For all the things that change in South Florida — the skyline, the swelling population, sea level — one thing has remained remarkably constant: pollution in Lake Okeechobee.
In 1985, 500 metric tons of phosphorus flowed into the lake. Last year, the total was 450 tons. In the years between, amounts of the damaging nutrient went up and down but nearly always remained three to four times higher than a target the state set in 2000. At a meeting in March, just before another algae bloom slimed the Treasure Coast following massive releases of polluted lake water, the state's own scientists concluded that there had been no improvement at all.
Despite decades of planning and promises, Florida lawmakers, governors and agencies have never gotten close to cleaning up the largest lake in the Southeast U.S. — the “liquid heart” of South Florida’s water supply system. The reasons are many, but they come down to one thing, said Paul Gray, Audubon Florida’s Lake Okeechobee science director.
“It’s really easy to explain,’’ he said. “They didn’t do enough to fix it.”
Florida — under the pressure of a landmark federal lawsuit — has made slow but significant strides in reducing pollution from sugar fields south of the lake. But to the north, with no judge monitoring things, there has been little progress.
A 2000 law promising to spend $175 million to help farmers and ranchers control phosphorus doled out just $3 million. Seven years later a plan that would have created about a million acre-feet of storage north of the lake got swallowed in the recession and abandoned by a new governor. Critics say state laws favor “best management” goals for many agricultural operations instead of enforceable standards, and include loopholes like one allowing largely unregulated use of treated sewage sludge, high in nutrients, on farm fields. Meanwhile, suburbs that produce even more phosphorus than farms continue to expand around booming Orlando.
And this year, after failing to meet the law’s 2015 deadline to get phosphorus loads into the lake down to 140 tons, state lawmakers simply set a new deadline — 20 years from now.
Rep. Matt Caldwell, a North Fort Myers real estate appraiser who sponsored the law, told the Miami Herald at the time that the blown deadline was never meant for fixing the lake, just coming up with a plan. “That would be a ridiculous presumption,” he said, given the lake’s complexity.
But Estus Whitfield, who served under governors Bob Graham, Bob Martinez and Lawton Chiles on Everglades clean-up, said lawmakers are engaging in revisionist history. The goal was always to cap lake pollution, he said. “That was pretty clear.”
The state is now scrambling to play catch-up, expediting two vast reservoirs for coastal estuaries and giving emergency approval in July to $2.6 million for improvements. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also launched a planning effort to increase storage north of the lake last month. But solutions won’t be quick. Planning alone will take three years, news that drew groans from both farmers and environmentalists at a crowded meeting in Okeechobee last month.
This week, incoming Senate President Joe Negron, a Republican from Stuart whose district has been repeatedly hammered by lake-triggered algae blooms, also stepped in with a $2.4 billion proposal to buy 60,000 acres of sugar farms to build reservoirs that could reduce dumps to the two coasts. The proposal, which calls for splitting the cost with the federal government, will face considerable political opposition.
Phosphorus, a naturally occurring element that is also a key nutrient in fertilizer, has always existed in the lake. It’s the stuff that helped create the rich muck to the south that built a $677 million-a-year sugar industry. The problem is when too much piles up.
Historically, water flowed south from the Kissimmee River basin, collecting phosphorus from the surrounding wetlands. It streamed into a lake a third larger than it is now and regularly overflowed into an Everglades that was twice as big. But when the Kissimmee River was straightened in the 1960s, water flowed much faster, sending too much phosphorus too fast, like a giant sewer pipe.
A 30-foot high dike, built to protect communities and fields, also stopped excess water from spilling south into the Glades. So now when the lake rises higher than the dike or lake aquatic life can handle, water managers flush water to the coasts.
Then things get worse.
The releases send huge amounts of freshwater into coastal saltwater estuaries that mix with local run-off rich in nitrogen and local phosphorus. The results: putrid blue-green algae. So much phosphorus has concentrated in the lake’s mucky bottom over the decades that even if no more were added, scientists say it could take another 50 years to reach water quality targets.
