LAKE OKEECHOBEE, Fla. — The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission is tracking very low amounts of red tide off the Gulf Coast in 20 samples. Last year, it was hard to forget the smell and sight of dead fish pilling up along the beaches. The toxins made breathing difficult along our coast from the red tide.
While this is not unusual for October and these levels have no impacts on wildlife or human health, it is something Fox 4 will be watching closely, especially given the state of Lake Okeechobee and the threat of high volume releases.
"We know that those lake releases, if and when they start, have an exacerbating effect on red tide," said Matt DePaolis, director of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. "We're really nervous about what that could mean for the future."
With the lake currently at 16 and a quarter feet, decisions on releases might have to be made soon.
"It will get to point where it can't safely be stored," DePaolis said. "And rather than putting those communities south of the lake at risk, they will release that water."
When Lake O reaches greater than 16 feet and half, the integrity of the Herbert Hoover dike could be threatened —that's what worries DePaolis.
"And when we see those massive releases coming down the Caloosahatchee, entering the estuary, and we have an already active red tide, we can expect that red tide to get much worse," he said.
But just because we hit 16 and half feet, doesn't automatically mean releases as Col. James Booth told Fox 4 in August.
"If we see the lake crest at 16.5, I would likely say 'hey, I am are comfortable and we will just hold with beneficial releases and try to bring that down," he said.
The threat of continued high lake levels comes from the forecast of a coming El Niño, which historically brings a wetter winter in Florida, which was reflected in Thursday's NOAA winter outlook.
"There is not only be a lot of opportunities to draw down that lake without these massive releases," said Dr. Mike Parsons with FGCU's Water School.
But if the Army Corps does have to release the nutrient loading down the Caloosahatchee, it could make an active red tide even worse. That said,Parsons says it will be a challenge for the red tide to access those nutrients.
"Red tide can't handle that low salinity water, so there is a buffer between directly accessing those nutrients and having it mix enough with the gulf water so that the water is salty enough for red tide to grow," he said.
Still, Parsons agrees those releases are possible.
"With the El Niño, potential cold fronts, and the rainfall — that could cause some high discharges," he said. "We saw that in 2016 for example, and that caused such an outrage that captains for clean water formed."