SFWMD governing board looks north to address water quality problems

Posted 5/15/19

Slow the flow. Clean it north.

Comments at the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board May 8 workshop meeting echoed the slogans of the Anglers for Lake Okeechobee as board members …

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SFWMD governing board looks north to address water quality problems


Slow the flow. Clean it north.

Comments at the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board May 8 workshop meeting echoed the slogans of the Anglers for Lake Okeechobee as board members noted the need to clean the water before it goes into the big lake.

“These increases in nutrients that are coming out of the northern Everglades are growing and growing,” said SFWMD governing board member Ron Bergeron. “It’s coming from somewhere. Maybe we can monitor the Kissimmee River floodplain, and we can go far north and determine how much is coming from the Orlando area and how much is coming from the agricultural area. We’ve got to get a handle on where it is coming from, and we’ve got to regulate and monitor reasonable standards before water enters into state waters. That is a million times cheaper than trying to be reactive and clean it up afterwards.

“We must all be good stewards on our property prior to the water leaving our properties. Otherwise, we will never be able to build enough projects,” he said.

The sources of the nutrient load north of the lake are not easy to track.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has established a TMDL (total maximum daily load) of 140 metric tons of phosphorus per year for Lake Okeechobee, including 35 metric tons of atmospheric phosphorus. (Rainwater the falls directly into the lake contains some natural phosphorus.)

Tom Frick, director, Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration Department of Environmental Protection, explained that the TMDLs established by FDEP are not “self enforcing.”

At the federal level TMDLs are implemented through permits, he explained. Nonpoint sources have to be dealt with in other ways.

Most of the vast watershed north of the lake is in agricultural use, said Vanessa Bessey, Environmental Administrator with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Office of Agricultural Water Policy. But that does not mean the nutrient load is coming from today’s farmers and ranchers. The water sheet flows across the land, she explained. Nutrient load in one area may have originated from a property 20 miles away. It’s not like the Central Everglades where water flows into ditches and canals.

Dr. Paul Gray of Florida Audubon said there are two kinds of nutrient load that can enter the waterways. One source is the current load including nutrients in fertilizer, septic tanks and sewage. The other source of nutrient load is called “legacy load.”

“We’ve been up there for 100 years mucking around,” he said.

While the maximum goal into the lake is 105 metric tons, the legacy load by itself can probably give us 500 ton loads for next 20 years, said Dr. Gray.

Dr. Gray added that Buck Island Ranch, home of the Archbold Biological Station, has not used any fertilizer in 30 years and they still have high levels of phosphorus.

Ms. Bessey said the agricultural operations north of the lake have the choice of enrolling in the Best Management Practices (BMPs) program through the Department of Agriculture. Those that do not sign up for BMPs are referred to FDEP for enforcement of water quality standards. The BMPs are designed to limit the nutrient load added to the landscape by the farmers. BMPs were never designed to meet the TMDLs anywhere in the state, she said.

Currently, BMPs are used for beef cattle, fruit and nut crops, vegetable crops, horse farms, sod farms, citrus groves, tree nurseries, dairies and poultry farms.

The BMPs are verified as effective by FDEP, she said. Ms. Bessey added that 87% of the irrigated agricultural areas north of the lake are enrolled in BMP programs. She said there is no pre-BMP data to compare it to, but they have evidence the BMPs reduce the use of fertilizer. For example, she said, she had a farmer tell her he used three truckloads less of a fertilizer this year thanks to the BMPs.

In the Lake Okeechobee watershed, the predominant agricultural use is cattle ranching, said Ms. Bessey. To control nutrient load in runoff from ranches, BMPs include cross fencing cattle away from waterways, adding berms and water control structures to recycle runoff and using precision agriculture technology, she explained.

Modern technology means farmers and ranches use less fertilizer, she said,
Retaining water on the farms keeps it out of the regional system. She said more than 1,000 water control structures were installed by FDEP in the Lake Okeechobee Watershed and thousands more were installed by property owners.

How well the BMPs are working is tracked through annual reporting and site visits. She said the majority of annual reports are staff assisted and done over the phone. FDACS staffers have done 3,600 site visits this year. There are 11,000 properties enrolled in BMPs; they don’t have enough staff to visit every property annually.

