Lake O al­gae may hit Palm Beach County

Palm Beach Daily News - - TODAY - By KIM­BERLY MILLER

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.”

NOAA, de­rived from Coper­ni­cus Sentinel-3 data from EUMETSAT.

This satel­lite im­age taken Sun­day shows cur­rent con­cen­tra­tions of cyanobac­te­ria on Lake Okee­chobee.

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