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Toxic algae: Blue Cypress Lake residents speak out

Stuart News - 6/17/2018

INDIAN RIVER COUNTYCory Selchan was out on Blue Cypress Lake for a Sunday picnic with his wife June 10 when he noticed something unusual – clumps of green algae drifting alongside their pontoon boat in the calm lake.

"I'm always looking in the water column, for plants or animals or whatever," Selchan said. "It was just slightly below the surface. I actually didn't notice it until we stopped. It was a lot of small pieces. A lot of it."

Now Selchan, who lives in Tamarac and has visited his weekend home off Blue Cypress Lake for 10 years, says he doesn't intend to come in contact with the water and he urges others to do the same.

'Very highly hazardous'

The dark blue water at Blue Cypress Lake appeared pristine from the tree-lined shore Friday afternoon. But a closer look in the center of the lake revealed bright green pieces of algae sparkling in suspension beneath the surface.

In a creek flowing into the southwest corner of the lake, where trees blocked the wind and the water was still, a greenish-brown sheen, dotted with splotches of neon blue, coated the surface.

The way the algae hides beneath the surface in most of the lake has those who know it's there worried about those who don't.

"If they see it, they'll be leery of it," Selchan said. "If they don't, they might swim in it, wash their hands in it, let their dogs drink it."

A sample of the lakewater tested Wednesday contained the toxin microcystin at a level of 4,700 parts per billion, according to Ocean Research & Conservation Association in Fort Pierce.

That's more than double what the World Health Organization considers "very highly hazardous" in recreational contact. Microcystin can cause nausea, rash, hay fever symptoms and even liver disease.

The tour guides

Don and Barbara Buhr have owned a place on the lake for 25 years.

"In the summertime when it's hot, we swim out here," Don Buhr said, quickly correcting himself. "We used to."

The Buhrs operate a pontoon boat tour service for photographers, birdwatchers and fishermen. The western Indian River County lake is in the headwaters of the St. John's River, which flows 310 miles north to Jacksonville.

"I told everybody this was the cleanest lake in Florida. And it was a lie," Don Buhr said.

Barbara Buhr is worried contaminants may leach into the well water. She's distributing written notices and warning her neighbors in Blue Cypress Village, a three-lane settlement on the south of the lake where well water is the only option.

"These people out here need to know," she said.

Don Buhr stopped eating catfish and largemouth bass from the lake after seeing the algae for himself Monday. He worries about the health of the lake's ospreys, fish and other creatures, which can't be warned to avoid the water.

The Buhrs hope county and state officials will take action.

"It's not just the Indian River Lagoon. It's happening out here too," Barbara Buhr said.

The role of biosolids

Selchan said he first started noticing algae spring up in the summers about 2013 – the year Pressley Ranch, which lies southwest of the lake, began using human waste as fertilizer.

Pressley Ranch has been spreading thousands of tons of partially treated sewage sludge, known as Class B biosolids, on its 3,059 acres of cow pasture for the past five years.

Selchan, who is the superintendent of Sunshine Water Control District, said nobody in the village is happy about the practice.

"They need to find a different way to dispose of that stuff," Selchan said. "I don't think most people are aware. I think if they were aware of it, it would upset them to know they're eating fish or fruit or beef exposed to that."

Data from the DEP and the St. Johns River Water Management District show the lake's phosphorus levels are increasing, but the agencies say there's no proof of a direct link to biosolids application.

Selchan said the algae has appeared earlier than usual, something the Buhrs also noticed.

"Phosphorus builds up ... What is there is there. You can't remove it," Selchan said. "But they can stop the practice."

 
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