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ERDC overcomes challenges in harmful algal bloom removal research

Engineer Research and Development Center, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Published Aug. 5, 2020
Harmful algal blooms (HABs) floating on the water surface near the middle of Lake Okeechobee, Fla.  HABs are a challenging problem that has impacted the environment and economy across the Nation. Currently, U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center researchers and their partners are studying and improving a method for removing and disposing of blue-green algae from the waterways.

Harmful algal blooms (HABs) floating on the water surface near the middle of Lake Okeechobee, Fla. HABs are a challenging problem that has impacted the environment and economy across the Nation. Currently, U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center researchers and their partners are studying and improving a method for removing and disposing of blue-green algae from the waterways.

The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Research Community Planner, Angela Urban, collects blue green algae samples and data on Lake Okeechobee, Fla., July 27, 2020.

The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Research Community Planner, Angela Urban, collects blue green algae samples and data on Lake Okeechobee, Fla., July 27, 2020.

Harmful algal blooms (HABs) floating on the water surface near the middle of Lake Okeechobee, Fla.  HABs are a challenging problem that has impacted the environment and economy across the Nation. Currently, U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center researchers and their partners are studying and improving a method for removing and disposing of blue-green algae from the waterways.

Harmful algal blooms (HABs) floating on the water surface near the middle of Lake Okeechobee, Fla. HABs are a challenging problem that has impacted the environment and economy across the Nation. Currently, U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center researchers and their partners are studying and improving a method for removing and disposing of blue-green algae from the waterways.

U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center researchers collect water samples containing harmful algal blooms from the waters at Lake Okeechobee, Fla., July 27, 2020.

U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center researchers collect water samples containing harmful algal blooms from the waters at Lake Okeechobee, Fla., July 27, 2020.

Engineering Research and Development Center employees, Angela Urban, a research community planner and Marissa Campobasso, an environmental engineer, collects blue-green algae samples and data on Lake Okeechobee, Fla., July 27, 2020.

Engineering Research and Development Center employees, Angela Urban, a research community planner and Marissa Campobasso, an environmental engineer, collects blue-green algae samples and data on Lake Okeechobee, Fla., July 27, 2020.

Engineering Research and Development Center employees, Angela Urban, a research community planner and Marissa Campobasso, an environmental engineer, collects blue-green algae samples and data on Lake Okeechobee, Fla., July 27, 2020.

Engineering Research and Development Center employees, Angela Urban, a research community planner and Marissa Campobasso, an environmental engineer, collects blue-green algae samples and data on Lake Okeechobee, Fla., July 27, 2020.

PORT MAYACA, Fla. – The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) continued its quest to tackle the challenging problem of harmful algal blooms (HABs) in our nation’s waterways with a removal demonstration in Florida in July 2020.

The ERDC research team and collaborators from engineering firm AECOM and the University of Illinois planned and executed the research study on HAB removal at Lake Okeechobee.

The first pilot study for the Harmful Algal Bloom Interception, Treatment, Transformation System (HABITATS) project, which aims to develop a scalable tool for removing the cyanobacteria that make up HABs from large bodies of water, was launched in 2019 at the Moore Haven Lock and Dam. Building and improving upon the concepts and results from that study, the team was aiming to test an optimized system at the Port Mayaca Lock and Dam on the east side of Lake Okeechobee in
2020 — the only problem was finding a consistent source of algae to remove from the water near the shoreline and spillway area. 

While some algae was observed in the Port Mayaca area in the preceding weeks, weather conditions did not support sustained algae accumulation near the shoreline during the demonstration period. The researchers carefully monitored National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite data and conducted field surveys to track exactly where the algae migrated. Some bloom activity was observed periodically in the middle of the lake, far from shore, causing the team to look elsewhere and further test the rapid deployability of the system.

“From an environmental standpoint, not having algae along the shoreline is great news, but from a HAB mitigation research perspective, it’s challenging because you have to predict where the HABs may show up to test these systems,” said Dr. Martin Page, the ERDC Operational Water Research team leader. “We had to reassess the current information about the HABs and relocate our operational collection process to optimize resources and to complete our mission of collecting HABs to process.”

The team worked with state and regional officials to rapidly relocate the HABITATS demonstration to another site in Florida where high levels of algae were present.

With COVID-19 restrictions in place and hurricane Isaias looming, the team had to adapt and overcome to complete the HABITATS validation research tasks.

“We had big plans for this year. Obviously with COVID-19 happening and a few other issues coming along, those factors created some challenges on the planning side,” Page said. “This summer, we did not give up on the mission. We worked through a lot of adversity to try to get some really important data to develop the scalability assessment for HABITATS, consistent with the authorization under the Water Resource Development Act of 2018 — to develop scalable, in this case, control technology for HABs.”

The HABITATS team had to relocate sites to an area on the south branch of Saddle Creek in Polk County. According to Angela Urban, an ERDC research community planner, the results of this year’s harvesting were well worth the logistical challenge of moving.

“It’s not a small task to change locations, but having learned from past experiences, we built in contingency plans and after the initial demonstration in 2019, we made some significant system improvements for better overall mobility,” said Urban. “This new site was an ideal location for HABs research. Beginning late last week and operating through the weekend, we were able to run testing over three days. In that relatively short time, we were able to capture 1,000 gallons of algae slurry at a flow rate of 135 gallons per minute. That’s about 250,000 gallons of water we cleaned up.”

The management and treatment of HABs are important issues in Florida and across the nation.

“We are complying with our Florida Department of Environmental Protection permit and maintaining close communications with their staff to ensure adherence to safety and regulatory guidelines,” said Page. “HABs are one of our greatest environmental challenges and there are great people involved – great people at the Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Environmental Protection, other state and county officials, and many others who have assisted with this process. Our research team is grateful for all the support from Florida’s water management officials.”