Senate hearings on lake storage continue

OKEECHOBEE — The algal bloom that hit the Treasure Coast in 2016 was due to a combination of factors, Dr. Brian LaPointe of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute told the Florida Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Environment and Natural Resources at their Jan. 25 meeting.

Heavy rainfall throughout the watershed sent freshwater into the estuaries.

This was compounded when billions of gallons of freshwater were released east and west from Lake Okeechobee to prevent the lake’s rapid rise from threatening the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike. The heavy freshwater flow lowered the salinity levels in the estuaries.

Some of the lake water likely carried with it algae, which seeded an algae bloom on the Treasure Coast, he said.

Without the high salinity levels to keep algae growth in check, the nutrient load already present in the estuary turned this into a massive algal bloom, he explained.

Most of the nitrogen and phosphorus that fed that algae bloom came from the St. Lucie’s own watershed, he said, adding that septic tanks are a big part of the problem.

Two separate problems

“We have a lot of septic tanks in Florida,” Dr. LaPointe said. On average about 30 percent of the households in the state are on septic tanks.

He said septic tanks are one of the top sources of excess nitrogen and phosphorus entering the watershed.

“Septic is also a source of bacteria,” he added.

He said one of the reasons septic tanks don’t work well in parts of Florida has to do with the high water table.

“This is why they aren’t working and why we are seeing a lot of nitrogen going into the surface water,” he said.

Dr. LaPointe said in addition to nitrogen and phosphorus, his research team found fecal bacteria and sucralose, an artificial sweetener, in the water, indicating the contamination came from humans.

Dr. LaPointe said water in the south fork of the St. Lucie which received water from Lake Okeechobee had much lower nutrient levels than water in the north fork of the St. Lucie, which does not receive flow from the lake.

The septic tank issue is not new. Harbor Branch has been studying it for years.

In 2015, Harbor Branch researchers put monitor wells in two sites that have a lot of septic tanks, he explained. In that study, they found the contamination from the septic tanks went all the way out the inlet to Bathtub Reef.

“We have two problems,” he said.

The lake discharges need to be dealt with because they contribute to the disruption of the salinity levels, Dr. LaPointe explained.

The problem of wastewater entering the estuary must also be dealt with, he said.

“The north fork (of the river) has 600 percent higher phosphorus than the water from Lake Okeechobee,” he said.

“Virtually none of the Lake Okeechobee water gets north.”

The algae blooms to the north had nothing to do with the lake water, he said.
Fecal bacteria pollution is becoming a chronic problem in the north fork of the St. Lucie River, he added.

Dr. LaPointe said the solution is to put the Treasure Coast on the same type of sewer system now used in the Florida Keys. He added the obstacle is the cost.

He said while the nutrient load in Lake Okeechobee is lower than the coastal basins, it should be addressed for the sake of the environmental health of the lake. Excess nutrient loading into Lake Okeechobee should be addressed by finding the sources of the excess phosphorus and cleaning the water before it goes into the lake, he added.

Dr. LaPointe also addressed the issues of water quality in Florida Bay.

“I know one of the solutions being talked about is sending the water south, that Florida Bay needs more water,” he said. He said the problem in Florida Bay which caused the sea grass to die is low dissolved oxygen, not the salinity.

Investment needed

“It will take local investment to reduce local pollution,” Drew Bartlett, Deputy Secretary for Ecosystem Restoration for the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation, told the subcommittee.

Mr. Bartlett said a big part of the problem in Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie watersheds comes from septic tanks.

That’s why the governor last year proposed a 50-50 cost share to work with local government to convert areas with septic tanks to sewer systems, he said.

Mr. Barlett, who has been with FDEP for 9 years and previously worked for 17 years with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said a lot of Everglades Restoration projects are currently being implemented or waiting on federal funding.

State assisted construction in the budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year include:

• C-44 – 60,000 acre-feet of storage and nutrient removal in the St. Lucie watershed ($60 million);

• C-43 – 170,000 acre-feet of storage and nutrient removal in the Caloosahatchee watershed ($27 million);

• Dispersed water management providing 405,944 acre-feet of water storage, $52.8 million;

• Picayune Strand water quality improvements to downstream estuaries and 55,000 acres of wetland restoration ($5 million);

• Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands – improve timing and distribution of water flow to Biscayne Bay; 1,750 acres of wetland restoration ($28.2 million);

• Lakeside Ranch Phase 2 – stormwater treatment area to remove nutrients from Taylor Creek/Nubbin Slough ($9 million);

• Lake Hicpochee Phase 1 – Caloosahatchee River watershed restoration project, 1,300 acre-feet of storage and nutrient removal (16.9 million).
All of those projects will require additional funding in the future. The state also continues to pay an Everglades debt service of $25 million a year to pay off the land purchased in 2000 for Central Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) projects.

Water storage and treatment is needed north, south, east and west of Lake Okeechobee, he told the committee.

He said they also need more water treatment to remove excess phosphorus and nitrogen before it goes into the lake.

South of the lake, FDEP supports the Central Everglades Planning Project, which was approved by Congress in 2016.

He said CEPP will move more water into Everglades National Park.

“We need to restore sheet flow,” he said, pointing out that the Tamiami Trail creates a hydrological barrier.

