Lake Okeechobee Needs a Champion

Imagine a great expanse of clear water with a soft sandy bottom, teeming with native birds and wildlife. This is what Lake Okeechobee used to be. But now, after years of pollution, Florida's great lake is hurting.

Legislators, commissioners, policymakers, and concerned citizens: If you want to be a champion for Florida, become a Lake Okeechobee champion.

Earlier this week, Florida's newly-formed Senate Select Committee on Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin held their final meeting and issued a set of recommendations to alleviate the ecological crisis in our southern coastal estuaries. The Committee's recommendations are commendable, as they advance important restoration projects and projects forward.

While the Committee's report mentioned the problem of Lake Okeechobee's water quality, very little was advanced to reduce the continued influx of pollution from human-induced sources into the Lake.

Lake Okeechobee is the liquid heart of the Everglades. But sadly, over the last few months, Lake Okeechobee has been villainized and portrayed as a reservoir of dirty water.

As rain fell throughout the region this summer, the Army Corps of Engineers had to release large amounts of water from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries to protect the surrounding levee from breaching. To do otherwise would risk the safety of nearby towns from flooding.

Unfortunately, the large releases of polluted water from the Lake led to devastating effects on the coastal communities of the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee. As the Lake's water mingled with the estuary waters, there were algae blooms, dead birds and marine life, health problems for humans, and corresponding economic impacts that are still being felt today. Some of the runoff flowing into these estuaries was from the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee watersheds, but a large portion was from the Lake. Data show that improving the water quality of the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries depends on improving Lake Okeechobee's water quality.

But experiencing the magic of Lake Okeechobee's marsh first-hand gives a different perspective. I remember the first time I visited Lake Okeechobee. My colleague Dr. Paul Gray and I were exploring Audubon's Lake Okeechobee Northwest Coast Sanctuary by airboat.

The ecosystem was bursting with life. We were enveloped in a watery field of birds, alligators, turtles, and butterflies - more than I'd ever seen in Everglades National Park. It was a symphony of chirping, splashing, humming, and whistling in surround sound.

Lake Okeechobee is the second largest freshwater lake in the southeastern United States, an Eden for endangered species like the Everglades Snail Kite , and a stronghold for tourism. Also, the Lake has some of the most productive bass fisheries in the country.

But here's where the trouble starts. Despite the abundant wildlife in its marsh, the Lake has a major pollution problem. There is a lot of phosphorus already in the Lake and the Okeechobee watershed from decades of pollution from human sources. On top of that, every year, thousands of tons of phosphorus enter the watershed.

Where is this pollution coming from? Fertilizers, animal and human waste spread on pastures, stormwater, and wastewater. Click here and see page 55 for more info on where it is coming from and how much.

Phosphorus is a pollutant? After calcium, phosphorus is the most abundant mineral in your body. However, for the ecosystem, too much phosphorus can contribute to a host of problems: algae blooms, cloudy water, and the increased growth of unwanted vegetation that crowds out habitat.

In 2001, the state of Florida devised a plan to meet phosphorus water quality goals for Lake Okeechobee by January 1, 2015. But recent reports show phosphorus levels are over 300% as much as the goal. The bottom line is the plan is not working.

During the Select Committee hearing I mentioned earlier, Sen. Alan Hays (R-Umatilla) made the statement "Prevention is the best way to ensure nutrients aren't getting into the Lake." He is right. Programs that partner with agriculture and urban users, known as best management practices (BMPs), to reduce the amount of phosphorus from entering the watershed are key. The Select Committee report even stated that "BMPs are the most effective methods to limit the release of nutrient pollution."

But the Committee report recommended the same anemic amount of funding for the program as previous years. And, there was no discussion on how to improve the effectiveness of the program.

But wait. Right now, state agencies are working on a plan to update a plan to make a plan that might reduce phosphorus, in maybe the next couple decades. And that should fix Lake Okeechobee's problem?

Dear plan makers: Stop planning and take action. Now.

There needs to be measurable reductions of pollution in the watershed. To accomplish this, some state laws and rules need to be changed, and pollution prevention programs will require additional funding. While these changes might not be as sexy as starting big treatment projects, they are equally important and can reduce costs in the long-term. These new laws and rules can and should be implemented in a way that is helpful, not hurtful, to all of those affected.

Audubon Florida recommends the following:
1. Update the BMP program for agriculture in the Northern Everglades to significantly reduce the amount of phosphorus from fertilizer and other sources added to the watershed. Trust, but verify. Fully fund agency representatives to get their "boots on the ground" and visit farmers to help track what actions work and what does not work, and update as needed.
2. Limit the amount of phosphorus coming off of new developments in urban areas in the watershed.
3. Close the loophole that allows dried-out residuals from human waste to be used as fertilizer. Yuck.

To those Lake Okeechobee Champions who love and respect Florida's great lake, we need your voices. Call or write your decisionmakers today. Let them know that fixing Lake Okeechobee's water quality is a priority, and that it needs their full attention in the upcoming legislative session.