Progress against algae could take decades

lake okeechobee oli 2016184 lrg In: Progress against algae could take decades | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. | Protecting the Santa Fe River in North Florida
NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Caption by Kathryn Hansen. – Via Wikipedia

Lake Okeechobee is far from the Santa Fe, but the algae pollution problems in both places are similar, including the misconceptions and attitudes which are responsible for millions in wasted money and polluted waters as a way of life.
Just as rancher Pearce does not accept the science that says 73-87 per cent of algae-causing phosphorus comes from agricultural fertilizer,  many producers in North Florida choose not to believe the DEP numbers stating that around 85 per cent of the nitrates in the Suwannee River basin comes from agriculture, incorrectly blaming septic tanks.

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Reaching a solution will be politically challenging. Many experts say tougher monitoring and regulation of agricultural runoff is necessary, but the agriculture industry, with its great political clout, adeptly resists regulation.

The State of Florida refuses to regulate fertilizer, fearing the push back of “Golden Boy” Agriculture.   We have written many times that Agriculture, now in denial, must accept  the facts that state scientists tell them.

Accepting reality is the first step, then we  must work together and   change radically to ensure fertilizer quotas are met, but leaving the producer with a means of profit.  If using less fertilizer results in higher prices for the product, we must all share those costs.  Having no farmers will result in Florida becoming one huge residential sprawl.

Read the entire article here in the Tampa Bay Times.

Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
[email protected]
– A river is like a life: once taken,
it cannot be brought back © Jim Tatum


Progress against algae could take decades

Even if farm runoff near Okeechobee is cut, phosphorus in fertilizer lingers.

BY MARCUS STERN AND MERYL KORNFIELD

Investigative Reporting Workshop and The Weather Channel

Florida has struggled for almost two decades to control the blue-green algae that periodically carpets Lake Okeechobee and threatens tourism on the coasts. The blooms in the state’s largest freshwater lake are stimulated by phosphorus, a key ingredient in the fertilizer used on nearby ranches and farms.

The state has passed laws and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on water treatment projects to reduce the phosphorus flowing into the lake. But it continues unabated, according to a review of state water-monitoring data by Weather.com and the Investigative Reporting Workshop.

The amount of phosphorus entering Lake Okeechobee today is roughly the same as it was in 2001, when the state ordered what would have amounted to a 70 percent reduction by 2015.

State data show agricultural runoff is the source of threequarters of it. In March, the Legislature addressed the algae problem again when it passed the Clean Waterways Act of 2020.

But the new law, like the 2001 law, does little to address agricultural runoff.

It doesn’t require growers to monitor or reduce the phosphorus running off their land, even though a court-ordered regulatory system south of the lake has been a big success. (The goal was to reduce the phosphorus concentration by 25 percent. But it reduced it by more than 50 percent.) Instead, the new law continues what is effectively a voluntary program — one so forgiving that no rancher or farmer has been sanctioned for water-quality violations.

Florida’s phosphorus problem is so acute that it has created a divide between the agriculture industry in the center of the state and tourism hubs on the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Phosphorus from Lake Okeechobee reaches the coasts through rivers and canals, nourishing a smelly, guacamole-like algal goop that drives away tourists and can be toxic to humans. Coastal residents increasingly blame the agriculture industry for the mess. Farmers and ranchers insist they’re not to blame and argue that costly water regulations would doom their way of life.

Reaching a solution will be politically challenging. Many experts say tougher monitoring and regulation of agricultural runoff is necessary, but the agriculture industry, with its great political clout, adeptly resists regulation.

“Solving this problem requires proactive efforts to monitor, to regulate and to enforce,” said Keith Rizzardi of St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami Gardens. Rizzardi also served as an attorney for the South Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Department of Justice Division of Environmental and Natural Resources.

But conservation biologist and ecologist Hilary Swain warns that regulations, if not carefully thought out, could force ranchers off the land and encourage more intensive forms of farming or development.

