Misconceptions confuse Lake Okeechobee level discussion

OKEECHOBEE — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public meetings to discuss the new Lake Okeechobee System Operations Manual (LOSOM) have sparked some lively public debate. Since the Corps is “only there to listen,” some claims presented by speakers are confusing, conflicting or unfounded.

Here is a review some of the misconceptions and conflicting statements:

• “The water in Lake Okeechobee is toxic.” DISPUTED
Okeechobee Utility Authority uses the lake as the community’s drinking water source and routinely tests for toxins, and the water is deemed safe for human consumption. People in Okeechobee County (including this reporter) can and do drink the lake water. While the lake is home to some types of cyanobacteria that are capable of producing toxins, cyanobacteria that can produce toxins do not always do so. During the summer of 2018, FDEP tests on the cyanobacterial blooms in Lake Okeechobee found no toxins or toxin levels well below the level the World Health Organization deems safe for contact. During the summer of 2018, extremely high levels of toxins, many times the WHO approved levels, were found in the St. Lucie canal and Caloosahatchee River. Some scientists believe the nutrient load in the runoff to these waterways causes the cyanobacteria to reproduce more rapidly and release more toxins.

• “95 percent of the flow into Lake Okeechobee is from the north.” PROVEN
Based on the averages of the last five years documented by the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), 95 percent of the water flowing into Lake Okeechobee came from north of the lake, 3 percent from the south and 2 percent from the east. Based on the 5-year data, 92 percent of the phosphorus load came from the north, 3 percent from the east and 5 percent from the south. Nitrogen loading averaged 89 percent from the north; 8 percent from the south; and, 3 percent from the east.

• “95 percent of the flow into the lake is from the Kissimmee River.” DISPUTED
While 95 percent of the flow into Lake Okeechobee is from the north, it does not all come down the Kissimmee River. About 32 percent of the water entering the lake comes from the Upper Kissimmee Basin and about 17 percent from the Lower Kissimmee Basin for a total of 49 percent of the water entering the lake. In addition, water is discharged from Lake Istokpoga through the Istokpoga canal that flows to the Kissimmee River and the S-68 Canal that flows through a series of canals to both Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee River. Flow from Lake Istokpoga makes up an average of 14 percent of the water that flows into the lake. So it can be argued that as much as 63 percent of the flow into the lake comes down the Kissimmee River. Most of the water entering the lake comes down the river, but not 95 percent. To solve the state’s extensive water quality and quantity issues, it’s important to be accurate.

• “The EAA reservoir will reduce the need to send water to the coastal estuaries by 60 percent.” DISPUTED
According to South Florida Water Management District and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reports, EAA reservoir alone will do little to reduce lake discharges to the coasts because alone, it would be static storage, and would quickly fill up with direct rainfall and local runoff, leaving little capacity to hold water from the lake. According to the SFWMD website, the EAA reservoir “coupled with the completion of other restoration projects such as the remaining components of CEPP, would reduce the total number of Lake Okeechobee damaging discharge events to the coastal estuaries by 61 percent.”

• “Before flood control, water that overflowed from Lake Okeechobee flowed to Florida Bay.” – DISPUTED
Water from the Lake Okeechobee, part of the “Central Everglades,” does not flow directly south to Florida Bay because a natural coastal ridge diverts the flow to Shark River Slough. The mouth of the Shark River is at Ponce de Leon Bay, part of the Gulf of Mexico. While Everglades Foundation spokespersons have claimed water from Shark River Slough eventually loops around Cape Sable to Florida Bay, some scientists say that does not happen. Dr. Brian Lapointe of Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute told the Florida Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Environment and General Government in January that freshwater flow from Shark River affects only the very western edge of Florida Bay, at best. “You hear we should send the lake releases to Florida Bay. The reality is flow from Central Everglades does not go to Florida Bay,” Dr. Lapointe explained. South Florida Water Management District projects have increased flow to Taylor Creek which flows directly to Florida Bay. The SFWMD publication “Help Save Florida Bay” states: “Hydrology studies do not show that fresh water from Shark River Slough, once it gets into the Gulf of Mexico, flows around Cape Sable and into Florida Bay … Hydrology studies show that, for most of the time, the prevailing tides and mud banks in the area prevent the briny mix of Gulf and Slough waters from entering Florida Bay. Occasionally, in the spring when tides allow, the briny mix of Gulf and Slough waters do reach extreme parts of Florida Bay. Even then, only a very small amount of water delivered to the Gulf from Shark River Slough can enter the extreme western edge of Florida Bay.”

• “The dirtiest water entering the lake comes from Tayor Creek/Nubbin Slough in Okeechobee County. PROVEN
Based on the averages from the past five years, Taylor Creek/Nubbin Slough in Okeechobee County contributed 19 percent of the phosphorus load entering the lake, even though it contributes just 7 percent of the water. The water is 470 parts per billion phosphorus. Thirty years ago, the nutrient load was believed to come from dairies. But the dairies were shut down, or required to contain runoff due to the 1986 FDEP Dairy Rule. Much of the current load is now believed to come from septic tanks. Okeechobee County and Okeechobee Utility Authority have asked the state for help with funding a septic-to-sewer project.

