Weather Channel calls Big Lake ‘toxic’

OKEECHOBEE — An online video posted by the Weather Channel on Dec. 8, headlined “Toxic Lake: The Untold Story of Lake Okeechobee,” left many Lake Okeechobee area residents upset with and disappointed in the Weather Channel.

In the video, reporter Kait Parker, who says she spent 8 months researching the issues, calls the lake “toxic” and “polluted” and puts the blame for the summer’s Treasure Coast algal bloom on the Lake Okeechobee releases.

“It’s a story that involves a polluted lake,” Ms. Parker states at the beginning of the video.

“I’ve come to the source of the slime, Lake Okeechobee,” she states.

The video fails to include the fact that the lake’s part in the algae bloom was primarily in the disruption of the salinity levels. High salinity discourages algae. The freshwater from the lake lowered the salinity levels making conditions more conducive to algal growth.

Instead, the video puts the blame for the phosphorus load that fed the algae blooms on the lake releases, which is contrary to the scientific research by the University of Florida and South Florida Water Management District. The researchers found that most of the nutrient loading into the St. Lucie waterway comes from the watershed in the coastal counties.

The video ignores those studies and also ignores the data which shows the water from Lake Okeechobee is as clean or cleaner than the water entering the Caloosahatchee River and the St. Lucie from basin runoff.

According to SFWMD data — which is backed up with data from University of Florida Water Institute — local basin runoff accounts for 79 percent of the water and 87 percent of the phosphorus load to the St. Lucie Estuary. That means the water from the lake is cleaner than the water from the basin. Only 21 percent of the water and 13 percent of the phosphorus entering the St. Lucie River comes from Lake Okeechobee.

According to the scientists who study the Big O and fishermen who are out on the water every day, the lake is far from toxic. It’s a healthy ecosystem with thriving fisheries and a variety of abundant wildlife including manatees, wading birds, alligators, turtles and even bald eagles.

The nearly half a million online viewers who had watched the video between Dec. 8 and Dec. 13 wouldn’t know that from watching the video.

“From the north the phosphorus in manure from commercial dairies and cattle ranches flows into the lake,” the reporter states. The reporter gives no source for that claim and did not respond to a request from this newspaper for the source of this statement.

The video shows little images of cows popping up all over a map of the Kissimmee basin as a reddish brown stain flows into the lake.

But in reality, there is no manure from dairy farms in the waterways that feed Lake Okeechobee.

Before 1985, there were 50 dairy farms in the watershed. In 1986, thanks to the Department of Environmental Regulation Dairy Rule, all but 19 of those farms closed because they could not meet the strict standards imposed to limit phosphorus in the runoff. The dairies closed. The cows were shipped out of the watershed.

That was 30 years ago.

The remaining dairies went to considerable expense to follow strict regulations that require to them to use retention ponds to keep runoff from the barns on site and recycle the water onto spray fields. They aren’t allowed to have runoff.

Throughout the state, all dairies have to meet DEP regulations in regard to the phosphorus levels in  runoff.

Now consider cattle ranches in the Kissimmee River watershed. Florida cattle operations are “cow-calf” operations. Calves are born on Florida ranches, and are shipped north to the feed lots out of state. The premise is that it’s cheaper to ship the calves to the grain than to ship the grain to the calves. All of the phosphorus in the grass that the cows and calves eat on the Florida ranches does not go into the manure. The grass also provides the nutrition to build bone, muscle and fat, and for the cow to make milk to feed her calf. When the annual crop of calves goes to market, some of the phosphorus they have consumed goes with them — out of the watershed. The cattle population of the ranch stays fairly constant, with a new crop of calves born to replace those that were shipped north.

While there are large ranches throughout the watershed, you don’t count the number of cows per acre — you have to count the number of acres per cow.

And ranchers must follow Best Management Practices (BMPs) to limit phosphorus in runoff.

Studies do show a significant percentage of the phosphorus entering the Kissimmee River comes from land that is used for agriculture, including cattle ranches. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean the phosphorus is coming from cow manure. According to the UF water study, there is a lot of natural phosphorus in the soil in Florida, including areas in the Kissimmee River watershed.

The video also states “water from fertilized sugar fields gets pumped into the lake.” Again, no source for that information given. This claim is also problematic.

Backpumping from the sugar cane fields was banned years ago thanks to an EarthJutice lawsuit. The only backpumping that is allowed into Lake Okeechobee is done by municipalities to prevent flooding in homes and businesses in the towns on the south end of the lake.  If they have to backpump, it’s stormwater. This doesn’t happen often, but does happen in particularly wet years. Even, so it’s a tiny fraction of the water entering the lake and an even smaller fraction of the phosphorus.

In addition, sugarcane fields south of the lake don’t need to be fertilized with phosphorus. The muck soil of the Everglades Agricultural Area is naturally high in phosphorus. The fertilizer used on those fields does not contain phosphorus.