“None of this is cheap,” said Swain, director of Archbold Research Station, near Lake Okeechobee. “None of it is easy, and all of it’s going to, unfortunately, take quite a long time. But all of it is worth doing and all of it’s worth doing now because our problems are only going to get worse. We’re only digging ourselves a deeper hole down the road if we don’t address this.”

New push to address the problem

One of the most vexing challenges posed by phosphorus is that it forms a strong chemical bond with soil and only a small portion is released at any given time, usually with heavy rainfall. It could be decades or even centuries before all the phosphorus in the agricultural basin washes into Lake Okeechobee.

The bottom of the lake, which was sandy for thousands of years, is blanketed with millions of tons of black muck containing an estimated 50,000 metric tons of phosphorus. Nobody knows how to remove or neutralize it.

People still flock to the lake to fish, but the tall grass and abundant waterfowl belie the dark transformation taking place beneath its surface. Algal blooms kill aquatic plants by blocking sunlight. Their decay then depletes oxygen in the water, which kills aquatic animals. The lake’s once-clear water is almost opaque.

Rising temperatures associated with climate change will likely exacerbate the problem, because algae thrive in heat. Two weather stations near the lake registered eight of their 10 warmest summers in the past decade. Annual temperatures have risen 2.2 degrees since 1970 at one station and 3.3 degrees since 1953 at the other, according to Weather.com meteorologist Jonathan Erdman.

A 2016 algal bloom covered 5 percent of the lake’s surface. Two years later, 90 percent of the surface was covered, forcing then-Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency in seven hard-hit counties.

Gov. Ron DeSantis made dealing with the algae crisis a key focus of his gubernatorial campaign.

One of his first acts was to fire the entire board of the South Florida Water Management District, which is charged with managing and protecting the water of 16 South Florida counties. Over the years, it had developed a reputation for prioritizing agricultural interests. That changed with DeSantis’ new appointments, some of whom had been clean-water activists.

DeSantis also formed two task forces to recommend legislation. States are responsible for dealing with farm runoff because the federal Clean Water Act exempts agriculture from regulations that apply to commercial, industrial and residential property.

But neither the task force recommendations nor the new law passed by the Florida Legislature set a deadline for reducing phosphorus. And there is still no system in place to monitor or enforce pollution limits on farm runoff.

Stewards of the land

While Florida is better known for its oranges and sugarcane, about half of its agricultural land is devoted to cattle ranching. Last year, the state had close to a million beef cows and more than 100,000 milk cows, ranking it 13th in the nation.

The heart of the cattle industry lies in the Kissimmee River basin, which serves as the headwaters of the Everglades. The basin stretches from just south of Orlando down to Lake Okeechobee, about 95 miles. The Kissimmee River is the lake’s largest tributary and accounts for most of the phosphorus it receives.

Ranchers in the basin are proud of their heritage.

Next year, they’ll celebrate the 500th year since Ponce de Leon landed in southwest Florida in a failed attempt to begin a colony. He departed after being mortally wounded by a Calusa Indian warrior, but the cows and horses he brought with him stayed and thrived in the wild.

Ranchers say they’re being falsely blamed for the phosphorus problem.

“The perception is that we’re dumping fertilizer in the Kissimmee River and that’s going to the lake and that’s causing blue-green algae,” said Matt Pearce, head of the Okeechobee based Pearce Cattle Co. “I’ll tell anybody who will listen, that’s wrong. There’s nobody up the Kissimmee River that’s fertilizing as much as” the public thinks.

Like many Central Florida cattlemen, Pearce maintains herds of beef cattle primarily for the calves they produce, which he sells to out-of-state feedlots.

The ranchlands serve as a habitat for many rare or endangered species. Cattle graze in large pastures that are often delineated only by stands of live oaks, cabbage palms and palmetto. Bald eagles live here. So does the crested caracara, a falcon-like bird whose population is declining because of habitat loss. Black bears and panthers use the ranchlands as a corridor.

From the end of World War II until the 1980s, ranchers applied large amounts of fertilizer to make this grassland more productive. Pearce says that if some farmers applied too much fertilizer during that era, they were only doing what they were told.

