Multiple reports of Lake O algae, why scientists say it’s not time to panic

Line of algae seen on Lake Okeechobee on Saturday. Photo by Ed Lippisch

Multiple people are reporting an algae bloom on Lake Okeechobee just days after the Army Corps of Engineers began dumping lake water into the fragile St. Lucie Estuary to relieve pressure on the Herbert Hoover Dike.

The South Florida Water Management District said there is a single string of algae “punched up by the wind” that has been sighted, and an oceanographer from NOAA, who is monitoring the lake, said the algae is not large enough to be a current concern.

Still, Treasure Coast residents worry that the bloom will grow through the heat of the summer and seed the river with algae.

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“Because of what we all experienced in 2016, we are very sensitive,” said Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, former mayor of Sewall’s Point. “It’s been raining, and it’s hot and these are the conditons that create these algae blooms.”

Pilot Ed Lippisch, husband to Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, was flying over the lake Saturday when he spotted the algae bloom. He agreed it is no where near the size it was in 2016 when thick mats of algae fouled the Treasure Coast after Lake Okeechobee releases began.

Lake Okeechobee is not the lone culprit in the algae blooms that plague Treasure Coast waterways, but releases do weaken the salinity levels in the estuary allowing the algae to grow more robustly.

A study by Florida Atlantic University said the algae growth in the St. Lucie River is aided by thousands of nitrogen-spewing septic tanks.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began releasing water from Lake Okeechobee on Friday in an effort to lower lake levels that can weaken the Herbert Hoover Dike when they get too high.

At more than 14 feet above sea level, the concern is that rain from one tropical system will push it above critical heights that will endanger communities surrounding the lake.

Oceanographer Rick Stumpf, is monitoring the algae bloom on Lake Okeechobee via satellite and out of a special Harmful Algae Blooms office in NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

“What there is now for a bloom is really small. It’s small enough that a satellite image would  not be interesting, which is a good thing,” Stumpf said. “It’s not at all extensive, and for at least the last several days, there is nothing of consequence near the releases.”

Blue-green algae — a bacteria that thrives in warm water with high nitrogen and phosphorous levels — is a reoccurring problem in Florida, where septic tanks, fertilizer runoff and freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee work together to bolster its growth in brackish estuaries such as the St. Lucie River.

Stumpf said photos of the current bloom may seem impressive, but aren’t in the context of the entire lake.

“If you are on the beach, scum 50 feet from shore looks horrible,” Stumpf said. “If you are in an airplane, a band of scum going on for a kilometer or two, also looks bad. But we’re stepping back and looking at the whole lake.”

Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Elyssa Finkelstein said staff went Monday to investigate a report of an algae bloom on the lake and will take a sample if there is one.

Results will be posted on the Algal Bloom Monitoring Map when available. 

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