Florida persists in mitigation of intractable HABs in Lake Okeechobee


algal bloom spreads near Port Mayaca on Lake Okeechobee among HAB concerns
Credit: Geosciences Professor Mark Rains, 2019

April and May 2021 spikes in harmful algae blooms (HABs) in Florida’s Lake Okeechobee have brought to the forefront concerns about the continuing health and economic implications of rising algae levels. Some of the issues include mass fish kills, respiratory issues and other health issues in both humans and pets, along with decreased tourism and other economic impacts. Several groups are working on solutions.


Last March Governor Ron DeSantis installed Dr. Mark Rains in the role of Florida’s chief science officer. A University of South Florida (USF) geosciences professor, Rains has been researching the issue for years. He cites as the state’s priorities improving water quality and curbing harmful algal blooms.


Other groups involved in the problem include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, along with the South Florida Water Management District and Florida Department of Environmental Protection. These groups have been investigating ways to prevent, control or remove HABs from lakes and waterways. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District Commander Col. Andrew Kelly reports “a full court press” by state and federal agencies to find a solution to HABs. The researchers are looking for a scalable methodology to deal with HABs on a body of water the size of Lake Okeechobee. At 730 square miles, the lake is the largest freshwater lake in Florida.


Consequently, the eventual solutions are guaranteed to be complex. USF environmental engineering professor Sarina Ergas is a member of an EPA-funded team working on the Okeechobee HAB problem, and brings a realistic perspective to its solution. “Oftentimes legislators look at this problem of harmful algal blooms, and they try to find a single solution like getting rid of all septic systems or imposing specific regulations on agriculture or urban runoff or central wastewater plants,” Ergas said. “As engineers and scientists, we know that these complex problems need a variety of solutions, and we need to use our financial and technological resources judiciously in order to solve these problems.”