“That was the recommendation from the University of Florida,” he said. “You clear this pasture, and you plant these productive grasses, and you apply this amount of fertilizer. We had to feed the world’s population, or the U.S. population, and you were only going to do it with a more productive landscape.”

That recommendation changed when scientists began understanding the connection between phosphorus and algal blooms. Today, pastures that were heavily fertilized during that period still have high accumulations of phosphorus in the soil.

Pearce says he fertilizes only 5 percent of the 12,000 acres he operates in any given year — roughly the same amount his father and grandfather did.

Cattlemen cite two other reasons for the basin’s high phosphorus levels. They say the area is naturally high in phosphorus. Indeed, some of the nation’s richest deposits of phosphorus are mined in Bone Valley, just west of the Kissimmee River basin, where the remains of prehistoric sea animals accumulated while the basin was underwater for millions of years.

But the Bone Valley deposits don’t extend into the basin, and groundwater in the valley drains west into the Gulf of Mexico.

“For them to argue that the high phosphorus content is coming from the Bone Valley is incorrect,” said Thomas Scott, a geologist now retired from the Florida Geological Survey. “We’re looking at sediments in the Kissimmee River basin that have a very minor amount of phosphorus.”

Ranchers also blame the phosphorus on population growth.

But land-use analyses and state water-monitoring data reviewed by Weather.com and the Investigative Reporting Workshop show that between 73 percent and 87 percent of the phosphorus going into the lake comes from agricultural lands rather than urban runoff, septic tanks or other sources.

How Florida’s farm runoff is regulated

Under the new legislation, ranchers and farmers outside the Everglades Agricultural Area are basically guided by the 2001 law. They’re required only to say they’ll abide by best management practices, such as rotational grazing, digging ditches and putting up fences to keep cattle out of waterways.

The Agriculture Department conducts site visits, but the agency has only 25 inspectors for 11,000 enrolled farms, so farms can go years without a visit. No water testing occurs. Those who don’t abide by their promises can be referred to the Department of Environmental Protection for investigation and enforcement. But no such referral has been made and the state has not sanctioned any producer under the program.

Perhaps nobody understands the tricky tension between the need for phosphorus in food production and its adverse impacts downstream than Swain, the Archbold Biological Station director. The 8,800-acre preserve was established in 1941 primarily to study endangered species. In 1988, it gained access to neighboring Buck Island Ranch, a 10,300-acre working cattle ranch that now doubles as a living laboratory.

The ranch and research station have a mix of “native” pastures that have never been fertilized and “improved” pastures that were fertilized until 1987. When researchers analyzed the runoff, they found something shocking. Even though phosphorus hasn’t been applied to the improved pastures since Ronald Reagan was president, their runoff still had five to seven times as much phosphorus as runoff from the native pastures — and the pastures were still lush enough to support roughly 3,000 head of cattle.

“Unfortunately, phosphorus binds in soils in very complicated ways,” Swain said. “Concentrations are not changing on our ranch. We know that by holding water back we can reduce the flow, and that’s where there’s progress.”

The heaviest concentrations are in an area close to the lake that once hosted dairy farms. Most of them moved in the 1990s, but the phosphorus levels there — although improved — are still among the highest in the basin….

This story is a collaboration of the Investigative Reporting Workshop and The Weather Channel. Stern reported this story for The Weather Channel and the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Kornfield reported this story for the Investigative Reporting Workshop.

Additional credits:

• Photography by Zak Bennett, The Weather Channel, and Hadley Chittum, Investigative Reporting Workshop

• Photo Editor: Nicole Bonaoccorso, The Weather Channel.

• Edited by Susan White and Lynne Perri, Investigative Reporting Workshop; Patty Cox and Keith Epstein, The Weather Channel

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In early May 2016, an algae bloom grew to cover 33 square miles of Lake Okeechobee. The conditions that gave rise to the bloom have been blamed for affecting water quality downstream. NASA

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