Will 2018's water nightmare return? Businesses, scientists and environmental advocates worry as harmful algae blooms spread

Amy Bennett Williams
Fort Myers News-Press

With red tide lingering on the coastline and cyanobacteria spreading through inland waterways, post-traumatic anxiety is gripping some Southwest Florida businesses and environmental advocates.

Their fear: Things are starting to look a lot like 2018 before that year’s disastrous algae crisis, which devastated the region’s economy and natural system.

“Are we going to relive the nightmare of 2018?” asks Fort Myers fishing guide-turned water advocate Daniel Andrews. “I’m not a scientist and can’t speak of the actual interaction between the two algae species. But I am extremely concerned right now with the amount of toxic cyanobacteria we are seeing in Lake Okeechobee, and in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

”With the lake being so high right now, the threat of nutrient-rich discharges fueling the red tide seems like déjà vu,” said Andrews, who helped found the nonprofit Captains for Clean Water.

He’s been getting frequent calls from guide friends and business owners “who are about in tears over where we’re at right now. They got hit hard from COVID. They can’t afford a water crisis now.”

They’re not alone. The prospect of a 2018 repeat “scares the hell out of me,” said Jay Johnson, president of the Lee County chapter Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association. “There’s a huge concern. We’re coming out of COVID (with) a nice start to a recovery,” said Johnson, who owns Cape Coral’s Bubba’s Roadhouse and Saloon and Bert’s Bar and Grill in Matlacha,” and anything that happens with water quality could put a damper on it, like what happened in 2018.”

Here’s what worries them about the potential for doubled trouble – saltwater red tide and freshwater cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae:

  • The weather is warming, which helps cyanobacteria grow. “As it heats up, algae bloom and grow more vigorously,” said FGCU Water School Professor Mike Parsons, a member of the state’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force.
  • There’s a 500-square mile algae bloom on Lake O – bigger than the city of Los Angeles – and water levels are even higher than they were in 2018, releases of lake water to the Caloosahatchee will likely increase soon.
  • Cyanobacteria is showing up in Lee County waters, including in Cape Coral and Fort Myers Shores canals, as well as along the Caloosahatchee. “Every week the blooms in the Caloosahatchee seem to grow in magnitude and frequency,” said Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani, who in recent days has seen them several places, including the Caloosahatchee at Alva, Olga, and LaBelle (where he saw no warning signs). After 15 minutes at the Hendry County city's downtown Barron Park, Cassani and visual journalist Cat Chase both had respiratory irritation and nausea. His advice? "Stay away from it for now."

All this is happening as red tide, which has usually cleared up by late spring, persists along Southwest Florida’s coast. “It’s a little strange that it’s lingering this late in the year,” Parsons said. “We saw it in (Bonita Springs’) New Pass just yesterday … We collected water samples and you could see it under the microscope – it’s definitely coming into the pass.”

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Poking the bear

As blue-green algae flows with the river to the Gulf, it could fertilize red tide. “We don’t have evidence it’s directly connected, but we’re throwing a lot of nutrients into our coastal waters and we have red tide here right now,” Parsons said. “It’s bound to get into red tide and have some effect, whether it’s 100% a factor or 10%.”

Yes, he says, the diatom that causes it occurs naturally, but the nutrient-rich lake water “might be poking the bear with Caloosahatchee releases."

One difference: In 2018, Hurricane Irma had stirred up lake sediments, said Parsons, plus it had been a wet winter, “So there were elevated nutrients in 2018.”

Though Parsons hasn’t yet checked levels this year, he suspects they may be high again. ‘We are seeing high biomass of algae, which means there are enough nutrients to support it … Let’s assume we have similar levels of algal biomass on the lake – at least based on the satellite imagery – if they follow a similar discharge scheduled and they release that bloom downstream, I think it’s likely we’ll see it grow and concentrate, also on the east coast."

Municipalities and advocacy groups are prodding agencies and lawmakers to act. Adding urgency is U.S. Army Corps’ ongoing revisions to lake management protocols. Known as the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, or LOSOM, it will govern how and when water will be released from the lake in the future, and should be in place by the end of next year.

The complicated, controversial process has been clouded by lawsuits, lobbying and coast-versus-coast-versus-agricultural inland jockeying for position.

