxic cyanobacteria, usually referred to as “blue-green algae.” This bacteria forms dense green sludge that covers large surface areas of water. It produces cyanotoxins, which is a mix of neurotoxins and endotoxins. This means the bacteria harms nervous tissue and poisons cells. The algae grows quickly under high-nutrient conditions but because each algal is so short-lived, a large build up of decaying algae can quickly accumulate. This decaying matter often strips the surrounding water of oxygen.
What is causing these pollution levels?
Blue-green algae blooms occur when sunlight, warm water, and high nitrogen and phosphorus levels coincide. Florida’s naturally warm climate paired with runoff water is the perfect recipe for algae blooms. The runoff water contains fertilizers from suburbs, golf courses, and cattle ranches north of Lake Okeechobee. It carries these large quantities of phosphorus and other nutrients south to the lake. Hurricanes and tropical storms can also contribute to larger than average algae levels in the lake due to continued increase in runoff levels. This is likely why Florida has seen such large algal blooms this year compared to others.
What effects does this have on the area?
Cyanobacteria can cause health effects to people or pets that come into contact with contaminated water. It impacts the liver and brain, as can cause skin irritation. The thick layer of decaying organic matter on top of the water can deprive the water of oxygen, which kills fish in the water. It also blocks sunlight from reaching vegetation on the bottom, which kills plants and negatively impacts the whole ecosystem.
It affects many water systems, primarily Lake Okeechobee. To protect southern sugar cane fields, the lake is drained towards the east and west instead of its natural route to the Everglades. This carries the toxic water down the St. Johns, St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers. It even impacts the coastline as the lake’s fertilizer-infused water drains out into the ocean. Oyster beds are dying and fish are being driven away from the coast due to the increase in toxins and decrease in salinity of the water.
Florida’s economy takes a hit whenever blue-green algae infests its waterways. The fishing and boating businesses surrounding the lake are limited when the water becomes toxic, and it drives away tourism along the coastline too. Due to the severity of this year’s blooms, the affected coastline stretched all the way down to south Florida, putting trillions of dollars worth of business at risk. The beautiful beaches became a fish graveyard, driving away many vacationers.
Improving the Situation
The Environmental Protection Agency has tips for minimizing nutrient pollution in your yard and home. This includes refraining from using fertilizer before rain, cleaning up waste from pets, and repairing leaky faucets in your home. General sustainability efforts should also be considered, as minimizing the effects from global warming can reduce the impacts from rising temperatures and severe weather patterns. Maintaining awareness of the situation and working to limit phosphorus pollution levels can help keep our state beautiful for years to come.
- USA Today. Photo: Terry Spencer, AP. July 4, 2016.
- Oceanic Rescue and Conservation Action Society, Facebook page. August 4, 2018.
- Anonymous on Twitter: “This is environmental terrorism. #SouthFL #RedTide” Auguest 4, 2018.