FGCU, Lee Health Host Blue-Green Algae Programs


“Microcystins are a class of freshwater Blue-Green Algae with gas in them to float up to the surface,” said Dr. Michael Parsons at his presentation, “Blue-Green Algae: Why Is This Happening? How Can We Fix It?” “It can be so thick it can look like a mat on top of the water, and so dense there are reports of iguanas and ducks walking across it.”

Dr. Parsons is a professor of Marine Sciences at The Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) as well as the Director of the Coastal Watershed Institute and Vester Marine & Environmental Field Station. His program was the last of a three-part series co-hosted by FGCU with Lee Health, with his “Lunch & Learn” session at the Healthy Living Center Coconut Point in the Village of Estero before roughly 35 people on Wednesday afternoon, July 10.

On April 29, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis created the Blue Green Algae Task Force and appointed Dr. Parsons as one of its five members. The Task Force focuses on expediting water quality improvements within the next five years through key funding and restoration initiatives, prioritizing solutions, and making recommendations to expedite nutrient reductions to Lake Okeechobee and downstream estuaries like the Caloosahatchee River. It will identify opportunities to fund priority projects with state, local and federal funds to build on the Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) updated Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) data. The panel will review and prioritize projects to provide the largest and most meaningful nutrient reductions in key waterbodies and will examine connections between Blue Green Algae and Red Tide Algae Blooms that recently affected Florida’s coastlines.

Halfway Between Extremes

“Cyanobacteria can produce microcystins in large qualities during algae blooms that pose a major threat to drinking water and other environmental issues,” continued Dr. Parsons. “The question becomes the best way to sample these microcystins: Do you cut out a clump or sample water away from that, or do you sample shallow water where it can go all the way down to the bottom, or deep water where it may not be so dense? The DEP prefers a halfway point between all those extremes. When microcystins reach saltwater, though they display some tolerance, that generally stresses them out and eventually kills them. The truth, however, is this – while we know some things, we really don’t know a whole lot!”

Bacteria grows quickly and cyanobacteria is no different, he emphasized. “It uses photosynthesis like any other algae, but its other pigments give it its bluish color, with the green coming from chlorophyll. These pigments sometimes give the bacteria other colors, like red or brown. Blooms can smell horrible and produce all kinds of chemicals, like methane, and even odors like a skunk spray.”

This is not just a Southwest Florida problem, Dr. Parsons stated. “Currently, there are high levels in the Mississippi River near New Orleans, from a microcystin bloom from Lake Pontchartrain from spring floods, with conditions similar to what we experienced last year in Cape Coral from the Lake Okeechobee releases. We already had cyanobacteria this year on Sanibel and Captiva, but they were a different kind of animal from those of 2018.”

Microcystins are a huge concern because they can cause liver and kidney damage. “The World Health Organization says these mainly occur when you swallow water by accident,” Dr. Parsons related, “with that exposure making people sick, but it can occur from walking along the shore and getting wet, and we know several dogs died from swimming in toxic water or lapping it up from the shoreline. The worst case so far is from Brazil, where seven people died from unfiltered reservoir water. The trickiest compound cyanobacteria can produce is BMAA that is a neurotoxin that can potentially cause disorders like ALS, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s Disease, but not all scientists are on the same page with those conclusions, so keep that in mind. This is still a gray area, so for right now, we do not have a good answer.”

Southwest Florida 2018

So what happened to Southwest Florida in 2018? “It actually began the year before,” he explained, “when a Tropical Depression first saturated our soil, soon followed by Hurricane Irma in September 2017, with even more rain and extremely high winds that churned up Lake Okeechobee. The Lake then was 16 feet deep, and the strong winds eventually elevated it 10 feet higher from the north over the south, and that mixed up all the legacy nutrient sediments from the bottom like Nitrate, Nitrite, and Phosphorous that are prevalent in fertilizers. Following Irma, Nitrate and Nitrite levels were more than twice those of 2017, with Phosphorous significantly higher. Microcystins are a cyanobacteria that love Nitrogen and Phosphorous, and there was certainly a lot of those in the water!”

On top of that, microcystins love warm water and that was also a 2018 dominant condition. “The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) took overhead photographs of Lake Okeechobee on June 12 and there were none present,” he said, “but from June 20 to 29, the bloom exploded, encompassing almost all the Lake, as conditions were most favorable to microcystins.”

Dr. Parsons noted that in 2019 “there appears to be lower Nitrogen and Phosphorous levels in Lake Okeechobee than at this point last year, and of course we did not have a major hurricane hit our region in 2018. While temperatures this year are even warmer than in 2018, overhead photographs as of July 7 do not indicate a major Lake Okeechobee bloom as of yet. Also, the United States Army Corps of Engineers used a different formula for Lake Okeechobee this year, keeping it three feet lower by releasing more water during the dry season to hold more during the wet season, to help prevent stagnant water where blooms explode, so that is another major difference from 2018.”

