Clean water flowing to the Everglades; More work needed to clean water north of the lake

OKEECHOBEE — Ninety percent of the water going into the Everglades Protection is below 10 parts per billion (PPB) phosphorus.

The Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs), Water Conservation Areas (WCAs) and Flow Equalization Basin (FEB) south of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) are a success story, according to a report given Nov. 1 by Stuart Van Horn, Southern Everglades Water Quality Bureau Chief, to the Water Analysis Resources Coalition at the South Florida Water Management District office in West Palm Beach.

Clean water is flowing into the Everglades, with STAs doing a good job.

Mr. Van Horn said Water Year 2018 brought a wet season that was the wettest on record since 1932 with 51.5 inches of rain.

He said the area south of Lake Okeechobee received 200 to 300 percent of average rainfall causing the STAs and WCAs to fill up quickly.

The fact that the WCAs were already full left little room to send more water south from Lake Okeechobee. From the WCAs water must flow under the Tamiami Trail to reach Everglades National Park. Flow under the trail is restricted due to limitations on water conveyance structures, and due to requirements by the Florida Division of the Interior to protect the nesting area of the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow.

“We are sending as much water south as possible,” said Mr. Van Horn.

On a 5-year average, about 37 percent of the flow to the STAs comes from Lake Okeechobee, he explained. Data from the most recent 5-year period – which included the “weather whiplash” from Hurricane Irma that dumped more than 1,000 metric tons of phosphorus into the lake from the north – saw water leaving Lake Okeechobee at 140 ppb phosphorus. From the lake, water flows into the EAA; Data shows the water leaves the EAA cleaner than it enters from the lake, averaging 130 ppb phosphorus. The STAs remove more phosphorus, cleaning water to an average of 23 ppb phosphorus. Levels in the WCAs averaged 6 ppb, 8 ppb and 4 ppb phosphorus.

“We are seeing really good trends,” he said.

In the past 5 years, Everglades National Park received a little under 1 million acre feet of water at average concentration at 8.6 ppb, he explained.

As that water is moving south into the park, the monitoring level for Shark River Slough is showing an average of 4 ppb.

The STAs and agriculture Best Management Practices (BMPs), working in concert, are reducing phosphorus levels, said Mr. Van Horn.

The BMP program has been extremely successful, he said. “It’s really a huge part of the solution in being able to reduce the phosphorus levels moving south.”

Gene Duncan Jr., Miccosukee Tribal representative, said water quality coming in from the west impacts the western side of the conservation area greatly.

He said even if the water coming from the lake was down to the level of distilled water, the untreated water from the west would continue to raise phosphorus levels above the maximum 10 ppb set for the Everglades.

He said water entering the land owned by the Seminole Tribe comes in at 200 ppb phosphorus and water entering the Miccosukee Tribe’s land is 100 ppb phosphorus.

“We need to address this problem,” he said.

STAs have been proposed for the Western Everglades, under the Western Everglades Restoration Plan (WERP), he said.

“I suggest as soon as we have a tentatively proposed plan, we start land acquisition.”

He said there are areas discharging into the Everglades from the west that get no water treatment.

“This is an incredible success,” said Newton Cook of United Waterfowlers Florida. He noted rainfall may contain 4 to 8 ppb phosphorus.

He said it is disappointing that the water from the lake is higher in phosphorus than it was a few years ago.

“For years water was 80 to 100 ppb,” he said. “The lake is giving us water at 140 ppb.

“We have 1,000 tons of phosphorus come into the lake in the last 12 months or so from the north,” he said.

“Why are we spending all this time worrying about 6, 7,8 9 ppb in the WCAs? Where is any equal consideration for the work that needs to be done north of Lake Okeechobee so that the water coming into Lake Okeechobee is not containing over 1,000 tons of phosphorus a year?” he asked.

Nyla Pipes of One Florida said the work done south of the lake “wasn’t done just on the backs of our farmers.”

“The one thing we are missing north of the lake is any sort of public project,” she said.

Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said they must consider the entire system – from Lake Kissimmee to Florida Bay.

“All of our conversations are too simple if we focus on one aspect,” said Lt. Col. Reynolds.

“We can’t fix just Florida Bay.

“We can’t fix just the park.”

She said the whole system – including the Kissimmee River, Lake Okeechobee, the St. Lucie, the Caloosahatchee and Florida Bay – is hurting.

“None of it works without a balance of all of those things,” she said.

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