Water flowing into Everglades National Park during the wettest rainy season on record, along with a powerful hurricane, exceeded court-ordered limits for marsh-killing phosphorus, the South Florida Water Management District revealed this week.
Scientists on an oversight committee may not determine for months whether a formal legal violation occurred, but the exceedance is an indication of just how deep, and complex, Florida’s water problems have become.
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After record rain drenched the state in June, leaving water conservation areas full and Lake Okeechobee high, Hurricane Irma and a tropical storm followed. Florida Bay, which looked like it might be spared the worst after Irma, is now struggling with thick algae in the central bay and elevated amounts in the northeast part. And that’s got recreational boaters and anglers who make up one of the Keys’ biggest economic engines worried.
“The bay is very lifeless where the bloom looks the worst,” said Pete Frezza, a fishing guide and Everglades research manager for Florida Audubon. “It’s just a desert out there.”
Biscayne Bay is also wrestling with spreading algae, which can shade seagrass and deplete oxygen in water.
The state is in the midst of a $16 billion restoration of its plumbing system expanded by lawmakers last year to include an additional reservoir. But this year’s extreme weather is testing the limits of the system.
At the district’s governing board meeting this week, member Jim Moran said water monitoring received for 2017’s total phosphorus flow into the park slightly exceeded limits set in a federal court settlement to resolve years of legal sparring to clean up the Everglades.
Water quality is monitored by a technical oversight committee that looks at data for compliance. If a violation is found, the committee then recommends fixes, which could take months, said Everglades Foundation Vice President Tom Van Lent.
It’s likely the elevated phosphorus will be written off as a byproduct of so much rain and not a lapse in cleanup efforts. But while ongoing restoration work has progressed in recent years — the district is nearly finished restoring the Kissimmee River to stop water flushing into Lake Okeechobee and work is underway on an additional 2.6 miles of bridge over the Tamiami Trail — the system remains far from fixed. Putting more water into the system is only part of the solution — it also has to be pollution-free to sustain the Everglades’ fragile ecoystems.
“No one’s intent is to place blame and say we’re not doing enough to advance water quality,” said Julie Hill-Gabriel, Everglades policy director for Audubon Florida. “It just proves how many challenges we have.”
Parts of Florida Bay are turning a sickly green at a time of year when algae blooms are typically less common. Heavy rain that started in June dumped too much freshwater in the shallow bay, likely setting up the bloom. When Irma steamed across after hitting the Lower Keys, it blew in dead seagrass and churned up a bottom coated with dead grass from a massive 2015 die-off that loaded the water with nutrients. The final blow came from Tropical Storm Philippe.
“When boats went over you could actually see it kick off the bottom,” said Amanda McDonald, a district environmental scientist who is monitoring the algae.
Over the coming cooler months, it’s possible the bloom will consume the excessive nutrients then get blown out during the windier winter, she said. McDonald is part of a team that will be monitoring conditions — along with a similar team watching Biscayne Bay — and is hopeful the bay that sits at the center of a $722 million a year sportfishing industry will be resilient enough to fend off the year’s blows.
“My hope is that the bloom burns itself out,” she said. “I don’t even want to talk about the worst-case scenario.”
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich