Florida spent about $250,000 removing highly toxic algae from the Pahokee Marina using high-tech devices: ultrasonic bubble-blowers, circulator pumps and algaecide.
The state also spent about $750,000 to kill toxic algae at the W.P. Franklin Lock in the Caloosahatchee River. Six tons of a hydrogen peroxide-based algaecide, called Lake Guard Oxy, were applied there in June. Another 12½ tons were stored away.
The marina and river no longer are choked with dense concentrations of algae, which in the marina was 100 times more toxic than what the federal government deems unsafe. But the foundational problems remain and need to be addressed, said Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg.
Toxic algae blooms — and the high cost of responding to them — will continue "unless you address the disease," Eikenberg told TCPalm Thursday. "The disease is the amount of nutrients and the amount of pollution that's coming into the lake."
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About 60% of the Pahokee Marina cleanup money was spent on the technology to separate the algae from the water, while the rest was spent on pumping out the guacamole sludge, according to the South Florida Water Management District.
Crews removed sheet pilings that blocked water flow and installed new circulator pumps that will help keep water moving throughout the marina. Stagnant water is more likely to develop algae blooms, especially during the warmer, wetter months.
The blue-green algae, technically a cyanobacteria, contained 860 parts per billion of the toxin microcystin in late April, according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection data. At 8 parts per billion, water is too hazardous to touch, ingest or inhale for people, pets and wildlife, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says.
A putrid and rotting smell filled the air around the marina earlier this summer. Green slime decayed on the water's surface as alligators swam and birds flew around the bloom. All the while, marina staff carried on with their daily work.
The bloom was reminiscent of the Central Marine bloom during the summers of 2013, 2016 and 2018, when toxic algae smothered the water and Stuart shoreline.
"As Yogi Berra said, 'It's deja vu all over again,'" Eikenberg said. "We're going to continue to see these type of issues that plagued the Pahokee Marina."
The extensive issues include fertilizers in Orlando-area rainfall runoff flowing into Lake Okeechobee, then east to the St. Lucie River and west to the Caloosahatchee River when the Army Corps of Engineers releases lake water to avoid a dike breach.
Fertilizers, from farms and urban development, are rich with nitrogen and phosphorus that feed the algae and make them bloom.
"Lake Okeechobee, within a few short years, is no longer going to be able to absorb the pollution. It's going to be its own source of pollution," Eikenberg said. "The algae that we see on the lake now, every summer, is going to continue to happen until you directly go at the problem."
The SFWMD doesn't usually lead cleanup responses for large algal blooms, but its "ability to respond with resources immediately" led the district to partner with DEP and the city of Pahokee, spokesperson Sean Cooley told TCPalm.
It was "all-hands on deck" to address the crisis, including SFWMD scientists and land managers, Executive Director Drew Bartlett said at a board meeting Thursday.
Pahokee Mayor Keith Babb presented the district with a "key to the city" Wednesday as thanks for the agency's help in clearing the toxic mess that prompted a request from U.S. Rep. Brian Mast (R-Palm City) to relocate affected residents in late April.
"A lot of folks really stood up and gave their extra effort," Bartlett said.
Max Chesnes is a TCPalm environment reporter focusing on issues facing the Indian River Lagoon, St. Lucie River and Lake Okeechobee. You can keep up with Max on Twitter @MaxChesnes, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and give him a call at 772-978-2224.