Phosphorus loading into lake unchanged for 30 years

OKEECHOBEE — As the debate on how to control the flow and clean the water rages among Florida legislators, water managers, farmers and communities, one thing is clear: What we’ve been doing for the past 30 years isn’t working.

Data compiled since 1987 shows phosphorus loads going into Lake Okeechobee from the Kissimmee River basin are nowhere near the maximum target of 140 metric tons a year set by the Florida Department of Environmental Projection in 2001.

Total phosphorus load to Lake Okeechobee, 2016.

Total phosphorus load to Lake Okeechobee, 2011-2015.

In 1987, 562 metric tons of phosphorus went into the lake. In 2013, the load was 569 tons. In 2014, 609 tons.

Extremely wet years are the worst. 2005 brought storms that resulted in 960 metric tons of phosphorus carried by flood water into the Big O.

The only years to get anywhere close to the target were drought years, and even the drought years don’t meet the FDEP maximum target. The 1997 phosphorus load — the lightest in the 30-year period — was 167 metric tons.

Since 1987, millions of dollars have been spent on projects such as the restoration of part of the Kissimmee River. Agriculture also paid a heavy price when the DEP Dairy Rule went into effect in 1987, and when other restrictions for nutrient loads in runoff went into effect for other types of agriculture.

Of the 50 dairies that were previously in the watershed, only 19 remain. The others closed entirely or moved out of state, causing a loss of hundreds of jobs. The dairies that stayed made expensive changes in order to keep phosphorus-rich runoff out of the waterways by using retention ponds, sprayfields and confinement areas.

But the phosphorus loads remain high.

Some researchers speculate the projects and best management practices are working. They point to the environmental beauty of the floodplain in the restored portions of the river, the reduction in the phosphorus content of water leaving farms, and the reduction in the number of dairy cattle in the basin.

The problem is that while some phosphorus sources, such as farms, are targeted and addressed and have made progress, new sources of phosphorus have entered the watershed. Those new sources come in the form of the human population of the South Florida Water Management District which has more than doubled in the past 30 years.

Orlando/Kissimmee not only has more than 2 million residents, but also has more than 60 million visitors a year.

The largest source of water going into the lake is the Kissimmee River. More than 100 miles of the Kissimmee River was channelized; when the project is complete, less than half — only 43 miles of old river channel — will be restored.

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