Will we see harmful algae blooms? What about fisheries reopening? Top SWFL environmental stories for 2022

Florida's unique environment is why many of us live here, and the ecological systems that make up the Sunshine State are tied to everything from recreation to real estate prices. 

Clean, clear waters pump up sustainable industries like eco-tourism, and they're even necessary for a healthy housing market. 

A 2015 Florida Realtors study found that property values in Lee and Martin counties — which receive Lake Okeechobee discharges to varying degrees — were suppressed by more than $500 million in one year due to poor water quality. 

With nearly 1,000 people moving to Florida daily, water will continue to be an issue as more people means more pollution, more pollution for systems that are already stressed. 

Keeping track of all of these issues can be a headache, so The News-Press put together the following list to help readers and the public know what to look for in 2022. 

An air boater prepares to trailer his boat after recreating on Lake Okeechobee at Alvin Ward Park in Moore Haven on Sunday October,3, 2021.

New Lake Okeechobee regulations 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will finalize what is called the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, or LOSOM, by the end of 2022. 

LOSOM, as it's currently written, is expected to send high-volume discharges down the Caloosahatchee River during heavy rain events like tropical depressions, storms and hurricanes. 

In case you missed it:Lake O water levels high, what does it mean for SWFL?

More:New bill advances non-chemical solutions to troublesome water weeds that can choke and pollute Lake O, surrounding waterways

Those summer months are also the time of year when blue-green algae is most likely to be present on the lake. 

In 2018, a blue-green algae bloom exploded on the lake and was soon smothering the Fort Myers-Cape Coral area. 

Col. James Booth is the head of Army Corps operations in Florida and said the agency hopes to get the lake down to 12.5 feet above sea level before the start of the next dry season.  

"Right now we’re drafting the operational language and doing the final modeling results and when you select them modeling there are some finalization," Booth said. "(We have a) meeting in January. Then it moves into agency for review and for public comment and as we move into next fall and are able to walk through the (Environmental Impact Statement) with the (U.S Fish and Wildlife) Service, and it will be operational in January of 2023." 

Army Corps' big reveal:How different is new Lake O management plan?

LOSOM will also hold the lake a foot-and-a-half higher than it has been since 2008, when regulations were put in place that kept lake surface levels between 12.5 and 15.5 above sea level. 

Levels will regularly reach 17 feet under LOSOM, and critics and water quality scientists say that will hinder the regrowth of tens of thousands of acres of aquatic vegetation — the lifeblood of Okeechobee's world-famous bass fishery. 

The Army Corps will release what's called and Environmental Impact Statement in April. 

Will we see harmful algae blooms?

Red tide and blue-green algae are the top toxic aquatic threats in Southwest Florida, and, unfortunately, they can occur at the same time. 

That was the case in 2018, when a state of emergency was declared in Lee County for both red tide and blue-green algae blooms. 

The combination was devastating to the local economy as hotels rentals were down, home sales were stalled and the fishing guide industry put on hold. 

But it's practically impossible to know now if we'll have blooms in 2022. 

"We have a pretty good idea of what would lead to to a bloom," said Florida Gulf Coast University professor and Blue-Green Algae Task Force member Mike Parsons. "You need a lot of nutrients in the lake and you need runoff that’s pretty old. When you look at 2018, one of the big thing that happened was a big rainfall event in January. And in 2016 you saw it was effecting St. Lucie and Stuart." 

Fallow land and green sugar cane are divided into rectangular fields in the Everglades Agricultural Area, which borders a rim canal and natural marsh land in Lake Okeechobee in this 2005 photo. Belle Glade and a rainbow can be seen in the distance.

So far:No blue-green algae. No red tide. River, coastal conditions looking better this fall

By the way:Florida could be a world leader in fighting blue-green algae, task force members agree

Both 2016 and 2018 were plagued with algae blooms, the former on the east coast and the later in the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area. 

"I think people would pay more attention to significant rainfall in January," Parsons said. 

Oil drilling in environmentally sensitive lands

While water issues are top of mind for most Southwest Floridians, hidden miles below the surface lies another liquid that stirs up heated debate: oil.

In January, a Texas-based oil company, Burnett Oil, applied for permits to build roads and exploratory oil pads in Big Cypress National Preserve rekindling opposition from environmental groups and indigenous tribes. The applications sparked calls from Democratic members of Congress to deny the permits and insist on more stringent environmental assessments of the operation.

Latest:DEP: Texas oil company permit for exploratory well in Big Cypress may be denied

The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida staged a hike and protest of the proposed oil operations. Betty Osceola, an elder with the tribe, told the gathered protestors: it is up to people to put pressure on the Department of the Interior, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and other agencies involved in the permitting of the oil wells.

