SFWMD considers changing rules for lake watershed

WEST PALM BEACH — At its Oct 10 meeting, the South Florida Water Management District Board voted to start the process to change Chapter 40E-61 Florida Administrative Code of the also known as Lake Okeechobee Works of the District rules.

Stephany Olson, SFWMD science supervisor, said there are large gaps between the restoration goal and the current water quality conditions for Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee River and the St. Lucie River. She said the Northern Everglades and Estuaries Protection Program (NEEPP) requires the district to revise the rules for the Lake Okeechobee watershed and to create rules for the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie watersheds.

She said the draft concept could: establish nutrient levels in contributing areas; provide data to evaluate effectiveness of nutrient reduction technologies; provide requirements for monitoring in lieu of best management practices (BMPs); establish methods to evaluate and assess data to track progress; and, take action where the data shows more reduction is needed.

“This is a draft concept. Our next step is to take this concept out to the public,” said Ms. Olson.

“We are not going to have rule text at our first round of workshops,” she explained. Members of the public will be able to view the concept presentation from the SFWMD district meeting on a website before the workshops.

After the first round of workshops, text of proposed rule changes will be drafted to be discussed at the next round of workshops. The first workshop is scheduled for Nov. 5 at 10 a.m. at the Indian River State College Dixon Hendry Campus, 2229 N.W. Ninth Avenue, Okeechobee. More public workshops will be held November 2019 through February 2020 in Stuart, Fort Myers, Kissimmee and West Palm Beach. A second round of workshops will be held after the proposed rule changes are drafted. The legislature could approve the changes in April 2021.

Ms. Olson said the district started the rule development process in 2016, but it was delayed because they were waiting for Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to finalize its statewide water quality monitoring rules.

Benita Whalen encouraged the board to follow the science, be open, be communicative and be collaborative.

“To improve our water resources, let’s be collaborative and work together,” she said. “That allows us to maintain our precious ranch lands.”

“We are located in a 2.6 million acre watershed and one third of it is ranch land,” said Betsy Boughton, of Archbold Biological Station. “This ranch land is located in a beautiful mosaic of improved pastures, native woodlands, wetlands and wet prairie. This mosaic is what makes it so important to wildlife, as a wildlife corridor across the landscape, and for grassland birds,” she explained. She added that ranch lands also buffer and protect other environmentally-sensitive areas.

“These ranches are a low intensity land use and they have relatively low source of nutrients,” said Ms. Boughton.

She said studies at Buck Island Ranch have shown that even without any fertilizer some ranch lands have high levels of phosphorus. “All of our previous studies show extensive legacy phosphorus in the soil,” she said.

“The burden of the legacy phosphorus is hard to measure and model,” she said. The features of the landscape that make it beneficial for biodiversity of plants and wildlife also make it hard for ranchers to control the flow of water.

“We think that slowing the flow, retaining water on ranches, there’s a lot of scientific evidence on that,” she said. “Ranches are one of the few agricultural uses that can be flexible on that.”

She said SFWMD studies should include modeling on what will happen to the watershed if the ranches disappear.

“If we increase regulation of the cow/calf operations model, how would land use change?” she asked. She urged the district to avoid unintended consequences of changes in land use.

“We are on the train. We want to move forward,” said Florida Cattlemen’s Association President Matt Pearce. He noted that a lot of things on the SFWMD mission statement are found on ranches.

“My family ranched on the northwest shore of lake Okeechobee, grazed cattle right up to the shoreline,” he said. Mr. Pearce added that he also ranches 7,000 acres near Clewiston that stay submerged three months of the year.

He said cattle can be used as an effective land management tool.

“We’re here to be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” said Mr. Pearce.

“Cattle are phosphorus exporters,” he said. “We raise grass and the cattle eat the grass. They move west to feed yards as these calves come off the cows. You are taking that animal out of the watershed at 500 pounds, sending phosphorus out of the state.”

