WASHINGTON, July 20, 2016 - Florida is struggling to deal with an ecological nightmare.
An algal bloom in Lake Okeechobee has spread to surrounding waterways, prompting a gubernatorial declaration of a state of emergency, calls to buy sugar lands for water storage, and renewed accusations about the role of agriculture in creating the mess.
Problems began with a rainy winter, which forced upstream water districts to release water earlier than usual. It flowed into the lake, where the blue-green algae bloom became evident this spring.
The Army Corps of Engineers, following its normal practice of releasing water in order to keep the lake at a manageable level, had kept to a normal schedule of releases to the St. Lucie River estuary to the east and the Caloosahatchee River estuary to the west, up until recently.
The foul-looking water has been called toxic, but the Florida Department of Environmental Protection says “some – not all – blue-green algae can produce toxins that can contribute to environmental problems and affect public health.”
The Corps recently began reducing the amount of water it releases but remains concerned about the high lake levels.
“We want to avoid a scenario where the lake rises so high, the resulting water pressure increases the potential for erosion” that could cause the breaching of the Herbert Hoover Dike to the south, Colonel Jason Kirk, commander of the Corps’ Jacksonville District, said in a July 8 statement. “Such a breach could cause widespread property damage and potential loss of life.”
At 14.72 feet, the lake is at least a couple of feet higher than the Corps would prefer, especially with hurricane season on the way.
“During a normal wet season, the lake rises two to three feet,” Kirk said. “The National Weather Service has issued outlooks that call for above-average precipitation over the next three months, which will likely add more water. We’ve seen numerous instances over the past 20 years of tropical systems producing enough rain to cause a three- to four-foot rise in the lake. A five-foot rise in the lake from this point takes us into uncharted territory.”
Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who has been roundly criticized by environmental groups and others in the state for a series of environmentally questionable moves – he prohibited administrators in his Department of Environmental Protection from using the phrases “climate change” or “global warming” – blamed the federal government for not fixing the dike.
But in declaring a state of emergency June 29, he directed the South Florida Water Management District to store more water north of Lake Okeechobee in the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes and in other water storage projects.
Meanwhile, the debate rages on over the causes of the bloom. Environmental groups such as The Everglades Trust have targeted U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals, which grow hundreds of thousands of acres of sugarcane south of the lake.
In a July 6 letter to Scott, the Trust called on the governor to convene a meeting with landowners south of the lake to advance the sale of 60,000 acres of land needed for a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area.
“As you are aware, a storage reservoir in the EAA has been an integral part of (the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan) since its inception. More than 200 independent scientists have determined it is the only way to reduce the harmful Lake Okeechobee discharges, hydrate the central Everglades wetlands and stabilize the salinity levels within Florida Bay, while ensuring the safety of the source of water supply for 8 million Floridians.”
U.S. Sugar, however, says it has made vast improvements, reducing the amount of phosphorus flowing from its fields by 56 percent annually over the past 20 years.
In addition, the company says, only 3 percent of the water and 4 percent of the phosphorus in the Lake Okeechobee comes from the south.
The Florida Farm Bureau says agriculture is being made a scapegoat for a problem created by society as a whole.
“All of us are the problem,” says FFB’s Charles Shinn, who adds that using land south of the lake as a flow-way is unrealistic because the land south of the lake simply can’t handle that much water, which would damage the “remnant Everglades” – what’s left of the original 18,000-square-mile River of Grass.
“This is political, to remove the growing of sugar or any other crops south of Lake Okeechobee,” he says.
Shinn concedes that nutrient runoff from agriculture – particularly cattle ranches north of the lake – contributes to the formation of algae, but so does runoff from urban development and golf courses.
In addition, he says that farmers are required to implement Best Management Practices on their land through a Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP).
“Farmers down there are doing everything they can,” he said, referring to agriculture around the lake.
There’s another problem that will take years to solve, he says – phosphorus remaining in the lake and the Lake Okeechobee drainage basin from historical land practices.
“There’s a lot of latent phosphorus in the Lake O basin,” he says. “That’s primarily what’s causing the bloom now.”
Another contributing factor has been sewage from septic tanks. Brian Lapointe, a Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute researcher, has produced a report concluding that septic pollution has been a significant contributor to algae formation in the St. Lucie River estuary. In addition to contributing nutrients, septic tanks add bacteria to the algae.
SFWMD agrees. “The nutrients and fresh water that can fuel growth of naturally occurring blue-green algae also comes from local stormwater runoff and septic tanks,” SFWMD says in a “myths and facts” document.
“There’s no single source driver to what’s going on,” Shinn says. “It’s a feeding frenzy for algae.”
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