“I want to heal the landscape and help it get healthier,” she said.

The Big Cypress oil permits are working their way through the FDEP process, but in November, the agency denied permits to Trend Exploration for its application to explore for oil in Immokalee.

Vanessa Garcia Cuevas of Tampa carries the AIM flag in a hike on Saturday, April 10, 2021, in Big Cypress National Preserve to a location where Burnett Oil Company is planning an oil pad.

DEP listed concerns over water resources, wildlife and wetland ecosystems as the cause for the denial, claims that follow oil permits throughout Florida.

While Trend Exploration is appealing the denial, groups such as the South Florida Wildlands Association, the Stone Crab Alliance and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida continue to raise the alarm over the potential environmental harms drilling for oil in Florida can cause.

For the birds:Wintering species making their way to Southwest Florida for the season

Manatees on the way:Florida's sea cows will soon make their way inland for cooler winter months

Will redfish and snook fisheries reopen in Southwest Florida? 

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission closed the snook and redfish season here in the wake of an extremely destructive red tide bloom, which lasted more than a year-and-a-half and killed millions of pounds of marine wildlife. 

Snook are among the most protected gamefish in the state and are valuable both as an acrobatic fighting fish as well as world-class table fare. 

FWC allows licensed angler to keep one redfish between 18 and 27 incher per day in Southwest Florida waters when the season is open, which is typically year-round.  

Did you know? Advocates fear new Lake O plan will devastate aquatic ecology, famed bass fishery

Goliath grouper:FWC may allow goliath grouper harvest in Florida waters. Will anglers pay the price?

Snook season:Southwest Florida anglers, guides are glad FWC is keeping snook season closed this fall

During a typical year, snook harvest is allowed during a spring and fall season, and a single fish between 28 and 33 inches is allowed between March 1 and April 30 and again from Sept. 1 to Nov. 30. 

But neither of those fisheries will be open for harvest until at least May 31 for waters from Sarasota Bay south to Gordon Pass in Collier County. 

FWC commissions will decide this spring whether to open one, both or neither fishery. 

Mike Westra's family owns Lehr's Economy Tackle in North Fort Myers.

He said plenty of redfish are being caught, and that the snook population seems to have mostly recovered from a devastating 2018 red tide.

"I think they're going to open up redfish next year (after the May 31 ban expires), and I'm under the impression they may open snook season in September," Westra said. "A lot of us and our customers would like to see snook stay closed, but just because the majority of my customers feel that way doesn't mean they should keep it closed." 

FWC is generally more conservative with snook management because the fish is a tropical and sub-tropical species that doesn't tolerate cold weather well. 

A particularly nasty cold front in 2010 caused a snook die-off that cause FWC to shut the season down then. 

"We've had such a good redfish year, maybe the best in a decade plus," Westra said. 

"They may turn around and say 'let's give it another year.'"

CDC takes a look at the health effects of algae toxins

After some false starts and COVID delays, in May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began signing up volunteers for a long-promised study of how toxins produced by cyanobacteria might affect human health.

The federal health agency considers cyanobacteria blooms (blue-green algae) an emerging public health issue, and the research will help “determine if breathing in cyanotoxins can make people sick or cause symptoms,” it said at the time. “Previous research and personal reports show that people exposed to cyanotoxins in the air may experience symptoms of upper respiratory irritation, such as wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, or shortness of breath.”

In Southwest Florida, the topic has been one of chronic concern following a disastrous high-profile red tide/blue-green algae crisis three years ago followed by several subsequent seasons of localized slime. Though no blooms have since been as widespread as 2018’s, the stuff continues to periodically plague the Caloosahatchee watershed inland and Cape Coral canals.

In 2019 the CDC tried to roll out a study focusing on fishing guides and others who work on and around Lake O. After many front-liners responded with scorn, general distrust of the government and worries about negative publicity, it fizzled – and the pandemic didn't help matters.

Can algae toxins make you sick?CDC seeks South Florida volunteers to find out

Volunteers needed:The CDC is ready to study airborne cyanobacteria toxins ... but where are the volunteers?

This time, the study’s scope has been expanded to include the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers as well as Cape Coral canals, a move advocates applauded. Recruiting volunteers, however, proved challenging in the early months. But in July, lead researcher Dr. Lorraine Backer told The News-Press she was hopeful the community would step up, especially since it was something many said they wanted.

Calls and an email to the CDC asking for a progress report were not immediately returned. Information about the study is online at https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/cast/participate.htm or call 561-297-4631.