Nearly a third of state’s waters polluted, experts say
“Not a single resident in Florida lives more than 20 miles from an impaired waterway,” said John Cassani, Calusa Waterkeeper, at the first Florida Water Policy Summit last Monday.
Organized around the idea that “clean water is a basic human right,” the event on Martin Luther King Jr. Day featured six speakers from local conservation groups who spoke about actionable water policy that can improve Florida’s impaired waters.
And Florida has a lot of impaired waters – currently 12 million acres under Best Management Action Plans, or BMAPs, which are 15-year restoration plans required by the federal government when a waterbody is not meeting quality standards.
The Federal Clean Water Act requires each state to compile a list of waterbodies that aren’t up to snuff.
Then, the Department of Environmental Protection conducts watershed assessments.
Any waterbody that doesn’t meet standards for pollution is scheduled for a Total Maximum Daily Load, which is a limit for the amount of a particular pollutant that a waterbody can handle.
The state of Florida currently has 416 TMDLs, with 80 waterbodies on a waiting list to receive one, according to Maria Carrozzo, senior environmental policy specialist at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
The next step after establishing a TMDL is writing up a BMAP to restore the waters.
“How did we get to the point where almost a third of our state is under water quality restoration plans?” said Carrozzo.
The answers to her question are long and complicated.
A combination of harmful agricultural run-off, insufficient urban stormwater treatment, and fertilizer use have mixed up a cocktail of toxic water.
Under Florida water law, farmers can sign a notice of intent to implement best management practices – essentially promising to comply with water quality standards.
This grants a “presumption of compliance,” regardless of whether they’re actually meeting standards or not.
Carrozzo said doing away with that presumption of compliance, updating stormwater run-off standards to remove more nutrients, and strengthening local fertilizer ordinances can all help improve water quality.
And then there’s Lake Okeechobee.
The Army Corps of Engineers created the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule in 2008, and it was intended as an interim measure until repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dam were completed.
Those repairs still aren’t done.
The Corps expects them to be finished in 2022, but they have said they will not change the LORS until the dam is completed.
According to Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity, the LORS didn’t consider cyanobacteria and red tide, claiming it was unlikely that discharges from the lake caused harmful algal blooms, and didn’t analyze them any further.
But discharges from the lake do cause problems.
Rae Ann Wessell, natural resource policy director at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, refers to the issue of balancing the lake’s flow levels as “The Goldilocks Condition.”
Propelled by gravity, Lake Okeechobee’s discharges travel across 75 miles of freshwater river and estuary and three lock and dam systems to reach the Gulf of Mexico.
Too much flow from the lake washes valuable fish and oyster nurseries out into the Gulf, decimating the ecosystem.
Too little flow chokes these habitats with salt.
“When we don’t get enough flow into the system through the western lock, the water that is fed by tidal action from the Gulf up the river brings much more salinity than some of these habitats can tolerate,” Wessell said.
Habitats like tapegrass, which provide a home for crab, fish, and oysters that filter feed and clean water naturally, are destroyed.
“Not only do we lose the tapegrass, we also lose 100 percent of the oyster reef that is downstream, and those are filtering water for free. 50 gallons a day for a single oyster is a huge contribution to our water quality,” she said.
In 2001, the South Florida Water Management District set a minimum flow level of 300 cubic feet per second.
Scientists realized this forgot to account for inflows to the estuary coming downstream from Telegraph Creek and Orange River, so they adjusted the number to 450, Wessell said.
“That’s important, because it shows up in the LORS, and every habitat analysis for every state and federal Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan project as a habitat metric. So if you’re meeting 450 cubic feet per second for the Caloosahatchee, it says you’re golden… and we know that’s just not true,” she said.
A more ideal number is closer to 800, all the way up to 1000 cubic feet per second, according to Wessell.
The SWFMD recently set the flow level to 400 cubic feet per second, and the city of Sanibel gathered three other neighboring municipalities, including Cape Coral, to challenge that rule in administrative court, asking for more flows.
That case is still awaiting a ruling.
“We’re doing oyster restoration and tapegrass restoration, trying to keep ahead of the damage, but it’s not accounted for in the District’s analysis. They say the tape grass is doing fine, but that’s because we keep going in and planting it,” Wessell said.
With all of this in mind, Lopez said it’s important for citizens to ask the Corps to address the regulations schedule as soon as possible, and to finish repairs to the dam by June 2020.
“It can be done by then, and we need to demand it,” Lopez said.
Wessell reminded everyone that it’s not just Lake Okeechobee to blame for all our problems, because the watershed the discharges flow through to reach the gulf is almost two Lake Okeechobees in size.
“There are many times when we are getting no discharges from the lake, and we’re having harmful flows just from that estuary and river watershed. So keep in mind that when we talk about where the problems start, and where the solutions lie, it’s important to recognize that it’s all of us, we all contribute to it,” she said.
One researcher shared some hope at the summit.
Dr. William Mitsch, director of the Everglades Research Park at Florida Gulf Coast University, is working on a project he calls “wetlaculture”.
It’s a plan to restore wetlands that can build up nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus over several years, and then flip the use of the lands to agriculture, using those natural nutrients instead of adding fertilizer.
Mitsch called manufactured fertilizer “the opiate we have on our landscape.”
“We’ve just got to get off of it,” he said.
Mitsch partnered with the University of Notre Dame to create an economic plan that shows how farmers could actually make money in wetlaculture by utilizing government programs that pay to remove nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus from wetlands.
His team has created three different test sites for this project, two in Ohio and one in Naples, that have shown promising water quality results.
Florida would need to install 94,000 acres of these treatment wetlands in the Everglades Agricultural Area to ensure clean water in the Everglades, he said, but it could be a sustainable answer to excess fertilizer use.
Daniel Andrews, cofounder of Captains for Clean Water, is encouraged by Governor DeSantis’ recent water policy order and his request that all SFWMD board members resign.
“The fact that we have a governor’s office that’s cooperative is a good thing,” he said.
“The most important thing you can do is take an hour out of your day, call everybody up, and let them know this issue is not resolved. We’ve set a stake in the ground that enough is enough and we’re not going to take it anymore.”