SFWMD governing board member Jacqui Thurlow-Lippish noted the recommendations from the Blue Green Algae Task Force indicated that only 75 percent of the agricultural lands north of the lake are enrolled in the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) Best Management Practices (BMP) programs.

Chris Petit, director of the FDACS Office of Agricultural Water Policy, explained: “When you tease out that 75 percent figure and you go to bona fide agriculture operations, when you go to operations that are greater than 50 acres, when you go to more intense agriculture operations, or irrigated agriculture, that number gets much higher,” he explained, adding that about 90 percent of bona fide agricultural operations in the Lake Okeechobee watershed are compliant with the BMP program.

“One of the things we struggle with and we continue to have discussions with the DEP (Florida Department of Environmental Protection), are the fallow parcels, are grazed lands — actually many of the folks that we end up referring to DEP — smaller parcels that are not bona fide agriculture per se, in that you’ve got a couple horses, couple goats, couple cows, folks that we try and get to and talk to them but they are smaller, that on a cumulative have some impact but it is very resource intensive to get to.

“Five-acre equestrian ranchettes have a been a real challenge to try and get folks enrolled in the equestrian manual. That piece continues to be an area where we try to determine how to best dedicate resources to get at that issue,” he continued.

“We have focused on those folks that will have the larger impact, in terms of the 50 acres and up and the more intensive irrigated agriculture. We’ve had marked success there,” he explained.

He said staffing is an issue. He added that FDACS staff currently inspects the properties in the BMP program about once every three years. He said they have asked for funding for eight additional staffers.

Mr. Petit said landowners whose property is not enrolled in the BMP program are referred to FDEP for monitoring. He said FDACS sent letters that week to FDEP in regard to properties that have not implemented BMPs.

Gene Lollis, of Archbold Biological Station, said the problem starts with the headwaters at Shingle Creek.

“When I was kid and was riding my horse up there, you’d have water across that land about six inches deep,” he said. “That water is not sitting there anymore. That water is all conveyed across the land. More water is coming down that system that didn’t used to come down that system.

“We need to spread this water out throughout this whole system,” he added.

“Twenty-two years ago, Florida cattlemen stepped out and said, what can we do to help,” he continued. From that discussion came the BMPs. He said today they are told BMPs are not enough, but he asked what would the watershed be like if they had not implemented the BMPs.

Cattle ranches provide habitat for Florida birds and wildlife, he explained. There are 171 bird species on Buck Island Ranch, along with 455 plant species and 30 “plus or minus” species of amphibians.

“If our wildlife is healthy, our environment is healthy and our cattle are healthy,” he said.

“Florida’s agriculture is not only security for our state but also for our nation,” Mr. Lollis said. “We produce food not only for Florida but for the rest of the nation. We don’t want to be 20 years down the road wondering what we can do to feed ourselves.”

“A lot of data tells us what we are dealing with really are the sins of our fathers and our grandfathers and that applies to the urban and the agriculture,” said Nyla Pipes of One Florida Foundation.

Ernie Barnett, of Florida Land Council, said a combination of source controls and regional treatment is needed.

“What we are not doing north of the lake is to build regional projects,” he said.

“It’s confusing enough the number of different agencies we have trying to address this problem,” governing board member Jay Steinle. He said he understands the concerns of land users.

“You’ve got ranches and other businesses that have invested in the BMP process and to have another rule layered on is disconcerting,” he said. “That uncertainty and lack of predictability does not help in how you manage your business.

“We all acknowledge these BMPs and BMAPs (Basin Management Action Plans) in general can be improved. My main concern is that even with 100 percent certainty we are achieving these goals, where would we be in the TMDLs (total maximum daily load of phosphorus and nitrogen)?”

“As far as I am concerned it’s a legacy phosphorus issue and a load issue possibly coming from closer to the headwaters,” said governing board member Jay Steinle. “I hope we will look at this with the right lens. If we solve the BMPs and BMAPs does that solve our problem? I don’t know.”

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

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