County would welcome septic-to-sewer funds

OKEECHOBEE — Attention Florida legislators: If coastal communities don’t want the grant money set aside for septic-to-sewer conversion, Okeechobee County officials would be happy to use that funding to get rid of septic tanks in the area of Taylor Creek.

By a 3-2 vote on Nov. 28, Sewall’s Point Town commissioners voted against an agreement with Martin County to develop a septic-to-sewer conversion plan for waterfront homes and businesses. Opponents of septic-to-sewer conversion argued that the septic tanks did not cause the 2016 Treasure Coast algal bloom, pointing the finger instead at algae in the freshwater flow from Lake Okeechobee. This argument seems to treat the algal blooms as the primary problem, rather than a symptom of imbalances in the natural ecosystem. It also assumes there is one “main cause” rather than many contributing factors.

In contrast, Okeechobee County officials are focusing on what they can do to improve the health of Lake Okeechobee, even if it is only a tiny piece of the overall improvements needed.

Okeechobee County commissioners have asked the state for funding for septic-to-sewer conversion for 2,400 homes in the Treasure Island area.

Okeechobee Utility Authority, county and city officials are making a unified effort to eliminate septic tanks near waterways that flow into Lake Okeechobee.

According to information provided at an October Okeechobee County Commission meeting, removal of the Treasure Island/Taylor Creek area septic tanks could reduce the annual nutrient load into the lake by 27.5 tons of phosphorus. Dr. Cary Pigman’s House Bill 2227 seeks $3.5 million in state funding for a septic-to-sewer conversion project in Treasure Island in Okeechobee County. The legislation, filed Nov. 8, has been referred to the Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee.

Algal bloom a symptom of bigger problems

Environmental scientists have speculated that algae in the freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee seeded the coastal algal blooms, although UF algae specialist Dr. H. Dail Laughinghouse IV has pointed out that this is not an established fact, as the algae samples were not studied on the molecular level. While it is likely the algae in the lake water seeded the coastal blooms, it is also possible that the algae in the lake water died when it hit the higher salinity levels on the coast. It is possible that the freshwater from the lake lowered the salinity levels in the coastal waters and this allowed algae already present there to bloom. It’s also possible, he noted, that the conditions on the coastal waterways caused algae — either from the lake or already present — to mutate. More data are required to determine the source of the 2016 bloom, he said.

In the summer of 2016 when coastal communities experienced thick, smelly algal blooms referred to in the media and in Florida Senate hearings as “guacamole algae,” Lake Okeechobee had no such “guacamole.” The big lake did have algal blooms that year, just as it does every summer. The extreme heat and high water levels set the stage for an algal bloom that, viewed from above, appeared to cover a third of the lake’s surface. But the feathery, translucent algae that drifted around on the lake and just below the surface of the water looked nothing like the thick mats of algal blooms on the coast.

If indeed the lake algae seeded the coastal bloom, something about the coastal waterways made the lake algae explode, inspiring scientists to describe it as “algae on steroids” and fishermen to refer to it as “algae on crack.”

While scientists disagree on how much of the nutrient load that fed the 2016 algal blooms came from leaking septic tanks, they do know how much phosphorus and nitrogen came from Lake Okeechobee.

According to the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation, algal blooms require algae (which FDEP says is naturally present in all freshwater in Florida), hot weather, low salinity levels and a food source for the algae. The more nutrients it can feed on, the bigger the bloom grows.

The data shows that from 2012 to 2016, local basin runoff accounted for about 79 percent of the freshwater flow, 86 percent of the total phosphorus load and 77 percent of the total nitrogen load to the St. Lucie Estuary.

In that five-year period, the much-maligned water from Lake Okeechobee made up 21 percent of the freshwater flow but accounted for only 14 percent of the phosphorus load.

The data shows the lake water is lower in phosphorus than most other sources of water in that basin. The SFWMD data and the University of Florida Water Institute studies both came to that same conclusion. Florida Department of Environmental Protection data agrees.
The 2012-16 study shows:

• Ten Mile Creek contributes 10 percent of the freshwater and 11 percent of the total phosphorus load, with an annual average of 28 metric tons;

• The C-24 basin contributes 15 percent of the freshwater and 19 percent of the total phosphorus load, with an annual average of 50 metric tons;

• The C-23 basin contributed 12 percent of the freshwater and 24 percent of the total phosphorus load; with an annual average of 63 metric tons;

• Lake Okeechobee contributes 21 percent of the freshwater and 14 percent of the total phosphorus load, with an annual average of 35 metric tons;

• The C-44 basin contributes 14 percent of the freshwater and 19 percent of the total phosphorus load, with an annual average of 49 metric tons;

• The tidal basins contribute 28 percent of the freshwater and 13 percent of the total phosphorus load at an average of 34 metric tons.

In a Nov. 8 press conference hosted by the Florida Chamber of Commerce in Tallahassee, Dr. Brian Lapointe of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and Florida Atlantic University, pointed to his decades of research, which indicates leaking septic tanks are a major cause of pollution into the coastal waterways.

“In the research I have conducted on behalf of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, the science points directly to human pollution as the number one cause of what’s imperiling our state’s local water sources,” said Dr. Lapointe. “A leading cause of this pollution are aging septic tanks, which are leaking into the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie Estuary.”

While the algal blooms got lots of attention from the media, a potentially more dangerous issue connected with the leaking septic tanks is contamination of waterways with coliform bacteria.

“The evidence is undeniable,” Dr. Lapointe stated. “In monitoring these waterways, we’ve documented alarming amounts of fecal coliform bacteria.”

In October and November 2017, St. Lucie County Health Department issued an “avoid water” advisory for the North Fork of the St. Lucie River due to high bacteria counts. The North Fork of the St. Lucie does not receive any flow from Lake Okeechobee.

Okeechobee County’s interest in septic-to-sewer conversion for Taylor Creek is based on concerns for water quality and the environmental health of Lake Okeechobee. Taylor Creek/Nubbin Slough has historically been high in phosphorus, and the septic tanks are believed to be a contributing factor to the high phosphorus levels. The target phosphorus level for the lake’s environmental health is 40 parts per billion. Higher phosphorus levels are detrimental to the lake’s natural vegetation and contribute to the spread of invasive aquatic plants. Currently the lake water averages about 120 ppb.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection studies indicate the only way to lower the phosphorus levels in Lake Okeechobee is to reduce the load of phosphorus coming into the lake.

According to SFWMD data, the most recent “water year” data (April 30, 2016, to May 1, 2017) shows the phosphorus load from Taylor Creek/Nubbin Slough was 104.9 tons.

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