Blue-Green Algae: Why and How Programs


“When Blue-Green Algae (BGA) and Red Tide rear their ugly heads, they change our quality of life,” said Dr. S. Gregory Tolley at his presentation, “Blue-Green Algae: Why Is This Happening? How Can We Fix It?” Dr. Tolley is the Chair of the Department of Marine & Ecological Sciences for Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) that hosted the program with Lee Health at the Healthy Living Center Babcock Ranch before roughly 15 people on Tuesday afternoon, June 11.

Dr. Tolley explained that Southwest Florida underwent the start of an historic Red Tide bloom roughly one month after Hurricane Irma of September 2017. “This was not unusual, as we almost always have a Red Tide outbreak during our cooler months of October through March, but this one remained straight through the warmer water temperatures of Summer 2018, lasting until January 2019. This became a double whammy last summer, when BGA fired up on Lake Okeechobee, with water releases by the United States Army Corps of Engineers down the Caloosahatchee River to our coast, trapping Southwest Florida between the two, with those twin environmental disasters finally catching the attention of the average citizen.”

While these were clearly tragedies, Dr. Tolley sees one silver lining: “Our elected officials are finally paying attention. A big concern is that if we have a relatively clean water summer, politicians will move on to the next shiny new thing and forget all about us again, as these problems are solvable with the focus and funding on them, as many other groups are vying with us for their attention. Sadly, however, I seriously doubt that we will not suffer from BGA or Red Tide this Summer. As we all learned last year, the environment and our economy are interconnected, so if we don’t get our environment right, our economy will come crashing down.”

Blue Green Algae Science 101

“BGA is a cyanobacteria that typically originates during the summer in the fresh water of Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River,” explained Dr. Tolley. “Cyanobacteria likes warm water temperatures and as Climate Change continues, we have warmer water, meaning that BGA will become more common until we change our behavior to reduce Climate Change. The most famous of the 50 BGA varieties are microcystins that can enter humans through the lungs and blood and severely threaten the liver.”

Dr. Tolley said there are many causes of BGA that we can control. “Many of us live on things called ‘lakes’ that are really glorified retention ponds that hold nutrients that run off into them. We should replace these with ‘Urban Filter Marshes’ that will not only store but clean water of nitrogen and phosphorous. In Charlotte County, 40% of residents still have septic tanks that fail over time, unlike natural systems that improve the longer they remain, so take that step or get on a city sewer line. We must invest in renewable energy, as solar power should be a natural for The Sunshine State! At your homes, plant shrubs that require little water and the nutrients we put on them to grow. Never wash your car in your driveway, as all that water pulls in vehicle fluids and everything else from the road; carwashes use 30% less water while recycling it.”

Red Tide

Dr. Tolley explained that “Red Tide is a single cell organism called a ‘Dinoflagellate.’ This is a fancy way to say, ‘whirling whip,’ as that is how it moves through the water column to find nutrients. Red Tide blooms start roughly 30 to 50 miles offshore, so we cannot blame Lake Okeechobee or the Caloosahatchee River for Red Tide. Currents and winds blow these onshore that cause ecological damage while producing an unpleasant smell, dead fish and respiratory issues in people. Most alarmingly, some initial research now links Red Tide to serious health concerns like ALS and Alzheimer’s Disease, though the science on these are not quite there yet, as we need about five years of definitive data to make conclusions.”

Red Tide originates from many sources, he explained. “It can pull nutrients right out of the air, like the iron from Saharan dust storms that cross the Atlantic Ocean from Africa, so they do not need traditional sources, like nitrogen from farms, to actually bloom. People today talk about all kinds of new technologies to solve Red Tide, but some of these blooms can be 130 miles long by 20 to 40 miles wide, so that is a lot of cells to kill without further damaging the ecosystem, so this is a huge problem that will require a new way of thinking.”

While BGA is tough, Dr. Tolley stated, “Red Tide is a lot more complicated, with no easy fixes, as there are no such things as ‘No Regret Solutions!’ Our entire water quality system is a huge experiment gone wrong over the last 140 years, so nothing we do today will repair it quickly, though we must start now. Every time we destroy a wetland, we lose a natural resource that has taken care of these problems for thousands of years, so let’s take these things into consideration as we develop for the 1,000 people who move to Florida every day into the future. The solutions are money and political will, with the Federal Government far behind the State in its financial obligations, leading to our communities becoming ‘Paradise Lost!’ Stay informed; talk to your neighbors and elected officials, and go to the ballot box; as advocacy is crucial!”

FGCU Water School

In addition to his “Blue-Green Algae” presentation, Dr. Tolley briefly discussed FGCU’s new “Water School,” of which he will soon become the Director! “The Water School at FGCU will eventually be in a 120,000-square-foot center that will be the largest on campus, with teaching and research facilities and state-of-the-art laboratories. What excites me most is the State of Florida is allowing us to add five world class scholars to the Water School faculty, including our new Hydrologist, Barry Rosen, who people refer to as ‘Mr. Blue-Green Algae!’ We have a new Sustainability Director and next year will add a Climate Change and Resiliency Director to combat increasing temperatures and sea level rise, along with an ecological economist to research how environment influences our economy. The Water School will institute several new undergraduate fields of study, along with our first Ph.D. program, along with new collaborative partnerships, such as with the Mote Marine Laboratory, to leverage what everyone else in the region is doing to attack environmental issues and better inform the public.”

The next Water Quality forum hosted by FGCU & Lee Health is a “Lunch & Learn” on Wednesday, July 10, with Dr. Mike Parsons at the Healthy Life Center Coconut Point at 23450 Via Coconut Point in Estero from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. While Dr. Parson’s lecture is free, advance reservations are necessary at 239-468-0050. Dr. Parsons is an FGCU Professor of Marine Science, Director of the Vester Marine & Environmental Science Research Field Station, and one of the five experts recently appointed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on his new Blue-Green Algae Task Force.


By Gary Mooney