Toxic blue-green algae plagues South Florida’s waterways; Governor declares state of emergency

Toxic cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, are once again plaguing waterways in South Florida, including the state’s largest body of freshwater, Lake Okeechobee, which is also the second-largest freshwater body in the contiguous United States.

Since June, the pungent-smelling algae bloom has reportedly covered 90 percent of the lake’s 730-square-mile surface in less than a month’s time. May’s record rainfall in combination with summer warmth have contributed to the algae bloom’s growth.

Algae also polluted Lake Okeechobee and spread to Florida’s beaches in 2016.

The current issue has impacted waterways in seven counties, including Okeechobee, Palm Beach and St. Lucie, prompting Gov. Rick Scott to issue a state of emergency for affected areas.

An algae bloom is on the Caloosahatchee River at the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam on July 12, 2018, in Alva, Florida. Water releases from Lake Okeechobee toward both Florida coasts will resume Friday amid political backlash and a toxic algae bloom. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The order allows the South Florida Water Management District and the Department of Environmental Protection to waive restrictions to store water in additional areas south of Lake Okeechobee, the Sun Sentinel reported.

The blue-green algae pose potential threats to the tourism economy in South Florida during its peak tourism months.

Those living downstream of Lake Okeechobee are particularly concerned about the toxic algae bloom and its health threats as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District reopens the floodgates on the lake, releasing water into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries in order to handle the risk of flooding in the region.

“The current conditions at Lake Okeechobee highlight the challenge of balancing the multiple threats to the public – those associated with floodwaters around the lake that are prompting water to be released and those associated with possible downstream exposure to algal toxins in the released water containing cyanobacteria,” said Dr. Diane Mas, REHS/RS, associate at civil and environmental engineering consulting firm Fuss and O’Neill.

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