Workshops review watershed protection plans

WEST PALM BEACH — About 250 people logged in to a virtual meeting on Northern Everglades Watershed Protection on June 26, hosted by the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD).

“Our intent with this is to engage the public in a robust discussion about what it takes to solve our water quality crisis,” explained Jennifer Reynolds, SFWMD director of ecosystem restoration and capital projects.

“The SFWMD can’t do it alone,” said Reynolds. “We don’t have the authority, the funding or the tools to do it all ourselves. It takes many state and local agencies, nonprofit groups, landowners, businesses and informed members of the public to make it work.”

She encouraged the public to hold government agencies and elected officials accountable and to encourage all entities to take reasonable actions within their control.

“I believe that by starting with the science of the land and the water, we can all work together to chip away at what may seem like an insurmountable water quality dilemma, but really it’s a collection, although connected and complicated, of smaller water solutions just waiting for us to implement them together,” she said.

Stephanie Olson, SFWMD scientist, explained the northern Everglades includes 3,340,475 acres in the Lake Okeechobee watershed, 537,600 acres in the St. Lucie watershed and 1,090,560 acres in the Caloosahatchee watershed.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) has set goals for phosphorus and/or nitrogen for these watersheds, she explained.

FDEP has identified Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee Estuary and five tributaries, and the St. Lucie River as water bodies with excess nutrients for which Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) were set.

Olson explained SFWMD looks for the projects that will provide the most effective reductions in the nutrient loads into the waterways.

The Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs) were developed to reduce the phosphorus and nitrogen loads to bring them down the TMDL goals. The projects and programs will continue to be updated until the TMDLs are met.

Dealing with legacy phosphorus will be an important part of meeting the TMDL for Lake Okeechobee.

“Legacy phosphorus is dependent on many variables,” Olson said.

“We will be looking at all of the factors that contribute.

“Legacy P will be part of any baseline that has experienced modern anthropogenic activities,” she said. “A critical goal is to reduce nutrient input into the system so that legacy P doesn’t increase.”

She also noted the amount of legacy phosphorus differs from study to study.

A question on septic tanks noted standard septic system contribute about 6 pounds of nitrogen per person per year to the watershed, and asked if septic-to-sewer projects could be the “low-hanging fruit” in reducing nitrogen load.

Jodi Hutchins, SFWMD engineer, explained that currently the Florida Department of Health regulates septic tank permits, but recent legislation, Senate Bill 712, would transfer the regulatory authority to FDEP. While FDOH regulations did not address nutrient loads from septic tanks, this will be a concern for FDEP.

The next protection plan workshop, which will focus on the Lake Okeechobee Watershed, will be held on July 21. The Aug. 28 workshop will focus on the St. Lucie watershed and Sept. 2 will focus on the Caloosahatchee watershed.

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