Dr. Robert Knight has published an article in the Gainesville Sun, July 17, 2016, dealing with the recent water problems. Not really recent, these problems started long ago. And the current water authorities and legislators did not start them either, but they have certainly have allowed them to become worse and the damage to increase.
Robert Knight: North and South Florida vie to be most polluted region
Posted Jul 15, 2016 at 2:00 AM
South Florida’s coastal waters are finally receiving the press they deserve, given the environmental disaster that continues to engulf the estuaries and beaches on both sides of the state. Guacamole-thick algae and rafts of dead fish continue to slime the waters and beaches, thanks to ongoing releases of nutrient-laden water from Lake Okeechobee.
Decades of complaints by those whose economies and livelihoods were sorely impacted resulted in passage of the Lake Okeechobee Protection Act in 2000. Continuing pollution subsequently led to the Northern Everglades and Estuaries Protection Program in 2007. While these legal mandates resulted in a number of large flood-control and nutrient-removal projects along the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, minimal environmental improvements are evident.
In 2013, state and federal leaders again took notice when excessive lake releases caused the coastal biological communities to plummet and coastal economies to suffer. And just this year, when conditions became so dire, the state finally declared a water quality emergency in South Florida. The state’s long-term proposal to mitigate the damage is conspicuously one-dimensional — a lengthy, disruptive and expensive plan to hook up thousands of septic tanks to central wastewater treatment systems.
The plan is unlikely to solve the continuing water quality problems. About 70 percent of the pollution load to Lake Okeechobee and subsequently to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries comes from discharges of nitrogen- and phosphorus-laden runoff from farms and ranches. In Martin County, septic tanks account for only an estimated 15 percent of the long-term pollution.
With a price tag of about $15,000 each, septic tank connections will be paid by taxpayers — while agricultural producers are only asked to implement inexpensive best management practices with no verification or enforcement. Passage of the deceptive 2016 water bill virtually ensures the lake will not meet its water quality goals for decades, as deadlines were pushed back at least 20 years.
Nutrient loads need to be curtailed at their source — the farms and ranches that produce the most pollution. Otherwise, pollution spreads its toxic tentacles from one water body to the next, driving up costs for everyone.
No region of Florida is immune to these woes. North Florida’s 1,000-plus artesian springs, spring-fed rivers and once-pristine drinking water aquifer suffer from the same nutrient-induced sliming. While septic tanks are a source of water impairment in North Florida, like South Florida, they are not the biggest polluters. Just like South Florida, the byproducts of large-scale, intensive agriculture — namely fertilizers and animal waste — generate the bulk of North Florida’s groundwater and surface water contamination.
The Suwannee River basin is North Florida’s most egregious example. Intensive agriculture and silviculture are the dominant land uses in the 6.4 million-acre basin, while septic tanks are relatively few and widely spaced. And yet, the total amount of nitrogen flowing out of the Suwannee River to the Suwannee estuary and the Gulf of Mexico averages over 20 million pounds each year — nearly twice as high as this year’s nitrogen load from Lake Okeechobee to the east and west coasts.
While South Florida has far more activity on its beaches and estuaries, it is time to acknowledge North Florida’s own unique qualifications. The Suwannee River and tributaries measure more than 675 miles in combined length and comprise the largest, undammed river system in the Southeast. More than 300 springs feed the Suwannee, the highest density of large artesian springs in the world. The river discharges to the most undeveloped and protected coast in Florida and its freshwater nourishes a vast estuary carpeted by seagrasses.
Designations as a Wild and Scenic River and an Outstanding Florida Water should make the Suwannee and its springs immune to excessive and destructive discharges of pollution. And yet in the past 50 years, Florida’s passive environmental law enforcement has allowed the Suwannee River and springs to become Florida’s most polluted. North Florida residents need look no further than their local springs to see noxious algae like South Florida is experiencing. Reports from the northern Gulf of Mexico indicate coastal seagrasses are disappearing, red tide is increasing and sport fishing is crashing.
Instead of passively accepting widespread water impairment, Florida’s government needs to direct pollution control measures at their origin, both agricultural and urban. Only by effectively addressing all activities that generate nutrient-laden waste can Florida prevent water quality impairment from spreading from one water body to the next.
It is time North and South Floridians stood elbow-to-elbow and demand that Florida’s leaders ensure a clean water future.
— Robert Knight is director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute in High Springs.