Blue-green algae still being found in Caloosahatchee River, Lake Okeechobee
The Caloosahatchee River is the largest river in Southwest Florida and stretches from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico. Fort Myers News-Press
The seeds are planted for another blue-green algae outbreak in the historic Everglades system as the base of the marine food chain is active and temperatures are warming.
Algae has been found in Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River for the past few weeks, although toxin levels are low to non-existent, according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection records.
"We're well ahead of where we were this time last year in terms of spatial expanse but nowhere near the scum we were seeing in July and August," said Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani. "It's already here. It's in the estuary. We're just hoping it won't get much worse."
Today the Everglades stretches from just south of Orlando to the Florida Keys and includes 16 counties.
The Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers were connected to the lake decades ago in order to drain the Everglades for farming and development.
"The latest report (from FDEP) is that it's pretty sporadic," Cassani said. "We've seen a lot that's mixed into the water column from wave action. When you're in a north-south canal connected to the river, where it's protected from prevailing easterly winds, you'll see more evidence of surface mats."
FDEP is reporting pockets of blue-green algae on Lake Okeechobee, although no recent samples taken from the big lake have contained toxins.
Last year much of the Caloosahatchee was covered by a toxic blue-green algae bloom that lasted for several months.
This year it's been reported at W.P Franklin Lock and other water control structures along the Caloosahatchee.
Eric Milbrandt with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation was on the river earlier this week and said conditions were good near the mouth of the river with an algae outbreak near the downtown Fort Myers area.
"We looked but didn't see any microsystis, but there's definitely phytoplankton in the water column," Milbrandt said.
Milbrandt said a different, non-toxic algae that's been on the river for a few weeks is still in parts of the river.
"In the lower estuary it's what we've been seeing around the area, which is a marine cyanobacteria that's growing on seagrasses and then floating up and then it gets transported around," he said. "There's usually blades of sea grass in the matter and they're brownish clumps."
Jim Beever with the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council said he expects to see bloom conditions this summer.
"There's no accurate way to predict what the extent will be but we're definitely going to have blue-green algae in the spring and summer and probably into the autumn as long as the temperatures are warm and the nutrients are there," Beever said. "This is earlier than you normally expect but May has been hotter and since we had the big bloom last year there is a background low amount of cyanobacteria that's already present, which the blooms can grown on."
Cassani said he didn't think any releases from Lake Okeechobee would make the situation worse at this point.
"Low toxin levels on the lake recently helped but there appears to be a a bloom there," Cassani said. "But microsystis isn't always producing toxins. We clearly don't understand all the conditions that lead to toxin production, but when the cells become very dense and close in proximity to each other on a molecular level that tends to lead to increased toxin production."
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A paddle through the Northern Everglades with News-Press reporters Chad Gillis and Andrew West Fort Myers News-Press
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