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Public warned on Okeechobee Waterway algae blooms

A map of Okeechobee Waterway. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Florida officials are warning the public about potentially harmful blue-green algae blooms in the Okeechobee Waterway.

The relatively shallow waterway, sometimes called the Okeechobee Canal, stretches from Fort Myers on the west coast to Stuart on the east coast. The Brighton Reservation is north of the waterway, while the Big Cypress Reservation is to its south.

A notice issued April 5th advises the public, marinas and those operating commercial and recreational vessels through the waterway to be on the lookout for algae blooms.

“Visitors should be aware that water from areas with blue-green algae can make animals and people sick, and they should stay away from these areas,” the notice from Florida’s Department of Health and Department of Environmental Protection, as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District, said. “This algae may be blue, bright green, brown or red, and can have a strong odor like rotting plants.”

The notice warned that people who are sensitive to smells could experience respiratory irritation.

“If you come into contact with blue-green algae, get out of the area and wash off with soap and water. See your doctor if you think blue-green algae has made you sick,” the notice said.

Officials also advised the following if algae is seen:

  • Do not swim.
  • Avoid getting water in eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Do not eat shellfish from affected area.
  • Rinse fish fillets with tap or bottled water; throw out the guts and cook fish well.
  • Keep pets and livestock away from affected location.

The Corps began reducing Lake Okeechobee releases to coastal estuaries April 3 as part of an effort that began in Sept. 2020 to lower the risk that is posed by lake releases when harmful algal blooms are more likely in the summer months. The Corps said the effort is also meant to protect the area’s ecology and wildlife.

The Corps said it reevaluates the releases as conditions change.

 “We constantly monitor conditions around Lake Okeechobee, and as [evaporation] and dry conditions have accelerated the lake[‘s] recession, we are reducing our releases to protect the nesting birds that have returned to the lake in large numbers for the first time in several years,” Col. Andrew Kelly, the Jacksonville District commander said in a release. “The lake is higher than we would like, but we must try to balance the ecology of the lake as well as the northern estuaries as we make efforts to reduce the lake level before the onset of the wet season.”

The Department of Environmental Protection’s algal bloom dashboard is available here or the information is available by calling (850) 245-2118. 

The Department of Health’s harmful algae blooms web page is here or the information is available by calling (850) 245-4250.

A water quality status map can be found here.

For more information on water level and flows data for Lake Okeechobee, click here.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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