Save Lake O is a collaboration between University of Miami students and Florida Audubon to protect the habitats of Lake Okeechobee, wildlife and surrounding communities by communicating the growing dangers of nutrient-rich runoff and the toxic blue-green algae blooms they cause.
Sometimes referred to as Florida’s inland sea, Lake Okeechobee is the largest freshwater lake in Florida. With an impressive surface area of 730 square miles, the name “Okeechobee” is the Hitchiti word meaning big water. The lake is vital to the surrounding animal and plant life and serves as an essential source of water for people and farms in the region.
In recent decades, Lake Okeechobee and surrounding areas have been battling harmful algal blooms caused by excessive nutrients from agricultural and urban activities. The lake is filled with nutrient-rich runoff containing fertilizer, manure, and sewage. They get heated in high temperatures in the summer months that cause the exponential growth of the toxic blue-green algae. The build-up of these algae gets spread by the heavy rains of the wet season, leading them to flow into the Lake and then toward Florida’s west and east coast as water is released through the canal systems.
“Nutrients” may sound like a positive term, however, it isn’t in the case of a nutrient-rich runoff. Nutrient runoff is a form of water pollution made up of mainly nitrogen and phosphorus coming from lawn and garden fertilizers. Manure, pet and wildlife waste are also sources of nutrients that can get trapped in the soil. When it rains, the nutrients eventually flow into the lake producing colonies of algae. They grow out of control and become “harmful algal blooms” consisting of cyanobacteria. Cyanotoxins are one of the most powerful natural poisons that can cause serious illness and make people, their pets and other animals sick.
Many animals including birds, marine mammals, fish, and shellfish are susceptible to the toxins produced by harmful algal blooms. Animals can become ill or die when they consume toxin-contaminated fish or invertebrates. Animals can serve as early indicators of algal bloom toxicity, increases in mortality or morbidity of these animals may be a sign that harmful algal bloom toxins are present.
The marshes of Lake Okeechobee abound extraordinary species and wildlife. Yet, population decline of wetlands-dependent species have been on a rise due to algal blooms and rapid fluctuations of water levels between wet and dry seasons. Dr. Paul Gray explained,” Lake Okeechobee is a paradise of biodiversity. Wetland communities fill almost one-third of the lake, providing prime habitat for Everglade snail kites, a variety of wading birds, ducks, and game fish and other species. Water levels between 12.5 and 15.5 feet protect these important resources.” During the wet season when water level rises above 16 feet, the submerged marshes begin to die. Deep water affects the wet prairie communities of wading birds to forage. Once plant communities are lost, habitat for fish spawning is lost which causes a disruption in the lake’s food chain. Fast rising water also drowns alligators and birds nests. Population crashes affect many wetlands-dependent species such as Florida apple snails, frogs, aquatic snakes, turtles, round-tailed muskrats. To conserve the environment and the wildlife, proper water level management is crucial to protect and sustain the delicate ecosystem of Lake Okeechobee.
We are the problem, but we are also the solution. By following some simple steps, we can help prevent algal blooms.