Toxic algae a slimy mess for Florida's Lake Okeechobee

PORT MAYACA, Fla. -- Rain, heat and pollutants have caused an outbreak of toxic algae blooms, which can cause health problems. Now, lawmakers in Florida want the governor to declare a state of emergency over an algae problem at Lake Okeechobee, the aquatic lifeblood of South Florida.

Chris Wittman said he's been fishing in southwest Florida his entire life, but the once postcard-perfect summer waters are becoming fouled by slimy and toxic green algae.

"It's not looking good for the future," Wittman said. "I mean, I've canceled my trips the last few weeks because of this issue. I'm not on the water as much as I once was."

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Toxic algae in Florida.

CBS News

It's a recurring nightmare. This year's early bloom, however, could signal one of the worst summers yet.

The problem starts at Lake Okeechobee. After heavy rains, the Army Corps of Engineers released millions of gallons to relieve pressure on the lake's old earthen dam. But the water is chock full of chemicals and nutrients -- much of it runoff from commercial agriculture and sprawling development. When that mix bakes in the summer sun, the algae population explodes.

Biologist John Cassani has been collecting samples, and warning about the health hazards.

"The toxins the bacteria produce are incredibly potent. They affect liver function. There's neurotoxins that they produce so it's a suite of really toxic stuff that can kill wildlife and really impact people's health," Cassani said.

Once the algae starts to cover a waterway, it deprives it of oxygen, essentially sucking the life out of it. Wildlife like manatees can choke to death. Under water, the entire marine ecosystem is at risk.

So are waterside businesses. Sebastian Lahara held a mock funeral for his kayak rental operation, and Wittman said he has lost $20,000 on canceled trips this summer.

"This is going to take a lot of work and a lot of time to fix it," he said. "But it is fixable. These are man-made issues and man can fix them."

The federal government and the state have approved a $1.6 billion plan to clean and store some of the lake water, but it still has not been funded. Even the private sector is stepping in, offering a $10 million reward for the best plan to fix the problem.