FORT MYERS, Fla. Fish kills and a sickening sludge invaded Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River last year.
A new report published by the U.S. Geological Survey revealed 28 different species of cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, were lurking in those waters.
USGS biologist Dr. Barry Rosen, who tested water samples from Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers last year, was surprised by the results.
“The big thick masses cause oxygen depletion, so that oxygen depletion was a major issue,” Rosen said. “When you deplete oxygen, fish suffer. They can’t swim out of the way. Fish die.”
The consequences stretched far beyond the ecosystem.
The algae blooms caused tourism to suffer and made others sick. While similar conditions have yet to be seen this year, Rosen believes it’s only a matter of time.
“It’s that time of year. They’re growing in the lake, they’re growing in the canal system,” he said. “If conditions set up that they bloom again, it’s not a question of if there will be another bloom, it’s just a question of when.”
There’s no way to prevent these blooms from happening, Rosen said, as most of these types of bacteria are naturally present in the water.
But the effects on the Florida coasts could be minimized, he said, if discharges from Lake Okeechobee slow down.
Help may soon be on the way. The governing board of the South Florida Water Management District voted last week to take control of a research program to develop wells that can prevent excess stormwater from harming the rivers.