Right now, it is just a waiting game. But if the unsightly blue and green gunk that now covers 500 square miles of Lake Okeechobee is any indication, this summer South Florida could be ground zero for a massive algae outbreak on par with, or even worse than, the bloom that contaminated waterways on the state’s East and West coasts three years ago.
“There’s a pretty good chance for it,” said Larry Brand, a phytoplankton expert at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, who has been monitoring algae levels in the lake via National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite images.
Precipitation, he said, will determine just how bad that outbreak could be. Water levels in Lake Okeechobee—where thick mats of blue-green algae, fueled by rising temperatures, have been building up for weeks—are already high. And with forecasters calling for an above-average hurricane season, it is only a matter of time until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will have to release water from the lake into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers to prevent a breach in the aging Herbert Hoover Dike, Brand explained.
Patches of cyanobacteria, the scientific name for blue-green algae, are already present in the Caloosahatchee, he noted. “So when the corps discharges more water, algae will continue to travel down to the estuaries,” said Brand, a professor of marine biology and ecology. And if the release is large, the algae will flow all the way into the Gulf of Mexico, where the algae-laden freshwater will mix with the ocean’s saltwater, stimulating a chemical reaction that often spawns red tide.