Lake O algae may hit Palm Beach County
A move to spare the Treasure Coast from harmful algae could send more to Palm Beach County waterways, but officials hope added safeguards will avoid a repeat of 2016, when Peanut Island closed briefly over the July 4 weekend.
An order issued last week by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection eased permitting red tape to allow more Lake Okeechobee water to flow south instead of pushing it all out via the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
Satellite images show the lake has a spreading bloom of cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, which is a common summer occurrence but becomes more of a concern when lake water must be drained to maintain the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike.
John Mitnik, chief engineer at the South Florida Water Management District, said lake water is moving through structures that will bring it to the C-51 Canal, which flows from the west to east along Southern Boulevard through the central part of the county. The C-51 discharges water into the Intracoastal Waterway between West Palm Beach and Lake Worth.
Unlike 2016, however, the water is being routed through areas for additional cleaning before it reaches the C-51.
“We were not cleaning it through the distribution cells two years ago,” Mitnik said. “It was just coming this way as is, so we changed that operation.”
Mitnik said the discharges into the Intracoastal will also be made in a pulse fashion instead of a steady hose to allow saltwater to recharge the brackish ecosystem between the freshwater dumps. Blue-green algae can’t survive in high-salinity water.
“We know Lake O has the potential to bring algae-laden water to local coastal communities, but right now, that is not the case,” said Deborah Drum, Palm Beach County’s Environmental Resources Management director. “It’s important to remember that algae is a very important part of our aquatic ecosystems and some algae is OK and just a normal part of the food chain.”
The 2016 algae outbreak inundated the Treasure Coast with large mats of smelly algae that choked marinas and spread onto beaches. Small blobs of algae floated in Palm Beach County waterways, coating Intracoastal beaches and bobbing in water near Peanut Island and Singer Island.
Palm Beach County tourism leaders were blindsided by a July 1 decision that year to temporarily close the water to swimmers after lifeguards spotted the algae. A day later, all beaches were open.
Ashley Svarney, senior director of public relations for Discover the Palm Beaches, feared publicity about the closures would hurt tourism that weekend. It didn’t, but she doesn’t want to be surprised again.
“In 2016, it hit us out of nowhere,” she said. “This time around, we have fostered close relationships with our counterpart agencies and have better communication.”
According to the EPA, drinking, swallowing or swimming in water with toxic cyanobacteria can cause stomach, liver, respiratory and neurological problems, as well as rashes. Cyanobacteria can also get so abundant that when they die, their decomposition can remove oxygen from the water and kill fish.
Not all cyanobacteria are toxic, but a handful of samples taken this month have tested positive for very low levels of toxins in amounts not considered harmful by the World Health Organization.
As of Tuesday, Lake Okeechobee water level was at 14.10 feet above sea level. That’s within the comfort zone for the Army Corps of Engineers, which likes to keep the lake between 12.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level. But concerns that the lake could rise quickly during rainy season means discharges will continue into the near future.
“The recession (in the lake) has stopped, so even though we decreased discharges we are seeing the lake is no longer dropping,” said Corps spokesman John Campbell. “The good news at this point, if there is any, is the lake is not currently rising at the rate it was at the end of May.”
This satellite image taken Sunday shows current concentrations of cyanobacteria on Lake Okeechobee.