Lake O’ latest. Will we ever learn to leave nature alone?
Excerpt: U.S. Geological Survey scientists tinkering around with freshwater blue-green algae from Lake Okeechobee have made a simple, yet potentially significant discovery: the amount of salty water needed to transform the tiny organisms from benign to toxic as they travel toward busy coasts.
With the right planning, the discovery could help water managers prevent the kind of foul sliming that spreads along the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers with every rainy season.
Blue-green algae naturally occur in fresh water, including Lake O, and provide the foundation for the food chain that has made the lake a destination for bass anglers and birders. But fed by too many nutrients flowing mostly off farms and ranches to the north, Lake O’s algae can explode into dense blooms that block light, smother life and sometimes release toxins that can make people and wildlife sick.
For USGS scientists, an important unanswered question was at what point lake algae, which can be good for fish, turned toxic as it traveled to coastal waters.
During a bloom last year, USGS researchers scooped up algae from Eagle Bay on the lake’s north side and over four days exposed it to different concentrations of sodium chloride “simulating what it would be like if the organism were moving down through saltier water,”
As salt increased, they found membranes lining the cell walls of the algae began to break down, releasing toxins. At levels about half as salty as ocean water, the most common of the two algae began releasing toxins. At a quarter the amount, toxins began to leak in the less prevalent algae. Scientists noted too that the amount also spiked at lower levels of salt.
That means if water managers can keep salinity lower in the estuary, the toxic impacts from blooms could be reduced, lessening the threat to humans and wildlife. But “threading the needle” — keeping both waters flows and salinity in the right zone — would take a precise timing of water releases.
Bottom Line: When will we learn? Let’s say that they successfully “thread the needle”. What will the unintended consequences be next? When have we ever successfully manipulated nature as well as nature doing what it does naturally? We’ve been in this mess because of 90 years of man-made manipulation of nature. After 90 years of messing around with it, it’s worse than ever. Now the idea is to attempt to manipulate the salinity levels in waterways? Seriously? What will happen with the displaced populations of life in the water due to the changes in the waterways? What will the long-term impact be on marine life?
Has anyone noticed or considered that the more we’ve attempted to manipulate Lake O’, discharges, our waterways to “fix” the problems, the worse the problems have become? It’s not complicated. We can’t do nature better than nature. The question is what’s the best path forward given the bed we’ve already made. It’s great that they’ve discovered how and at what point the algae becomes toxic. But rather than isolating the controllable factors, like fertilizer runoff into the water, we want to alter salinity levels?
We have a path forward at this point with the federal passage of the Water Act that provided federal agreement with the plan we passed in Florida in 2017. Start the reservoir south of Lake O’. Work on the system for cleaning runoff water to send south, the natural path for runoff water from the lake, and crack down on serial polluters of our waterways. Enough with scientific experiments on nature.
Photo by: Joe Raedle/Getty Images