LEE COUNTY, Fla. — It was a packed house at Florida Gulf Coast University on Friday at the 28th Annual Southwest Florida Water Resource Conference. Around a hundred students met with some of the leading experts in water quality to share ideas and increase awareness of the state's water issues, such as red tide and blue-green algae.
"This type of event is so important in cultivating these leaders of the future to solve our water crisis," said Jennifer Hecker, executive director of the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program. "This is something that's going to likely go on for a generation or two. We're not going to solve this problem overnight."
2018 was a particularly tough year for red tide in Southwest Florida waters, resulting in massive fish kills along the beaches. Blue-green algae also choked many canals in Cape Coral and elsewhere, likely a result of nutrients in water released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahathcee River.
Anne Smiley, an FGCU graduate student in environmental sciences, is working to better understand ways to minimize the impact of the algae blooms in Florida's waterways.
"I'm trying to identify certain conditions that are triggering toxin production in some of these harmful algal species," Smiley said. "It has some climate change implications and some management implications."
Hecker hopes that a recent announcement by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission to suspend aquatic plant herbicide treatments statewide will help.
"Nutrients can be released when vegetation dies," she said. "So when we spray vegetation, whether in Lake Okeechobee or any of our canals, and it starts to decay in our waterways, it can create water quality problems."
Graduate student Jessica Schroeder believes everyone is responsible for cleaning the water, and wants to make public outreach part of her future career.
"Everything influences each other," Schroeder said. "It's not just the scientists doing all the work. We can do 'citizen science' and volunteer to pick up trash on the beach. Everything helps."