Could Florida’s nasty algae problem have an upside? That green slime is a valuable commodity
MOORE HAVEN Could algae, the fish-killing bane of Lake Okeechobee and Florida’s coastal waters, actually become a valuable state product? Think orange juice, except green, slimy and terrible tasting. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and private partners think there is a possibility.
The pilot project is being tested in a makeshift plant built upstream of the Moore Haven Lock and Dam, on the southwestern edge of the lake. Successful tests have been running for two weeks, with water being pumped into four tanks as big as train cars and filtered in a noisy separation system. It comes out crystal clear.
Ironically, there weren’t any algae blooms in nearby waters this week, so the Corps had to truck some in from a lake near Gainesville to show off the system to the media. Now, the Corps is talking about a plan to create a fleet of mobile skimming systems to be deployed on the lake and in strategic canals.
``We are very interested in working quickly to find a solution we can scale and deploy strategically at the right times,’’ said Martin Page, a lead Corps researcher on the project. The experiment is slated to last three years but already there are plans to start turning green gunk into biofuel next year, he said.
``There’s been an increase in blooms not only here but all over the country, so we hope we can get this technology ready for use as soon as possible.’’
The Corps is experimenting with a project that uses a skimming system connected to a high-tech filter to suck up algae-laced water, clean it and return it clean to Lake Okeechobee. The thick mat of green gunk that’s left could have commercial value, used for everything from producing fuel to yoga mats and even sneakers.
Skimmers and filtration systems to clean up algae and extract nutrients to be used as fertilizers aren’t new. The Corps believes this technology can remove and process large quantities of algae at a faster speed. The contraption is easier to move around, and it can be installed on barges to cover larger areas. It’s also more efficient at collecting the algae that will be repurposed into fuel and a type of foam that can be shaped into everything from the shock-absorbing pellets inside the soles of Adidas running shoes to surf board traction pads sold by Kelly Slater.
After the 2018 summer of slime, when Lake Okeechobee was smothered by thick layers of green gunk, harmful blue-green algae blooms are popping up again this summer , raising concern that new outbreaks might turn Florida’s inland sea and surrounding canals and rivers into a fish-killing nightmare.
Small blue-green algae blooms have been spotted since last month, and recently appeared near the west, northwest and southern shorelines, satellite images from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite image showed. Sites along the west of the lake had traces of microcystin, a toxin produced by algae which can stay in the water for months and can lead to liver damage. Sample results from other sites are pending analysis, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said in its most recent algal bloom weekly update on July 19.
Microsystin has been linked to liver failure as well as gastrointestinal and respiratory illnesses in humans. Another toxin known as BMAA has been associated with brain diseases in marine animals, as shown in a University of Miami study that found the substance in the brains of dead dolphins from Florida. The research concluded the animals had Alzheimer-like neurological damage.
While blue-green algae, which are in fact a bacteria called cyanobacteria, occurs naturally in Florida’s waterways, the excessive proliferation is directly related to an increase in agricultural and urban runoff. The guacamole-like green slime floating on the lake and being discharged into estuaries on both coasts comes from phosphates and nitrates in farm fertilizers, septic tanks that leak and urban stormwater runoff. This pollution feeds the bacteria, which leads to the blooms.
Last year, foul-smelling slime spread down the St. Lucie estuary and the Caloosahatchee river, as polluted water was discharged from Lake Okeechobee. Similar blooms have occurred frequently since 2005 but have worsened in recent years. The releases from the lake in 2018 coincided with a red tide that swept up and down the Gulf Coast and filled beaches with dead manatees and sea turtles. Scientists say the polluted lake water flushed down the Caloosahatchee river likely exacerbated it.
The Corps’ project, called HABITATS, is not a definitive solution that will miraculously purify the lake. Limiting nutrients is a big part of the puzzle that would improve the health of Lake Okeechobee and other water bodies in Florida, scientists have said. Still, conditions that make blooms worse can’t be altered with a skimmer: warming waters and heavier rainfall due to climate change are here to stay, and climate experts have warned that blooms will worsen as the planet heats up.
That’s why the Corps and contractors want to move fast on HABITATS, said Dan Levy, vice president at AECOM, the Los Angeles-based engineering firm working on the project. The algae cleanup and processing system will help create a sustainable future around Lake Okeechobee as nutrients will be removed from the water to supply industries around it as growth will inevitably continue, he added.
Another company looking at applications for the lake’s green slime is Algix, maker of the Bloom algae foam. Co-founder Ryan Hunt said he hopes the Corps project will provide a steady supply of algae that can be turned into sneakers and the anti-fungal treatment used to line the shoes.
``Algae can be used as an opportunity and a resource, it’s not just as a problem and a liability,’’ said Hunt, whose company makes performance foams that are used to line H&M slippers and Adidas Primeknit moisture-wicking shoes.
Can the system cover the entire lake? AECOM said it could be done in theory, but it would be an enormous and costly challenge. It will likely be used in strategic locations, like inflows and outflows to help reduce the impact of nutrients in the water downstream.