A blue-green nightmare

October 15, 20211

What is Microcystis?

Microcystis is a type of toxic cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, that lives in freshwater bodies. It is commonly found in Lake Okeechobee, and in the water discharged into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers. Blooms occur when the water is warm, stagnant, and rich in nutrients. Lake Okeechobee has high nutrient levels, so when the water warms up, it creates the perfect environment for blooms.

Is it harmful?

Does it affect human health?

Microcystis algae produces Microcystin—a potent liver toxin and possible human carcinogen These toxins can be absorbed through ingestion, direct contact, or by breathing in contaminated air. Research has shown cyanobacteria particles aerosolize and travel miles from blooms. Blooms in Lake Okeechobee regularly reach concentrations that are over 100 times more toxic than what the EPA says is safe for human contact.

Where does it come from?

Why is the lake so polluted?

Cyanobacteria require nutrient-rich environments to thrive, making Lake O’s nutrient overloaded waters perfect for blooms. The nutrients in Lake O come from a variety of sources, with over 75% coming from agricultural runoff. The lack of strict, state-wide regulations that hold polluters accountable is the reason why we continue to see nutrients entering our waterways and fueling these devastating blooms.


Who does this affect?

Is it just a Lake O issue?

Because the natural system was reconfigured a century ago, the problem becomes more widespread when lake levels become too high, and the toxic water is discharged to Florida’s east and west coasts. This devastates the coastal estuaries and moves the toxic cyanobacteria into highly populated areas.

What can we do about it?

Is there a solution?

Addressing the pollution at the source is a long-term goal that is critical to preventing the bacteria from forming in the first place. This absolutely must happen, and we’ll continue to demand that the Florida Legislature creates policy that holds polluters accountable.

However, this is not an overnight fix. There is a century’s worth of legacy nutrient pollution in Lake Okeechobee and the northern watershed capable of fueling blooms for decades to come. For now, there are more immediate solutions that mitigate the toxic, unnatural discharges to the more vulnerable coastal estuaries by sending more water south. This requires better lake management strategies NOW and completion of restoration efforts like the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP).

CEPP, including the EAA Reservoir south of the lake—currently under construction—will reduce harmful discharges by up to 60% by storing, cleaning and sending more water south to the Everglades and Florida Bay, where it’s desperately needed. This truly will provide the greatest relief to the most affected systems in the shortest amount of time. The nutrient pollution must be addressed too, but we have to stop the unnatural discharges of toxic water to our estuaries before it’s too late.

We’re at a precipice now, and after decades of compounding damage from previous discharges, our estuaries can only handle so much more before we see total collapse. Every time that we see damage to the ecosystems, it makes them less resilient to future imbalances and harder for them to bounce back. We have to minimize the harmful discharges as soon as possible—sending more water south allows us to do that.



How can you help?

Your involvement is critical to seeing progress on these issues. Your voice creates the public pressure that can fuel the political reform we need to see our water quality improve. Whether it’s using that voice to keep pressure on expediting the EAA Reservoir or to demand policy that holds polluters accountable, it always makes a difference.

So, please join the fight with us—make your voice heard by any means. We must protect the waters we love most, and that starts with you.