Toxic blue-green algae not polluting St. Lucie River since summer discharges halted

WBPF interviews Dr. Zack Jud on toxic blue-green algae and how,  for the first time in years, the St. Lucie River and other local waterways are not covered in harmful green slime.

See full article online here.


With the heat of summer, toxic algae is once again blooming on parts of Lake Okeechobee.

But for the first time in years, the St. Lucie River and other local waterways are not covered in harmful green slime.

What's the difference?

"Well, it's great! And I think it will only get better if we can just keep the discharges to zero," said Stuart resident Becky Harris.

She's talking about the Army Corps of Engineers not discharging water from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie River for the first summer in years.

She and others believe that decision is what is keeping the waterway algae-free.

"It's like night and day. It's beautiful right now," agreed fisherman Bobby Petrizzo. "Usually this time of year, you anticipate dirty, smelly water. Whatever they're doing, they're doing right with that lake."

"As a scientist and an angler and a water user, I'm thrilled. This is the best summer we've had in probably four years, and we're hopeful this is a sign of movement in the right direction," said Dr. Zack Jud, a marine ecologist at the Florida Oceanographic Society.

People are jet skiing, boating and fishing in water they were afraid to touch last year.

Toxic blue-green algae, called cyanobacteria, killed wildlife, closed businesses and had people putting their homes on the market.

"It was bad. I know we thought maybe we should move," said Harris.

And that was before her mini-Pomeranian, Pandora, became one of six dogs poisoned by fish in the river.

"She was the first dog, so they weren't really sure what was going on. She spent four days in the hospital. The vet that cared for her was very dire. She had very little hope she would pull through," said Harris.

All Pandora did was take a quick bite of a dead catfish on the bank. She was lucky; a standard poodle named Finn died a horrible death, according to his owners, after he, too, ate part of a dead fish. A necropsy showed he had alarmingly high levels of microcystin throughout his body.

Officials knew microcystin, the toxin in blue-green algae, was harmful; dying dogs brought it front and center.

In response to protests, outraged lawmakers and continued pressure, the Army Corps of Engineers this spring released water from Lake Okeechobee ahead of the rainy season, keeping the summer level several feet lower than usual.

Since then, toxic algae has bloomed on the lake in several places.

But with the dams shut, the algae has not moved east to the river, and the waters are clear.

"To me, visually, it's an A. It's the cleanest water we've seen in years," said Jud.

Jud said water from septic tanks, farms and dirty canals has all continued to filter into the river but the one difference is that Lake Okeechobee has not gushed out millions of gallons of toxic water on top of it.

"There's a clear link between Lake Okeechobee discharges and toxic cyanobacteria in our estuaries. It's that simple," said Jud.

Both he and Harris are cautiously optimistic, hoping the Corps sees the improvemen, and continues its new plan.

"We're all in this together, and we all want a solution, and I think we're getting there," said Harris.

Army Corp of Engineers Chief Communications Officer John Campbell said the Corps is optimistic about what it's seen so far since halting the discharges.

The Corps is making revisions to its Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual and says it will take into consideration all of the public's comments gathered over a year of public hearings. It will then start prioritizing studies that will go into changing the operating manual, which is a multiyear project.

"It's premature to say if this is good, bad or something we will continue until that process plays out a little bit," said Campbell.