“While it is true that most sugarcane fields do not need additional applications of phosphorus and nitrogen from fertilizer because of the naturally occurring amounts in our organic peat soils, there are some nutrients that a sugarcane plant requires that are not supplied in sufficient quantity, mainly specific micronutrients like copper and zinc,” explained Judy Sanchez with U.S. Sugar. “Also, we grow sugarcane on sand lands west of the lake, and even some types of peat soils that do require some amounts of additional phosphorus and nitrogen because they do not have “muck” soils to provide that naturally. The one factor that IS constant is that the sugarcane crop takes up 100+ percent of any nutrients added to the fields in that, it uses all the nutrients added plus it uptakes additional nutrients from the soil and water.”

The video states that “billions of gallons of foul water,” flow east and west.

Billions of gallons of freshwater did flow east and west from the Big Lake during the very wet summer, according to the Corps of Engineers statistics.

But the water was no more “foul” than the water from the Indian River’s own watershed, according to the UF water study. In fact, according to the University of Florida, Harbor Branch and South Florida Water Management District scientists, the lake water had lower concentrations of phosphorus than the water entering that system from the basin runoff. And yet the video doesn’t even mention the runoff from the septic tanks and golf courses.

“The fertilizer in these waters could be making people sick,” the reporter speculates, before interviewing the mother of a young child who became ill after swimming in the ocean. But there is another health consideration the reporter doesn’t mention. The 2015 Watershed to Reef study conducted by Harbor Branch — and paid for by Martin County — found septic tanks to blame not only for excess nutrient loading into the waterways but also for fecal coliform bacteria in the water. Could it be possible that the bacteria from the leaking septic tanks was responsible for water-related illness? The video didn’t even broach that question.

The video mostly ignores the septic tank issue, despite all of the scientific documentation that has show this is a contributing factor to the Treasure Coast algal blooms and to poor water quality on the coast.

The video also ignores the proposals to clean the water before it enters Lake Okeechobee, focusing instead on the “send it south” campaign.

The documentary gives a lot of airtime to people who promote the proposal to buy 60,000 acres of land south of the lake for water storage. But the Weather Channel video fails to go into any detail on the Central Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). The SFWMD, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and DEP, have been working on CERP for about 30 years, and have already obtained about 120,000 acres south of the lake (former sugar cane land) to be used to help clean the water and restore more of the flow from the lake to the Everglades.

“We need some connection between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades and they don’t want to give one acre,” Mark Perry of the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center, states on the video. The reporter does not challenge this statement, even though the state has already obtained 120,000 acres of former sugarcane fields, and even though the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP), recently funded by Congress, includes plans to send more water south to the Everglades, using land that is already in state ownership.

While the video points out that water naturally flowed south through the lake and into the Everglades, it fails to address the problem that due to the channelization of the Kissimmee River for flood control, water enters the lake much faster than it did in the natural system. DEP studies have shown the only way to reduce the phosphorus loading into the lake is to slow the flow of water into the lake.

Slowing the flow, storing water north of the lake and cleaning the water before it goes into the lake are all elements of the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Plan (LOWP) which the reporter does not include in the video.

At the end of the 10-minute video, the reporter states that nothing is being done except continuing to spend money repairing the dike.

“There is no end in sight for the environmental disaster,” the reporter states.

“The lake’s water will still be pushed to the coast, fouling beaches and potentially destroying people’s health,” Ms. Parker states.

And yet, SFWMD, the Corps of Engineers and DEP have been working on plans and projects to address these environmental problems for 30 years. The Central Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) includes projects to store and move more water south from the lake. Some of those projects are already funded.

The Kissimmee River Restoration Project was authorized by Congress in 1992.

Some segments of the project have been completed. According to the Corps, when restoration is completed in 2020, more than 40 square miles of river-floodplain ecosystem will be restored, including almost 20,000 acres of wetlands and 44 miles of historic river channel.

Some lake area residents posted their views on the reporter’s Facebook page.

“What about the million plus people living in Orlando the area the contributes the largest freshwater flows to Lake Okeechobee? No phosphorus used up there? No phosphorus used in neighborhoods and golf courses?” wrote Gary Ritter.

“Who did you get all your info from, Bullsugar.org?” asked Brittany Meeks. (Some of those who speak on the video are not identified but wear “BullSugar.org” t-shirts.) “Maybe you should spend the day with a cane farmer and see how things are done the correct way. Farmers love the environment just as much as you coasties. It’s how they provide for their family, and feed the world.”

“Sad that given an audience to challenge and stimulate solutions, this article was more of the same divisive rhetoric,” wrote Jennifer Earnest.

Fisherman Scott Martin posted his own video on Youtube to answer the Weather Channel.

“I live here on this lake, I spend more time on Lake Okeechobee than just about anybody. This lake is not a toxic lake,” he stated. “It’s not a bubbling cesspool of bluegreen algae.

“Unfortunately the media has kind of slanted the views against the lake in an unfavorable way,” he said.

“The term ‘toxic’ and the pictures that are being painted with the media bother me,” said the champion fisherman.

“I spend my life on this lake,” he continued.

“It’s an awesome lake. It’s an awesome fishery.

“Lake Okeechobee is a beautiful lake. It’s alive and well,” said Mr. Martin.

The Weather Channel did not respond to requests that they give their sources for the statements made in the video.

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

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