These test results will have you concerned about the future of SWFL’s waters

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FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. – Recent tests to the water of Southwest Florida produced no results for toxicity, but the test results also raise concerns about algal blooms and changes to the water ecosystems of Southwest Florida.

The tests were taken on June 22 — before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers slowed releases from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico through the Caloosahatchee River and before algal blooms imploded on the East Coast — at the Sanders Lab of North Fort Myers. Samples were taken from water at the Fishing Pier Fort Myers Beach, the Punta Rassa Boat Ramp and the Franklin Locks.

The tests checked for a number of chemical elements that included nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia and bacteria such as E. coli. The tests also monitored PH levels, salinity, temperature and dissolved oxygen.

After seven days, the results were returned. Low E. coli at all locations was a great sign, according to Darren Rumbold, a professor of Marine Science at Florida Gulf Coast University.

But other test results were concerning, Rumbold said. The levels of salinity taken in Punta Gorda could cause stress to organisms, Rumbold said.

“The salinity should be higher,” he said. “The habitat is changing and the species you might encounter are changing. We were actually out there last week and caught a Florida Gar, which is a fresh water fish out on the Pine Island Sound. I would have never dreamed in a million years.”

Salinity was not the only concern at the Punta Rassa Boat Ramp. The test results also showed a concerning level of ammonia in the water there. The tests returned levels .004 over the numbers considered normal.

“The biggest surprise is the ammonia level,” Rumbold said. “I wouldn’t use the word alarming. Concerning? Yes.”

The ammonia levels on Fort Myers Beach could create conditions for algal blooms, Rumbold said. The same problem exists in Punta Gorda, he said.

“There’s no question there’s a risk of plants blooming,” Rumbold said.

The risk would not produce the thick, green algae seen on the East Coast, he said, and the blooms would not create a problem with toxicity. But if weeks pass without a change in ammonia levels:

“Phytoplankton could bloom. Microalgae could bloom,” Rumbold said.

Out of all the test results, only the Franklin Lock produced typical numbers.

“They are unfortunately high for our needs in terms of nutrients but they’re not unprecedented,” Rumbold said.

One of the biggest and most apparent problems is caused by color-dissolved organic matter, which is causing the dark, murky color seen at Southwest Florida beaches, Rumbold said. The color-dissolved organic matter can cause bacteria to fester, he said.

For all the water woes in Southwest Florida, Rumbold said Lake Okeechobee is not the only water source that is responsible. About a quarter of the water is also coming from the Caloosahatchee River Water Storage project, he said.

“All that combined creates the high concentrations,” he said.

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