Algae blooms already causing damage in Bay Area

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Ahead of the summer rainy season, environmentalists are already beginning to see algae blooms pop up across Bay Area waters.

In a small neighborhood pond off Pelican Drive South in St Petersburg, a warning sign is posted to advised residents to keep away from the water. Some residents noticed and reported an algae bloom forming on the water's surface.

"I've had redness in the eyes, swelling in the eyes, coughing, especially my grandson who is 5 years old," said Ban Richards, who lives across from the water.

"They can cause respiratory issues, especially for people sensitive with asthma," warned Ryan Ryczek, an environmental specialist with Pinellas County Public Works.

Ryczek took a sample of the water in the pond and detected the presence of Anabaena, commonly known as blue-green algae.

Under warm conditions and with an abundance of nutrients, the algae can have explosive growth, causing a dense, floating mat of algae to cover the water.

"Algae blooms are usually caused by excessive nutrients. Sometimes that can be natural, but a lot of times these days it's caused by human inputs," said Ryczek.

When people care for their lawns, leaves and grass clippings are often pushed down storm drains. They eventually end up in the water and feed the algae blooms.

The algae sucks up the oxygen in the water, which can kill fish.

Red tide, another form of toxic algae, was responsible for massive fish kills along the Gulf Coast from Pinellas County down to Collier County in 2016.

This year, 10 manatees have already died from red tide, according to the nonprofit government watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

According to scientists, the manatees feed on seagrass that becomes poisoned by the toxic algae.

In 2015, Florida enacted the Fertilizer Ordinance in an effort to battle the blooms. It prohibits people from using, and stores from selling, fertilizer from June 1 to September 30.

"We actually take it off the shelf, wrap it up, put it in our overhead and wait until October 1 to put it back on the shelf," said Tom Effertz, an employee at the Home Depot on North Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa.

Stores like Home Depot encourage people to treat their lawns now, before the rainy season.

"I think a lot of people still forget because they were used to it when there wasn't a ban," said Effertz.

Algae blooms have consequences for Florida's tourism economy.

"It creates awfully bad water quality," said Ryczek, "green, disgusting, nobody wants to really recreate in that."

Scientists cannot predict how bad the algae bloom season will be each year. It depends largely on rainfall and warm temperatures.

While there's no easy fix to get rid of a bloom, algae growth can be prevented by taking small steps to keep them at bay, such as bagging yard leaves and avoiding the mistake of over fertilizing yards.

On April 7, Pinellas County will host its 2018 Lakes and Ponds Education Day. Residents living near water can get helpful advice on what to plant to keep the water clean.

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