South of the lake, Florida already has a working model of how to reduce phosphorus pollution.
To settle a federal lawsuit, the state agreed to stem the flow of fertilizer runoff that for decades has poisoned the Everglades. The biggest investment came from South Florida taxpayers, who have largely bankrolled a $2 billion-plus series of massive artificial marshes that scrub nutrients from farm runoff. But the sugar industry also has tweaked its practices.
Over the last 20 years, concentrations of phosphorus in water near fields has dropped from a high in 1986 of about 500 parts per billion to 94 parts per billion. The artificial marshes knock the phosphorus level down further. It’s still two to three times higher than the 10 parts per billion considered healthy for a pristine Everglades, but that’s significant improvement from two decades ago. A practice called “back-pumping” — sending runoff north into the lake — is now only used in emergency conditions.
For many critics, politically powerful Big Sugar remains the main stumbling block in ending the nasty cycle of coastal algae blooms. But between 2011 and 2015, South Florida Water Management District numbers show the sugar industry accounted for just three percent of the phosphorus pumped into the lake.
All together, sugar farmers have spent about $260 million on clean up, largely by keeping water on farms, cleaning out ditches where phosphorus-rich soil settles and calculating more carefully the amount of fertilizer needed to grow crops, said U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez .
“The results are undeniably good news,” Sanchez wrote in an email. “The partnership between the [Everglades Agricultural Area] farmers and landowners and the South Florida Water Management District should serve as a model for other areas to ensure that each region takes responsibility for its water issues.”
But what works to the south — an area dominated by a single crop and a single industry — may not be so simple to carry out to the north, where a vastly different set of problems and variables exist. To the north, water flows from sod and dairy farms, mobile home parks, vegetables fields and ranches through canals, ponds, creeks, rivers and sloughs into the lake faster than it can flow out. The watershed covers about 5,400 square miles, stretching from just south of Orlando to the lake.
“Some of the estuary people have been told, you’re one lawsuit too late,” Gray said.
In the 1980s, the state tried to manage the problem by targeting dairy farms, which produced more phosphorus than any other land use. New regulations tightly controlled how much could leave the farms, eventually leading dairy farmers to completely reinvent operations, said Woody Larson, a second-generation Florida dairyman who with his two sons now manages the family’s two Okeechobee farms.
“Our farm, instead of having cows scattered all around it, is now a farm for recycling water,” Larson said.
Like other dairy farmers above the lake, Larson’s operates a closed-loop system, meaning cows are housed in free stalls under sprinklers and cooling fans with all their waste tightly controlled. Pastures where they once grazed are instead used to grow grass irrigated with the cow’s own treated wastewater from the barns. The grass is then cut, stored in a silo and fed to the cows.
But the expensive fixes came at a steep cost. Of the more than 50 dairies in the 1980s, the number today is down to 19, Larson said. The number of cows dropped from about 50,000 to 25,000.
“The politics were clearly ahead of the science at that point,” Larson said, describing the frustration felt by farmers. “We were issued this edict but at the same time we didn’t know how to solve it.”
Wes Williamson, a third generation rancher in Okeechobee — where seven of the nation’s 15 top-producing cattle ranches sit within 80 miles of each other — keeps a phosphorus budget. He knows exactly how much comes onto his ranch, in fertilizer and rainfall, and how much goes out — mostly in cattle sales — and tries to control it by changing operations, like planting more trees so cattle don’t cool off in ponds that might drain into creeks or other water bodies.
In 2005, he said, the World Wildlife Fund worked with eight ranches in pilot projects, paying them to store water.
“It’s been a good thing. The problem is there hasn’t been [enough] funding for it,” Williamson said. “If a cattle ranch can’t make a little bit of money, sooner or later it will be turned into what my father calls the final crop. Land goes into housing, but it never comes back.”
So if farmers and ranchers have changed operations, where is the phosphorus coming from? Over the years, scientists have repeatedly tried to map out the sources.