Andrews is particularly worried the Corps is bungling the process. "Why can they not figure this out? They’ve seemed to ignore everything we’ve told them. It’s going to dictate how Lake Okeechobee is managed for the next decade. I’m sitting here looking at (his new baby, 5-month-old) Collin in his bassinet and thinking our waters can’t handle another 10 years of this. Neither can we. This estuary will be completely ... dead by the time he’s 10 years old if they don’t write LOSOM to be more equitable."

Did you know?:Blue-green algae causes health officials to close recreational area in Caloosahatchee River

And:Parts of historic Everglades showing signs of blue-green algae with summer on the horizon

Last week, Lee Commission Chair Kevin Ruane wrote the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with the commission’s “deep concerns” about its management of Lake Okeechobee. “Now, after the loss of tourism in 2020, we cannot afford a similar event just as our economy is recovering post COVID. All measures must be taken to avoid this outcome.”

That followed a similar letter in march, signed by all of the county’s mayors that all but begged the Corps to do everything in its power to keep the Caloosahatchee and its estuary safe from blooms.

Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis sent a letter of his own to the Corps, asking it to work with the state to protect its estuaries. "The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must do better to manage lake levels and prevent harmful discharges to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers," he wrote. 

Wednesday, conservation groups sent a letter urging Florida officials to set water-quality standards for the harmful toxins in algal blooms that threaten the health of the state’s residents and wildlife.

Earlier this month, a different grouping of nonprofits including Calusa Waterkeeper asked DeSantis to declare an algae-fueled state of emergency. So far, the governor has not.

'Make a concerted effort'

In a region where water quality is a critical selling point for the area's tourism-focused economy, protecting it is key, said Fort Myers hotelier Jim Larkin.

Even though his Crowne Plaza Fort Myers at the Bell Tower Shops isn’t on the coast, many beachgoers use it as a home base.

“I remember back in 2018, a lot of those folks would book a three- or four-night stay with us, then wind up being here two days,” said Larkin, who also chairs the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce. “After their first experience at the beach with red tide, they were pretty disappointed … and that went on for months.”

As news showed area waterways “just filled with that blue-green muck,” Larkin said, “It definitely hurt our business.”

This would be an awful time to take another hit. “We are just kind of getting back up on our feet,” said Larkin, “and we’re really enjoying a rather robust return right now … We’re full, which is very unusual for the month of May,. I don’t even recall the last time I’ve seen our hotels full every weekend in May.”

Now is the time to do everything possible to keep a water disaster from happening, says John Lai, who ran hotels on Sanibel and Captiva for years before taking the helm of the Sanibel Captiva Chamber of Commerce.

"Domestic travel is just through the roof right now," Lai said. "What could derail this summer for us is water quality ... the timing is ironic because we’re staring at a lot of the same conditions we were back in 2018 – in fact, the lake is actually higher that it was back then, and the algae on the lake is present earlier than it did back then. And we’re nervous – both as a community – both residential and business – because we know that red tide bloom has been in the Gulf since last October or before (and) we’re just afraid," Lai said. "From an ecology perspective, it can absolutely destroy our estuary. From an economic perspective, we all know what that’ll do as well."

Like Larkin, Lai knows how fast bad water news carries. "It doesn’t take long for that news to spread in the digital world. All it’ll take is one weekend of poor water quality and social media will explode. Florida gets painted with a broad brush, so if it happens on our Gulf coast, it’ll hurt tourism not just in southwest Florida, but statewide."

Both chambers of commerce are teaming up with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. In addition to lobbying lawmakers, they're coordinating a letter-writing drive  to urge the Corps to adopt a "water management strategy that distributes the water fairly among all users in order to reduce harm and benefit all stakeholders." The form is online here: https://captainsforcleanwater-salesforceintegration.salsalabs.org/acoe-losom-cta/index.html

The chambers are also urging members to contact area Florida lawmakers, who have largely remained quiet on the issue. At a virtual water summit earlier this month, Florida Representative Bob Rommel, R-Naples said "We all know that algae blooms happen every year when it starts getting rainy ... heat and fresh water create algae," he said.

As for the economic assistance a state of emergency might bring, Rommel said, "Every captain I know – and I know hundreds of captains - they've been busy. They're doing two runs a day. They're doing great right now."

The News-Press again reached out to the region’s state lawmaking delegation and only Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, responded by deadline.

"We are not turning a blind eye. We are doing as much as we can,” Passidomo said. “If I had a magic wand, I’d be out there waving it all over the place, but it took us 100 years to get here – 100 years of everybody not understanding or appreciating what’s going on. Now we do and we are working some significant policies and programs with significant dollars to help repair our water systems, but it won't happen overnight."