• “Backpumping from the Everglades Agricultural Area is polluting Lake Okeechobee.” DISPUTED
When the Herbert Hoover Dike was first constructed, water was backpumped into the lake from the south as a water conservation measure. However, due to concerns about the nutrient load in water from the muck fields — and thanks to a lawsuit by EarthJustice — backpumping from the EAA was banned. The only backpumping allowed now is for flood control in the cities south of the lake. Based on the most recent five-year average, that makes up 3 percent of the water and 5 percent of the phosphorus entering the lake.

• “Water that flows from the cane fields is high in phosphorus because sugar cane farmers use too much fertilizer.” – DISPUTED
The EAA is valuable farmland because the muck soil is so rich that the farmers need little, if any, fertilizer. Sugar cane is a “nutrient sink” — it removes nutrients from the watershed. According to University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences studies, for every acre of sugar cane harvested, 20 pounds of phosphorus leaves the watershed. Water leaving sugar cane fields is lower in phosphorus than water entering the fields from the lake.

Also, runoff from cane fields south of the lake is cleaner than runoff from fallow fields in the same area.

• “Despite setting a deadline to do so, the State of Florida has failed to clean up water flowing into Lake Okeechobee.” PROVEN
In 2000, Florida Department of Environmental Protection set a maximum load level of 105 metric tons per year for phosphorus entering Lake Okeechobee from flow into the lake, plus 35 metric tons of atmospheric phosphorus (from direct rainfall into the Big O). The target phosphorus level for the lake is 40 ppb. The original deadline to meet that goal was 2015. Yet phosphorus levels remain many times that target. In 2017 following hurricane Irma, the phosphorus load was about 10 times the target.

• “Agriculture has not been held accountable for water quality.” DISPUTED
Farmers and ranchers have spent millions to reduce nutrient load in runoff. North of the Lake, the 1986, FDEP Dairy Rule forced more than half of the dairies out of the watershed, and those that remained had to put in berms, retention ponds and spray fields to prevent runoff from leaving the property. South of the lake, the federal consent decree requires farmers to clean runoff from the farms in the Everglades Agricultural Area. However, despite of the progress made, more needs to be done.

• “Sugar cane is a grass that cleans the water.” PROVEN
Sugar cane is a nutrient sink. Each time it is harvested it removes phosphorus from the watershed. Water leaving the cane fields is cleaner than water entering the cane fields from the lake. On the average, an acre of sugar cane removes 20 pounds of phosphorus. Because EAA soil is already rich in phosphorus, little or no fertilizer is needed. According to an IFAS study, even if the farmer fertilizes with 5 pounds of phosphorus per acre, the net loss from the harvest is 15 pounds.

• “Former Governor Charlie Crist’s plan to buy the land owned by U.S. Sugar would have created a flow way south from the lake through the EAA to Everglades National Park.” DISPUTED
The U.S. Sugar holdings were not in the right location to create a flow way south. Many of the U.S. Sugar holdings are in Hendry County (and not even in the EAA). The U.S. Sugar holdings that are in the EAA are a patchwork of fields around the edges of the lake. Gov. Crist’s plan apparently envisioned trading some of the U.S. Sugar property for the acreage needed in the right locations for such a flow way.

• “The EAA reservoir could be completed in four years.” DISPUTED
The EAA reservoir is one of the projects included in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of project construction; half of the funding will come from the federal government. According to the corps, engineering and design of the massive EAA reservoir will take two to three years, and construction will take an additional four years or longer. At a recent SFWMD meeting, Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds explained the design and engineering period is needed because public safety is paramount to any Corps of Engineers design.

• “The SFWMD November 2018 vote to extend the lease with Florida Crystals on state land designated for a reservoir has delayed progress of the EAA reservoir.” DISPUTED
According to Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, work on the reservoir is on track and the lease extension will not delay the schedule. Quite the opposite — the lease extension made it possible for EAA reservoir work to move forward more quickly. The lease extension included a provision to take back 560 acres immediately so materials for the future reservoir could be stockpiled there, taking advantage of the 2018-2019 dry season. That work started less than a week after the lease extension was signed. The lease extension also included provisions that allow SFWMD to do geotechnical research on the property which is necessary for the engineering that must be done before the project is designed.

• “At the current rate of federal funding, it will take about 65 years to complete CERP.” PROVEN, according to the 2018 Biennial Report to Congress.

• “The current lake schedule of 12.5 to 15.0 ft. keeps the lake artificially high to provide water supply for agriculture. DISPUTED
According to Keith Pearce, whose family has lived on the north shore of the lake for more than 100 years, before the dike was built, the natural lake levels were similar to the current schedule, from about 12 ft. to 15 ft., with it dropping lower during drought years and temporarily rising higher during floods.

• “Decisions based on politics — instead of science — slow progress on Everglades restoration.” PROVEN
The past three decades have seen many starts and stops of various projects with the changes in government administrations. The original CERP timeline estimated completion by 2030.

• “Farmers have refused to sell any land in the EAA.” DISPUTED

Approximately 25 percent of the EAA is now in public ownership (state, federal and local government).

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.

Facebook Comment