In 2010, the South Florida Water Management District hired the University of Florida and a team of engineers led by Del Bottcher, president of Gainesville-based Soil and Water Engineering Technology, Inc. They found that over the previous decade, the watershed was actually producing slightly more phosphorus overall — some 1,792 tons — even as farmland was being rapidly converted into houses.
Gary Roderick, a former Martin County and DEP environmental manager, points to multiple problems, including widespread “best management” farming practices that are largely voluntary and monitored by an understaffed state agriculture department. Loopholes in state law also encourage what he called one of the worst practices — enriching soils with treated sludge from municipal sewage plants. The nutrient-packed sludge isn’t formally classified as a fertilizer.
About 37 percent of the sludge from across the state is used on land as a fertilizer, according to the DEP. Another 29 percent is marketed and sold commercially.
“You cannot control — it is impossible to control — nutrients in surface waters without making a serious attempt [at] source control on agricultural lands. Period,” Roderick said.
Strip away the sludge, and the farming practices, while not perfect, managed to reduce phosphorus by 22 percent, Roderick and Bottcher say.
Over the years, blame and finger-pointing for phosphorus has largely targeted the ag industry. But farmers and ranchers say that while their fields and cattle have dwindled in the watershed draining south, one thing has not: people. The number between 1980 and 2015 more than doubled, from just over a million to about 2.6 million.
They have a point: Bottcher found that while urban areas made up just 12 percent of the watershed, they generated 29 percent of the total phosphorus.
Bottcher, who is building a model for the water management district, said he is looking to pinpoint the best “bang for the buck” approaches to control so many different sources of pollution .
“Where do you spend your money to get the biggest phosphate reduction?” he asked. “You can get 10 to 35 percent reduction with reasonable expenditures. But the [best management practices program] is asking for 80 percent, so how do you get the rest?”
Then there is that legacy phosphorus, the stuff already in the ground on dairy farms, pastures, tree crops and neighborhoods and in the lake. Over the years, multiple ways to remove it from the lake bottom muck — treating it with chemicals, dredging it out and burying it, even converting the lake into a kind of phosphate mine — have been considered and rejected. No one has come up with a realistic solution, affordable or otherwise.
“Nothing has ever been done at a scale at even a tenth of the size,” of Lake Okeechobee, said UF aquatic ecologist Karl Havens.
For now, Gov. Rick Scott and water managers continues to grapple with the algae crisis — and spin it politically.
Scott declared a state of emergency and tried to blame the Obama administration for the foul water, saying the federal government had not moved quickly enough to repair the aging Herbert Hoover dike around Lake Okeechobee.
At ground level, Scott offered low-interest loans to damaged businesses and ordered the water management district to start holding more water to the north while releasing more water to the southeast and south into massive water conservation areas in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
The water district also stepped up its public relations campaign, issuing regular “Get the Facts” press releases to tout work, mostly south of the lake. On its list of accomplishments: $880 million Scott approved to settle a federal lawsuit and build another 6,500 acres in storage and treatment. A spreader canal has also been completed to keep additional water now being moved south from leaking out of Everglades National Park into farm fields in South Miami-Dade. The district also began construction on fixes to increase the amount of water in Taylor Slough by 6.5 billion gallons a year. To the north, the restoration of the Kissimmee River, a project split 50-50 between the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, should be done by 2019, which could slow the phosphorus spigot.
But big bold fixes for north of the lake — Negron’s proposal is for more southern storage — and the estuaries of the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers remain uncertain and far off.
And, as if conditions weren’t bad enough, there is increasing evidence that climate change could fuel more toxic algae blooms. In a 2015 study that looked at warming trends, changes in rainfall and an increase in blooms, Havens and a team of researchers concluded that phosphorus levels in water would likely need to be adjusted and more focus put on better farming practices.
“When you think about it, the problem is now twice as bad as when we started,” Gray said. “And this is not just an Okeechobee problem. It’s worldwide. Every where we farm, humans have always concentrated nutrients. That’s what we do.”
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