Dispassionately yours: Lake Okeechobee, the Gulf and our water

By Michelle van Schouwen

FL Water Agencies

In southwest Florida, this is a year of high passion… about crisis-level algae, nutrient loading and general water hell.

So I needed to understand more about the giant lake that’s gotten so much attention lately. I’ve visited Lake Okeechobee but don’t know it well. It was time to go deeper into the history and management of this storied, troubled lake, so I joined in at yesterday’s “Everything You Wanted to Know About Lake Okeechobee (and more)” event in Sarasota, with presenter Dr. Lisa Krimsky, UF/IFAS Extension regional water resources agent.

Knowledge and dispassionate analysis of that knowledge = power. Here’s a start.

-The lake no longer acts like a true lake with drainage and the ability to grow and shrink with water input. Lake Okeechobee has been diked and contained since the early 1900s, after local hurricanes killed thousands of area residents. (People had settled the area in small agricultural communities to take advantage of the excellent soil.) In retrospect, converting the lake into essentially a giant, shallow reservoir may have caused more problems than it solved.

-The outflows from Lake Okeechobee via the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie River include plenty of water from the Kissimmee River and Upper Kissimmee Basin. By the time all this nutrient-rich water travels through engineered flow-control structures to reach the Gulf and Atlantic, stormwater and runoff from the urbanized areas along the way (which are also nutrient-rich) are in the mix as well.

-This is significant because it means we are concerned not only about the algae in Lake Okeechobee and its impacts on rivers, estuaries and the Gulf and Atlantic, but also nutrient loading from the entire area. Significantly, heavy residential, commercial and agricultural land development all contribute to the nitrogen we see headed through our estuaries and into the Gulf and Atlantic. Nitrogen, as many of us have learned, is great food for the Karenia Brevis (“red tide”) that plagues the Gulf now.

-Some outflows do go south from the lake to the Everglades, but this is just a small percentage, which exits through smaller canals. Only redesign and water treatment will allow more water to feed the Everglades, and even then, considerations such as endangered species will govern what can be done. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan addresses this project.

-Lake Okeechobee’s current nutrient load includes a huge amount of waste from legacy agriculture uses. For example, the lake holds 2,000 metric tons of phosphorous in the sediment alone. According to some sources, agriculture’s “best practices” have cleaned up the industry’s act somewhat in terms of how much they’re adding to the lake now; of course, we can do better. (We are looking at decades before the lake could be reasonably clean and that’s a best-case scenario.)

-I am sorry that we humans have overdeveloped (and continue to develop) the sensitive ecosystems of Florida, including Lake Okeechobee, the Upper Kissimmee Basin and the Everglades. Nature managed these systems much better than we do. Since we’ve gone this far, we have the responsibility to do a far better job than we do in managing and preserving the natural and semi-natural resources we have now.

-Since the lake is a now giant shallow reservoir – essentially a storage basin for which the water levels must be lowered, sometimes at inopportune times –  better and additional water storage is apparently required. The C43 Reservoir is scheduled to be complete in 2022. It is slated to help store and manage basin runoff to meet estuary needs during the dry season. Learn more here. The EAA Reservoir has recently been authorized by Congress (although a controversial land lease extension for some 16,000 acres has just been provided to Florida Crystals). Learn more here.

-We’ve had extreme wet and dry seasons in the most recent “water years” (which in Florida are May to April). These extremes have led both to increased algae and frequent needs to send a lot of water from the lake to the sea. With this comes blue-green algae and nutrients to feed and likely sustain the red tide.

Challenges and recommendations:

-The more I’ve learned about water management in the state of Florida, the more I’ve realized that we have solid science and competent people on the ground. We also have too much money in politics and too many empowered old-school politicos who scorn science and environmental programs.

-Florida is replete with agencies responsible for various elements of water protection (see graphic above) but agricultural interests and political agendas often override serious environmental needs. It’s possible that the state needs a Secretary of Water Management whose ONLY charge is to protect and restore our water.

Krimsky suggests, that to clean and protect Lake Okeechobee, we strive to restrict future growth north and west of Lake Okeechobee and throughout the Everglades, as well as strongly supporting the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. She also suggests a focus on preserving land throughout Florida. (“Taking off my UF hat,” she says, then recommends speaking out to let county commissioners know you want to slow and manage growth.)

-As individuals, we can make a difference. For starters…
•Speak out for conservation, water management, stormwater and wastewater management. Attend meetings, email and call.
•Join and become active in a group, whether it is a water group such as Turn the Tide, Florida, Hands Along the Water or South Florida Clean Water Movement, or support groups such as Captains for Clean Water, Sierra Club of Florida, Florida Conservation Voters, or bullsugar.org.
•Reduce fertilizer use and also use the right fertilizer correctly. (See UF/IFAS Extension Florida Friendly Landscaping to learn about best practices, and FlorikanCRF to learn about a good product option.)
•Keep your grass clippings out of roads and waterways; actually, they are best left on the lawn.
•Pick up your dog’s waste, even if it’s in your yard!
•Advocate for more natural lakes in your neighborhood or HOA. Grasses and a little algae are good.
•Reduce (or cut out) your meat and dairy consumption. Animal farming is a huge source of pollution, including nitrogen.
•Reduce your vehicle emissions, which include nitrogen. Drive less when you can. Maybe your next car is a hybrid or electric, who knows!
•Vote smart. A candidate’s platform and record on environmental issues really matters.
•Keep learning and sharing. Read all you can, and attend seminars and classes.

Finally, I believe that knowledge combined with action CAN make a difference for clean water. Each of us is just a drop, but together, we are an ocean.