The St. Johns Riverkeeper says multiple blue-green algal blooms have been reported in the Welaka, Satsuma and Palatka areas of Florida.
“In some cases it’s extremely thick and there are reports of it crossing the entire river in the Palatka area,” said Lisa Rinaman, St. Johns Riverkeeper.
She said the algal blooms are caused by nutrient pollution in the St. Johns River - mostly nitrogen and phosphorous which frequently flow into the river from septic tanks and fertilizer.
“Sadly, phosphorus levels are elevated throughout the St. John's,” Rinaman said. “We've been dealing with trying to reduce the amount of sewage sludge that's permitted near the St. John's. We believe that undermines water quality throughout the system.”
And warmer temperatures are causing the blooms to thrive and spread.
“Right now the water temperature is a little bit elevated. We’re seeing about 76 degrees,” said Rinaman. “As the temperatures heat up, it just makes the conditions prime for these toxic algae outbreaks that are a symptom of too much nutrient pollution within the St. Johns River.”
“Typically algal blooms are caused by high nutrient levels, but the exact mechanisms of when they really intensify and when and where they occur is highly variable,” said St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) Bureau Chief Christine Mundy, who manages all the water quality and other types of monitoring around the district. “It's really too early to say what the cause specifically of the current bloom would be.”
Similar outbreaks were spotted last week in Blue Cypress Lake in the upper basin of the St. Johns and Rinaman said her organization is seeing early indications of green algae in the Jacksonville area as well.
SJRWMD officials tested water samples at six locations on April 18 and found that toxin levels were low. They went back out on Monday, April 22, to resample and see if the blooms were still there.
“The blooms were very significant south of Palatka down to around the Welaka area,” said Field Program Supervisor Ken Riddick, who works out of SJRWMD’s Palatka office, coordinating all sampling efforts in the area. “They seem to be gaining, I would say, an intensity in some of the blooms. But we also saw the area of the blooms spreading north up to the Racy Point area, which we did not encounter last week.”
“We are working to coordinate our monitoring going forward with DEP in particular,” Mundy added. “So there's a number of agencies that are working together to make sure we're being as efficient as possible in terms of tracking the current conditions.”
There’s an ongoing conversation about water quality protections in the Florida Legislature and within Governor Ron DeSantis’ administration. The St. Johns Riverkeeper is working on legislation with Representative Bobby Payne (R-Palatka), who recently witnessed algal bloom outbreaks firsthand.
“There's some pushback from agriculture. There's some pushback from the utilities and the fertilizer industry,” Rinaman said. “But when you see obvious signs of water quality degradation, like we're seeing right now in the St. Johns River… now it’s critical we get these protections.”
Mundy said it’s a major focus of the SJRWMD to work on long term solutions to reduce the nutrients that are causing blooms like these.
“We have 16 water quality protection projects that we’re funding this year that are estimated to reduce nutrient loads of nitrogen and phosphorus pretty significantly,” she said. “Those those projects together will be contributing to reductions of 20,000 pounds of total nitrogen, and 14,000 pounds of total phosphorus.”
Mundy added that residents should pay close attention to recommendations about irrigation and fertilizer use. “They're designed to not only minimize how much water you're using, but also to minimize the nutrients in the runoff that you might be otherwise contributing based on your own yard fertilization,” she said.
Mundy also said getting off of septic and onto sewage systems would help prevent future blooms.
Algal blooms, like the ones being spotted in the St. Johns River, can be highly toxic. If residents spot what looks like bright neon green scum on the surface of the water they should steer clear. Exposure to toxic algae can cause short term respiratory or skin issues as well as long term damage to the liver.
Algal blooms should be reported to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Rinaman also encourages people to report blooms to the St. Johns Riverkeeper. DEP algal bloom site visits and test results can be viewed here.