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Finding solutions to algae; how green gunk is affecting health, tourism

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Drone footage of algae in Cape Coral canal on July 25, 2018. Credit: WINK News

Inside the Department of the Interior, task force members saw picture’s of Southwest Florida’s interior waterwats, canals and marinas covered in toxic algae.

“This is the worst conditions I’ve ever seen,” said Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane. “The difference is when you are the mayor of a small town like Sanibel, you don’t walk any place where someone doesn’t talk to you about the water.”

Ruane and several others charged water managers to explore every opportunity to move more water south.

“There is infrastructure set up to let water go south presently right now and if we’re in a state of emergency like our governor has declared then why aren’t we using all manners necessary?” asked John Heim, of the South Florida Clean Water Movement.

Rep. Brian Mast refers to his home district along the treasure coast as Florida’s tortured coast.

“All of this is about managing risk, but we’re keeping the lake at an artificially high state,” Mast said.

Much like the economy in Southwest Florida, his east coast communities depend on hotels, restaurants and recreation — all of which depend on clean water.

“This is a detriment to communities and they share in problems they had no role in creating and that’s not right,” Mast said.

Mast said the Army Corps of Engineers need to change the way it manages the lake level in the dry season.

Since they’re a federal agency, does congress have the ability to force their hand and stop the releases?

This is something that Congress doesn’t have the ability to say this ends immediately,” Mast said. “These are things that have to be worked through in law on a number of committees.”/

Mast added more on the Army Corps’ role.

“The corp of engineers has jurisdiction to say when there’s instances of pollution and things like that, they can adjust what they’re doing, something they need to exercise especially when we’re talking about a lake that’s covered 90 percent in algal blooms, that is a perfect opportunity to exercise that authority,” Mast said.

The Army Corps said it will begin to reevaluate how it makes its decisions to discharge before the end of the year.

“The thought is you stop the flow out of the lake and you will stop introducing algae into the waterways, but South Florida is in hurricane season,” said Ricky R.D. James, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works . “The Corps has to pay particular attention to that and not hold too much in the lake for fear of Lake Okeechobee getting too high, breaking the levees and killing people.”

Possible health affects for families, pregnancy

William and Mikayla Zariske love living right on the water.

“It’s nice out here,” Mikayla said. “There’s nothing wrong with the boat life or anything, just this algae is like, I don’t know this is the worst thing.”

But spending time on their boat this summer at the Rosen Park Marina in Cape Coral is less than pleasant.

“The algae bloom the past several weeks has been terrible. It gathers together pockets, it emits a really bad odor,” William said.

Not only are they concerned for what it’s doing to their health, but they’re also worried about their baby on the way.

“I’m very concerned about the long-term health effects especially with our unborn child,” William said.

Mikayla is eight months pregnant and says her doctor is advising her to get away from the green slime.

“She said if she were me, she would move and try to get away,” Mikayla said. “They don’t really know what to say about it yet.”

But she says they’re still not getting definite answers on how this could affect their unborn child.

“It’s very concerning when you’ve got a pregnant wife this far along,” William said.

And they have nowhere else to go.

“This is all we can afford and I wouldn’t want to go out and ask anyone,” Mikayla said.

They’re hoping something changes before they bring their baby on board.

“Nobody’s doing anything about these live-a-boards,” William said. “There’s probably a thousand in the community and we’re just supposed to live here?”

Research says pregnant women are more susceptible to the toxins that can be emitted from the blue-green algae.

The state health department says high concentrations of the toxins can affect the liver, nervous system and skin.

Algae and Red Tide Impact on Tourism

“We noticed the beach littered with dead fish,” said Katie Leccese, who decided to cut her vacation on Sanibel five days short because of the water conditions like red tide, “That’s when we said you know what? This is not worth our health.”

In addition to red tide, blue green algae is also affecting many areas along the Caloosahatchee River.

“We were not notified of anything,” Leccese said, unhappy, and adding that her family is now sick from the blooms, and blaming the condo owner for not filling her in about what’s going on in our Southwest Florida water. “Let me know. Let me decide the fate of my family. I feel like I was so duped by these people.”

On Fort Myers Beach the chamber of commerce has been getting a lot of calls from hotel bookers about algae and red tide. And they say they’ve added blog entries to their website to address the issue.

Jackie Liszak with the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce said, “That is everyone’s reconcilability to stay informed about what’s going on, whether you’re coming to visit us, whether you’re a resident here, as well as the different accommodations we have here”

You can find helpful links to more information the current water conditions in Southwest Florida.

The chart below from Lee County also contains current and forecast conditions for red tide and otherharmful algal blooms (HABs) along area beaches and the Caloosahatchee River.

Beach Health Advisory Status Florida Department of Health’s Florida Healthy Beaches Program
Current Beach Conditions MOTE Marine Laboratory
Red Tide Current Status Florida Fish  and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Algal Blooms Monitoring and Response Florida Department of Environmental Protection
Lake Okeechobee & Vicinity Water Levels ​South Florida Water Management District