UF Scientists Say Protect Lake Okeechobee Before It’s Too Late

By:
Tom Nordlie (352) 392-1773 x 277

Source(s):
Alan Steinman astein@sfwmd.gov, (561) 682-6492
Wendy Graham graham@agen.ufl.edu, (352) 392-9113
Mitch Flinchum dmf@gnv.ifas.ufl.edu, (561) 993-1500
Pat Miller opm@gnv.ifas.ufl.edu, (863) 763-6469

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OKEECHOBEE, Fla. — In response to a steady decline in the water quality of Lake Okeechobee, the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has formed a partnership with state and federal agencies to save the state’s largest lake.

“Look at the lake and you see deterioration,” said Alan Steinman, who directs restoration efforts on Lake Okeechobee for the South Florida Water Management District, one of the partnership agencies.

“High water levels over the past decade have resulted in the loss of submerged plants, and past algae blooms have discouraged recreation, killed fish and caused taste and odor problems in drinking water pumped from the lake,” Steinman said. “I doubt that this could get as bad as the situation in Lake Apopka, but it’s clearly time for action.”

He said algae growth in Lake Okeechobee is stimulated by excessive phosphorus levels, a key issue in the restoration project.

“Given the extent of the problem and the size of the lake and its surrounding watershed, we’re probably looking at a 20-year effort,” he said. “Cynics say this project can’t stay on track for long, but I disagree. We’ve got interagency cooperation, public concern and a state mandate to get the job done.”

Authorized by the Florida Legislature last year, the Lake Okeechobee Protection Program is aimed at reducing phosphorus levels in the lake to 40 parts per billion, Steinman said. Depending on weather and other conditions, phosphorus levels average 100 ppb and have reached upwards of 200 ppb at times.

He said the 40 ppb standard is being established by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as a safe and desirable level to protect water quality in the lake. To help achieve that standard, DEP will gradually limit the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Okeechobee from the current average of 550 metric tons per year to approximately 140 metric tons.

“That’s a huge reduction,” Steinman said. “But the intention is not to put anyone out of business. We want to sustain economic productivity while minimizing phosphorus runoff. It’s a difficult balancing act.”

Wendy Graham, who coordinates the UF research program for Lake Okeechobee restoration, said many sources have caused the problem over a period of decades.

“Stormwater runoff from nearby dairies, cattle ranches, farms and private homes all contribute to the problem,” said Graham, a UF professor of hydrology. “Soil in some areas is so saturated with phosphorus that it may continue to be released for years.

“Also, sediment on the lake bottom contains phosphorus, so it’s not enough to reduce phosphorus use around the lake. The residual phosphorus that is already there must also be removed or managed.”

Graham said existing phosphorus in soil and lake sediment might be controlled using chemical or biological treatment or physical removal of saturated areas. Control strategies are currently being evaluated.

Other agencies in the partnership are the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“This is the first time the UF has made a committed institutional effort to work with these agencies on legislative priorities,” Graham said. “We hope this program will serve as a model for future efforts.”

Mitch Flinchum, a UF professor of forest and water resources, and Pat Miller, director of UF’s Okeechobee County extension program, are working with Graham to help coordinate UF work. They said UF will focus on research and education in soil and water science, agricultural and biological engineering, horticultural science and animal science.

“There’s a wide range of environmental and economic issues that must be addressed,” Flinchum said. “Our main goal is to develop a series of best management practices, or BMPs, for farmers, businesses and residents, to encourage voluntary compliance. Once BMPs are installed, we’ll monitor their effectiveness in improving water quality.”

Flinchum said the program’s success will depend on cooperation from residents of the seven counties around the lake. “Lake Okeechobee is crucial to South Florida’s environment and water resources. BMPs can help if we have the determination to use them.”

Under state law, by March 1 the water management district, DEP and agriculture department must complete an interagency agreement on how BMPs will be developed and verified.

On Thursday, the water management district’s governing board unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding for the agreement.

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