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Gov. Scott declares state of emergency due to algal blooms

By Staff | Jul 10, 2018

ERIC FEICHTHALER Algae in the water in a canal behind the offices of Burandt, Adamski, Feichthaler & Sanchez on Cape Coral Parkway in Cape Coral.

Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for Lee County on July 9 after taking a tour of the Caloosahatchee River and seeing for himself how algal blooms have impacted water quality.

Today, the city of Sanibel and Mayor Kevin Ruane issued another call to action.

“Freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee and stormwater runoff from the Caloosahatchee watershed are resulting in extensive blue-green algae blooms that are currently impacting more than 60 miles of the 75-mile Caloosahatchee River and Estuary,” Ruane reported. “The blue-green algae, also referred to as cyanobacteria, have been identified as Microcystis aeruginosa, a known toxin-producing species. These blooms have resulted in beach closures along the Caloosahatchee and have prompted the Florida Department of Health to post warnings to avoid contact with the algae.”

“The ongoing water quality problems associated with Lake Okeechobee releases and runoff from the Caloosahatchee watershed must be addressed immediately,” he continued. “This is critical for the health and safety of our coastal communities, to protect the ecology of our river and estuary, and to preserve our quality of life and local economy.”

“We need your help in getting the federal, state, and local governments to take swift action to address this important issue,” Ruane added. “Please consider writing to your elected leaders and agency representatives to let them know how these water quality issues are impacting your quality of life.”

LEE COUNTY Blue-green algae bloom in Hancock Creek, a tributary to the Caloosahatchee River, in North Fort Myers on July 2.

Scott came to Southwest Florida for a first-hand look at the urging of the local legislative delegation. The governor took part in a tour by boat that began at Horton Park in Cape Coral, where swim-at-your-own-risk advisories have been posted at all riverfront parks due to the presence of cyanobacteria, a blue-green algae that not only turns affected waters a slimy-looking green but potentially can produce toxins harmful to the human body.

The bloom originated from Lake Okeechobee, the source of water discharges into the river. It made its way down to Moore Haven, to LaBelle and spread to Davis Boat Ramp on June 18.

Samples were collected by Florida Department of Environmental Protection at the Cape Coral Yacht Club and Cape Coral Bridge on July 2. It was noted the bloom then was from “shoreline to shoreline extending upstream for miles.”

Scott toured the river and areas where the DEP deployed six water monitoring stations on June 9.

What the governor saw was a sheen of algae on the waters and washing up on shore.

M. BUFF Blue-green algae bloom within the Caloosahatchee River in Alva on July 2.

“It’s frustrating to see this in the water. We’re going to do whatever we can. I’ve already asked the DEP to deploy monitoring stations so we’ll have a better idea of what’s causing these problems,” he told media outlets covering the event.

Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce President John Lai commented on the state of emergency and pointed out that the islands’ beaches have not been as impacted as other areas.

“Logistically, we are encouraged that the governor has taken action and are looking forward to the creative thinking and opportunities that the declaration can produce to move and store water,” he said today. “However, as a representative of the business community within an elite tourism destination it is difficult to ignore the perceived negative effects that is associated. The water quality on the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva remains beautiful and safe.”

In addition to Lee, Glades, Hendry, Martin Okeechobee, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties were included in the executive order.

Within the order, Scott calls out the federal government in a “failure to act with regards to Lake Okeechobee,” saying he used his state authority to secure $100 million for the Herbert Hoover Dike and accelerated the reservoir project south of the lake.

Meanwhile, the monitoring stations will give a better idea of how the water moves and where the algal blooms are coming from.

Last week, state Rep. Dane Eagle and the entire Lee County Legislative delegation requested the governor issue a state of emergency, saying in a July 5 letter to his office that the blooms have created a threat to the local economy and to the health of the environment and residents of Lee County.

The governor’s decision to declare the state of emergency on June 9 following the tour was applauded by those who asked for it.

“We’re thankful to the governor for paying attention to this. He’s been a champion for this. This is something we’re watching and people need to be cautious in the waters,” Eagle said. “This will allow us to tap into immediate funding and put our resources to work. We’re thankful he stepped up to address this.”

Eagle did not join Scott’s boat tour but cruised the waters himself over the weekend.

“There were green ribbons on the water that were thicker in some areas. It’s undeniable there is an algae bloom on the water. It’s not a perception, it’s definitely there,” said Eagle, adding that the waters in the Gulf and around Sanibel and Captiva are in decent shape.

The Lee delegation, which includes Eagle and Sens. Lizbeth Benacquisto, Denise Grimsley and Kathleen Passidomo, as well as Reps. Matt Caldwell, Heather Fitzhagen and Ray Rodrigues, on June 9 sent a second letter, this one to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, requesting that the Corps “Immediately use emergency measures to stop all releases from Lake Okeechobee to the Calooshatchee River.”

The delegation wants the agency to use “all emergency storage abilities” until it is determined that there are no active algal blooms in the river or its estuaries.

“Additionally, we ask that you continue to pursue all options that will reduce discharges in their entirety, including storage north, east, west and south of Lake Okeechobee,” the delegation letter states.

This is not the first time algal blooms have resulted in a state of emergency to be declared for Lee County.

In 2016, Scott included Lee County on a list of counties in a state of emergency declared because of the cyanobacteria bloom that summer. At that time, Lee County was experiencing a fraction of the blooms that the East Coast was facing, and the inclusion on the list made the tourism industry in Lee take a big hit.

This year, the harmful blooms are in the Caloosahatchee and going downstream, impacting a large swath of local waters.

According to a July 3 Caloosahatchee and Estuary Condition Report sent out by the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, the cyanobacteria bloom stretches 65 miles of the 75-mile river and estuary, from Moore Haven near the lake to the Cape Coral Bridge.

Congressman Francis Rooney, who joined those calling for a better way to handle the discharges, said it is going to take action at every level to mitigate the current crisis.

“It is important that all levels of government, federal, state, and local, work together in the short term to redirect as much water as possible from Lake Okeechobee to the south,” he said. “This will reduce harmful discharges into the Caloosahatchee River and stop destroying our estuaries and bays.”

The state of emergency will help free up money for research and mitigation.

“We just had a successful round of appropriations where we got over $500 million for the dike and $100 million for the CERP (Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan) projects. We’ve hit a major league home run,” Rooney said. “We need an all-of-the above approach and that’s why it was great for the governor to call a state of emergency and to appropriate $100 million from the legislator in 2018-19 to complement the federal money.”

He joined Scott in decrying what he said has been years of inaction from the top down.

“Unfortunately for all of us, for 18 years, since 2000, Congress has failed to deliver on building out the projects authorized in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), or in completing repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike which would permit retention of more water in the lake and avoid massive discharges into the Caloosahatchee,” Rooney said. “In 18 months of working in Congress I have been laser-focused on our water quality in Southwest Florida, and have worked hard to find every possible avenue of funding to complete CERP projects and expedite completion of the dike repairs and we are now getting results.”

The DEP encourages everyone to be on the lookout for blooms and to report them. Information can be submitted online at www.reportalgalbloom.com, as well as calling toll-free at 1-855-305-3903.

If you are worried that you may be suffering negative health affects from the blue-green algae, contact the Florida Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

Residents can monitor and obtain further information about algal blooms by visiting www.floridadep.gov/dear/algal-bloom.

– Chuck Ballaro, Jessica Salmond and CJ Haddad contributed to the article.