More storage north of lake needed, speakers tell task force

FORT MYERS — The Blue Green Algae Task Force July 1 meeting in Fort Myers included a review of Best Management Practices (BMPs) on agricultural lands north of Lake Okeechobee, and ideas for projects to meet the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) target for phosphorus into Lake Okeechobee.

During the public comment period, many speakers touched on the need for more storage north of Lake Okeechobee.

“One of the things that is not in the BMAP (Basin Management Action Plan) as explicitly as it needs to be is water storage,” said Dr. Paul Gray of Audubon Florida.

He said when there are heavy rainfall events north of the lake, the lake can rise 2 to 3 feet in a matter of weeks.

Those big slugs of water come in fast, which leaves the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with no choice but to release water east and west. If we can’t slow that down, we will never be able to treat that water,” he said. Dr. Gray said a million acre-feet of water storage is needed.

“The watershed is so flashy,” he said. “The Lakeside Ranch STA actually shed phosphorus last year because it dried out.”

“It’s not the level that the lake is today that is a problem,” he said. The problems start when the lake rises quickly due to rapid inflow from the north.

“Look at water storage as the very first step for everything we have to do with water management,” he said.

“The biggest challenge that we are going to face north of the lake is the legacy phosphorus,” said Gary Ritter of Florida Farm Bureau Federation.

“As you look at the data, go back and look at the pre-1990 data. It might give you some insight on the BMPs in that watershed.”

He said the large flood control canals north of Lake Okeechobee tend to exacerbate our problems especially with nonsource runoff.

Mr. Ritter said the differences in soil should also make a difference in how nutrients move in the watershed.

Marisa Carrozzo with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida said the statewide storm water storage plan for development and redevelopment should be updated. She said developers should be required to provide more water retention and the state should have stricter requirements for nutrient removal from storm water. Existing standards for storm water treatment only remove about 40 percent of the nutrient load, she said.

“As Florida’s population continues to grow, we fall farther and father behind.”

Rae Ann Wessel of Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation said water storage north of the lake should include the entire watershed, not just the lower third of the watershed. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) only looks at the bottom third of the watershed, she noted.

Ms. Wessel said she is glad the task force is looking at the nitrogen levels in the water.

She said in the Caloosahatchee River, “we have not achieved nitrogen reductions and they are increasing in that basin.”

Kerry Kates of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association spoke on behalf of Together Florida. He said agriculture, utilities, municipalities and residents should work together to solve the water issues.

“To some extent, everyone is playing a part regarding the water quality issues,” he said.

“Agriculture is part of the problem. Agriculture will also be part of the solution,” he continued.

“We need everyone to come together to address the problems if we are going to deal with this problem and find solutions.

“Water storage is a critical piece of this,” he said. Dispersed water management projects “bang for the buck” is tremendous. He said Aquifer Storage and Recovery wells could be used to clean and store water during times of heavy rainfall.

“We knew going in the BMPs (north of Lake Okeechobee) would not meet the TMDLs,” said Rich Budell, formerly with Department of Agriculture in Tallahassee. “The best we can get is 25 to 30 percent reduction,” he said.

Tracking the nutrient load north of the lake is complicated because it is a sheet flowing, storm water driven, flashy watershed, he said. “It’s very difficult to even determine the load in the water coming onto a piece of property and what is the amount contributed by that landowner.”

John Cassani, of Calusa Waterkeepers, said there should be stricter standards for urban storm water runoff.

“It’s not that we don’t know how to treat urban storm water,” he said. Efforts to improve state standards for storm water treatment have “died on the vine.”

Ernie Barnett of the Florida Land Council said BMPs are important. However, the BMPs were never intended to meet the TMDLs. He said the BMPs south of the lake work better than ever anticipated, but “BMPs alone can’t do it.”

BMPs cannot control legacy phosphorus. For nonpoint source pollution, he said, we have to see what can we do in the landscape.

“Storage is key,” he added.

Mr. Barnett recommended completing the existing projects that have been authorized in CERP.

“Stormwater assessment needs to be reconsidered. What we are doing to hold water back not just on our agricultural land but also on our urban land needs to be reevaluated,” said Nyla Pipes of One Florida Foundation.

“We’re really good at looking at how cows affect our water supply and impact our clean water. We’re not as good at looking in the mirror and looking at how people affect our water,” she said.

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

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