As for if he can predict another major bloom for our region in 2019, “that is the tricky part! We had microcystin blooms in 2016 and 2018 that were so thick on the surface, they shaded out everything below and took over the water column. Nature drives the temperature, but people definitely play a role through Climate Change, so there are big issues here. We add more and more nutrients to Lake Okeechobee every year, and more and more people move to Florida each year, so the situation in the short term will only grow worse and worse, meaning we must increase our efforts to reduce Phosphorous and Nitrogen. Research indicates that microcystins react more strongly to Nitrogen, while most projects attempt to reduce Phosphorous, so the Blue Green Algae Task Force wants to work on solutions more specifically geared to Nitrogen reduction.”

Dr. Parsons pointed out that “78% of all nutrients that move into Lake Okeechobee come from north of the lake, from the Kissimmee Watershed that uses a lot of fertilizer for agriculture and ranches, so if 78% is from that area, that is where we should focus our efforts. However, Lee County and our surrounding region has a population growth projection over the next decade of 300,000 people. This creates a double-edge sword: since our agricultural areas are not expanding, we must grow more food for more people on the same amount of land, meaning a greater use of fertilizers. Combine this with more people in densely populated areas using more fertilizers for lawn care, and where does any fertilizer reduction come from?”

Increase Taxes One-Hundredfold

“We can fix all this,” said Dr. Parsons confidently! “All we need to do is increase our taxes one-hundredfold! Seriously, we must make this a priority for our resources! We must do a better job of controlling what goes into Lake Okeechobee from the Kissimmee basin. We must increase our monitoring efforts to get the best possible research data, and I feel sure this will be a Task Force recommendation. We must do a better job of minimizing Lake Okeechobee releases into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers. We must reprioritize all of these things and more while we still can. Perhaps the ultimate question is, who is in charge of this process, as each local, state, and federal agency working the water quality issues have their own mandates, rules and laws. A big part of our first two Task Force meetings were just learning all these various guidelines.”

He stated that many people view agriculture and Big Sugar as the chief culprits, “but with 78% of all nutrients coming into Lake Okeechobee from its north, that is where we need to start. The agricultural industry tells us that if they are really a big part of the problem, then they need to be a big part of the solution, and that is the kind of dialog you like to hear. They make a really good point that a major part of the problem is lost nutrients and that we need a recovery system to recycle it, with Scott Fertilizer and the Everglades Foundation working on recovery and reuse plans to reduce Phosphorous and Nitrogen, as there is only a finite amount of Phosphorous left on the planet, as opposed to Nitrogen that is thick in our atmosphere.”

It all comes back to human health, emphasized Dr. Parsons. “A woman contacted me last year and said she lived on a boat on the Caloosahatchee yacht basin. She said she was 7 months pregnant and asked me if her baby was safe and I just didn’t know how to answer! The risk of liver cancer increases by 3% for every 10% increase of cyanobacteria blooms, though the primary method still comes from water contact and not through air exposure. People ask me if it is safe to swim in Red Tide, and I tell them it is, as long as they don’t mind a burning nose and eyes and being surrounded by dead fish! We put up two air samplers, one at the end of a Cape Coral canal with a thick bloom and the other at the Vester Field Station on Bonita Beach Road, well away from any blooms, and they registered the same amounts, including particles that can get down into your blood system.”

Out There Lurking

What does this mean for us right now and will cyanobacteria return this year? “While conditions are different from 2018 to 2019, cyanobacteria is out there lurking, so did we tweak the paradigm enough to prevent another major outbreak – the truthful answer is, we are not really sure! We have to leapfrog this situation or all we will be doing is playing catchup and that won’t get us anywhere. Microcystin blooms are a function of nutrient loading, stagnant waters and high temperatures, so those triggers are definitely still out there, as these are all symptoms of a sick system. People ask me if we are the guinea pigs, and I honestly don’t know, as there are potential risks out there we do not fully understand.”

Dr. Parsons offered recommendations: “Reduce nutrient inputs into our waters, especially from fertilizers. Reduce or repair sceptic tanks and implement Smart Growth! Keep the pressure on our government, as it was impressive that Governor DeSantis asked the Legislature for $600 million for water quality and the Legislature appropriated even more! Our region suffered millions of dollars in economic losses every week during the summer of 2018 so it is not unrealistic to expect the State to appropriate those same types of dollars to fixing the problems. Sadly, the Rule of Thumb for government action traditionally requires one person to die, 100 to get sick, or a loss of $1 million or more in revenue before it takes action, so it really does come down to a prioritization of resources. The old saying goes that we can absolutely build a 100% safe car, but no one would be able to afford it, so we must all determine what is an acceptable risk!”


By Gary Mooney