She explained they don’t have data on the nutrient load in the watershed prior to the BMPs, and that makes it hard to show how well BMPs work on a particular property. However, she explained, the practices have been certified by FDEP.

“Any development of land, whether it be for agriculture or community development is subject to a permitting program for how you manage and store your surface water,” said Drew Bartlett, SFWMD executive director. An agriculture use is “subject to the same permitting as if you were building a Walmart or a subdivision,” he explained. “BMPs were never intended to be an edge of the pond monitoring.”

“One of the unintended consequences of the flood control system has been our water quality problems,” said Gary Ritter of Florida Farm Bureau. He said the channelization of the Kissimmee River was completed in 1971. The channelization of Taylor Creek/Nubbin Slough watershed was also completed in 1971. Prior to that time there had been agriculture on the watershed for decades. The water quality issues started with the changes in the landscape for flood control.

SFWMD governing board member Scott Wagner expressed concerns that BMPs don’t have a water quality component that measures the nutrient load in runoff.

SFWMD governing board member Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch said enforcing water quality standards is not the job of the Department of Agriculture.

“Somebody has to be in charge (of water quality) and I think it has to be Department of Environmental Protection,” she said.

“There’s got to be some way we can figure out where the hot spots are and be able to address in some reasonable manner before this enters into state water if we are ever going to achieve a quality of water,” said Mr. Bergeron.

He said the algae blooms are increasing every year.

“We know one thing for sure: Whatever we are doing today isn’t working,” he said. “This isn’t an attack on agriculture,” he added. Mr. Bergeron said those in agriculture love their land and “do an awful lot for the state of Florida” to protect wildlife. He noted agricultural lands house one third of the panther population.

BMPs are based on the nutrient needs of the plant, said Dr. Gray. The farmers try to use the lowest amount of fertilizer they can and still get a good crop.

“We can’t go tell people to quit fertilizing because that will put them out of business,” he added.

Dr. Gray said the BMP program has been hampered by a lack of state funding. “We can’t recycle all the water we want to. We can’t do all the fencing we want to. There’s a lot of room for improvement,” he said.

SFWMD governing board member Scott Wagner seemed skeptical about BMPs.

“What I have heard today is what I think is theory,” he said. “Here is a best management practice. We believe it works in theory. We’re going to submit it to the DEP. They’re going to look at it, and academically, in theory, it works and they give you a blessing.”

“We need to get upstream and address the source of water pollution at the source of the problem,” said Mark Perry of the Florida Oceanographic Society during the public comments period.

“The BMPs are based on science,” said Rich Budell, who was director of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Office of Agricultural Water Policy for 17 years. He said these BMPs are implemented nationwide. “There are technical publications that support and bracket the range of effectiveness that these various BMPs are likely to produce when employed on a landscape. They are bracketed because of the variability that exists across that landscape: soils, depth to groundwater, distance to discharge point, microbes, cropping patterns, changes in temperature.

“There’s this enormous variability across the landscape,” he said.

“There is going to be a lot of variability within these data sets,” he explained.

He said the highly engineered water control system south of the lake has made it possible for the BMPs south of the lake to be the most effective in the country.

“Nutrients travel with water,” he said. “If you’ve got a system to seriously control that water, you’re going to have a very effective BMP program. Don’t expect that performance anywhere else, certainly not north of the lake, or east or west. It’s not going to happen,” Mr. Budell continued.

“We all wish we could make it better quicker. These are biological systems. They don’t respond in time frames that match our career goals or terms in office. We do what we think are the best combination of science-based, land management activities that we can implement. The system will respond on it’s own time frame. It doesn’t care how frustrated we are. That’s just the way it is,” he said.

Drew Martin, of the Sierra Club, suggested Florida take a drastic step and end sod farming.

“We had a water quality study on the Lake Worth lagoon and the biggest problem was sod farming,” he said. “Nobody eats sod,” Mr. Martin continued. “Nobody really needs sod.” He said homeowners’ desires to have attractive lawns are causing a lot of the water problems in South Florida.