He said they need to build bridges to allow water to flow under the Tamiami Trail.

Some projects have been slowed by decades of litigation, Mr. Bartlett said.

He said $880 million has been invested to treat the water before it gets to the Everglades, and these projects have worked.

Right now, throughout the Everglades, 90 percent of the areas exceed the water quality standards, he said.

“We’re not at full build out but that is an incredible success,” he said.

Computer model

Thomas Van Lent of Everglades Foundation spoke in favor of Senator Joe Negron’s plan to buy an additional 60,000 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area for a reservoir.

Mr. Van Lant, who is a civil engineer, said he spent most of his career working for the South Florida Water Management District. For the past ten years he has been an employee of the Everglades Foundation.

He said computer models of South Florida show “what we have here is a problem which is two-fold: too much water going to Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie, too little water going out into Florida Keys.

“We need storage, a lot of it in a lot of different places, and storage south of the lake is essential,” he said.

He argued that a reservoir south of the lake would better reduce the flows to the estuaries, compared to a northern reservoir, because water from a southern reservoir can be sent south into the Everglades, creating new capacity in the reservoir to move more water from the lake.

“I know the SFWMD has written a letter that attacked that methodology,” he added. He said he still believes his computer model is correct.

NOTE: In a Jan. 9, 2017 letter to the Everglades Foundation, South Florida Water Management District Bureau Chief – Hydrology and Hydraulics Akintunde Owosina questioned the bias in the Oct. 26, 2016 article “A Comparison of the Benefits of Northern and Southern Everglades Storage,” by Mr. Van Lent and R. Paudel, both of the Everglades Foundation. Mr. Owsina stated the Everglades Foundation model ignores water quality standards required before water can be released into the Everglades, and also ignores requirements of the endangered species act.

Flooding the Everglades

A former SFWMD director, Ernie Barnett, now representing the Florida Land Council, also spoke at Wednesday’s hearing.

“Discharges out of Lake Okeechobee are very serious,” he said. “We have to understand the volume of water we are dealing with.”

He said due to the extremely wet summer, in 2016 about 2.9 million acre feet of water drained into Lake Okeechobee, primarily from the north. An acre foot is the amount of water to cover one acre, one foot deep.

“Any strategies to improve water quality have to look at where the water is coming from,” he said.

“This year and every year SFWMD sends as much water south as possible,” he said.

“Water flows south, but water from the lake cannot be released unless there is capacity,” he added.

He said they can’t just dump more water in the Everglades.

“When that area to the south fills up, the southern outlet is gone,” he said.

He said at the same time water was being sent east and west from the lake, over 5 million acre feet of water flowed into the Everglades, much of it from rainfall south of the lake.

He said Senator Negron’s proposed reservoir would only hold 15 percent of the water released to the coastal estuaries in 2016.

“Any reservoir would only store that volume of water,” he said. “You’d simply be building a parking lot.”

Mr. Barnett said dumping excess water into the Everglades would cause irreparable damage to the tree islands.

“The Everglades cannot be your dumping ground for unwanted lake water,” he said.

“I believe storage north, east, west and south is critical,” he said.

He added that a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) is included in CERP. Funding has been a continual problem which has caused delays.

There’s a $5.5 billion backlog of Everglades projects ready to move forward, he said.

Mr. Barnett said he believes the key to reducing the releases east and west is to slow the flow of water into the lake by providing more water storage north.

Storing water north would also allow the water to be cleaned before it goes into the lake, he said.

He said he believes the greatest promise for relief of the coastal releases are the projects that are part of the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Plan (LOWP).

He also suggested they expedite reevaluating the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule to allow higher lake levels in extreme rainfall events.

Mr. Barnett advised continuing with the CERP projects in the order they were planned.

“You have to do things in a certain sequence in order to get the benefit,” he said.

Guardians of the Glades

Tammy Jackson Moore, spoke on behalf of Guardians of the Glades, a group from Pahokee, Belle Glade and South Bay.

She said Senator Negron’s plan for the state to buy another 60,000 acres of EAA land would mean the closure of another sugar mill.

“Over the past 20 years, the Glades has given up 100,000 acres (of farm land in the EAA) and in doing so have closed three sugar mills,” she said. Every time a mill closes, more people are out of work in the rural area south of the big lake.

“If you close another sugar mill, it will mean a loss of 600 jobs, not including the related jobs in the community,” she said. “It will be devastating to the communities.”

“We need to be holding water back everywhere we can,” said Nyla Pipes, of the One Florida Foundation. She said the state needs to tackle all aspects of the very complicated water quality issues, including urban runoff.

She said she hoped the state continues to move forward with the planned CERP projects. If the state starts over with a new planning process, it could cause even more delays, she said.

“I stand in complete opposition to the purchase of more farm land,” said Janet Taylor, a former Hendry County Commissioner and a representative of the Glades Lives Matter group.

“I would like to see solutions that don’t pit one community against another,” she said.

Priscilla Taylor of the Lake Okeechobee Alliance said there is no guarantee that Senator Negron’s plan would work.

“It will not guarantee that the algae will go away,” she said.
“It will not stop the law of gravity of water that enters from the north.
“It will not stop discharges from the lake,” she said.

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

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