Blue-green algae bloom season is here. Here's how conditions look for the Caloosahatchee River
A blue-green algae bloom is festering again this summer on Lake Okeechobee, the de facto headwaters of the Caloosahatchee River.
But lake levels are low, and experts say there is little to no reason to fear a major blue-green algae outbreak in Southwest Florida this year.
"I don't see anything to be concerned about," said Barry Rosen, a Florida Gulf Coast University professor and algae expert. "It's summer and the organisms are there. If you look at the photos that come in every five minutes at Franklin Lock, (you) don't see any cyanobacteria."
The Caloosahatchee River often sees (and often needs) flows from Lake Okeechobee, sometimes referred to as the liquid heart of the Everglades.
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But the lake has in the past transferred toxic blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) blooms to the river and its estuary, as was the case in the icky summer of 2018.
That year a toxic algae bloom started on the lake in early summer. By July the bloom had spread to the Caloosahatchee River, and soon then-governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for impacted counties.
The 2018 bloom came in the wake of Hurricane Irma, which landed in September of 2017 and stirred up nutrients in the Okeechobee system.
There were no major hurricane impacts to the lake last year, and lake levels are relatively low for this time of year at just over 13 feet above sea level.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controls lake levels and discharge, and, despite what has been reported on some social media platforms, has not been releasing Lake Okeechobee water to the Caloosahatchee River in recent weeks.
"There's been no particular change to the lake in the past week," said Lt. Col. Todd Polk, with the Army Corps' Jacksonville office. "We saw no water really entering from the north and no water leaving from the east, south or west. it's really been all evapotranspiration."
Polk said the bloom covers approximately 280 square miles of the lake, and that bloom potential on the lake remains moderate to high.
"We've had drier weather and the lake has been at the same level for about the past two months now," Polk said.
Polk said some people or groups on social media have suggested that the Army Corps is releasing lake water.
"It's a misunderstanding because our flow is 650 feet per second (at the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam in Alva) and the flows continue to be met by the (Caloosahatchee) basin," Polk said.
So the river is being fed by the waters to the north and south, not the lake.
Some river advocates still worry that releases this summer could foul Caloosahatchee River waters.
"We'd prefer not to receive lake releases at this time because there has been an ongoing blue-green algae on the lake," said Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani. "It fluctuates from day to day, but it's bad enough that we don't want to see releases."
The organisms that cause blue-green algae and other blooms exist naturally in waters of the lake.
"The blue-green algae bloom issue was not a big thing with the original Lake Okeechobee, before any modifications were done with it," said Jim Beever, a retired planner and climate change expert. "They were occasional and in isolated areas."
Beever grew up in Southwest Florida and spent most of his adult work life here as a biologist and planner.
"It would pop up if you had a situation like a bird rookery or people were discharging sewage, but it wouldn't take over the entire lake," Beever said of the lake decades ago. "There weren't enough nutrients at that point."
Rosen said the door for a blue-green algae bloom this summer is starting to close.
"The blooms, if they're going to happen, should have happened already," he said. "Unless there are any major disturbance in the force, I think we're going to have a quiet season."
Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.