OKEECHOBEE — Want to know who is to blame for the massive algae bloom on the Treasure Coast?
Turn on the news and you’ll see people blaming the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District. But both are government agencies following the water management policies set by elected officials or in the case of SFWMD, a board appointed by an elected official.
On the TV news, you’ll also hear people repeating the claim that the problem is due to releases from Lake Okeechobee, although scientific studies conducted by the University of Florida and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute found the freshwater lake releases are just a small part of the problem.
Some people want to blame agriculture, although due to the dairy buyout in the 1980s, the agriculture north of the lake is mostly low impact, such as cattle ranches with thousands of acres of native pasture. And since water does not run uphill and backpumping of agricultural runoff into the lake has been banned, nutrient impact from agriculture south of the lake is minimal.
So who’s really to blame?
Let’s take a survey:
• If you live and/or have a farm, business or industry in South Florida — say anywhere from Orlando south — raise your hand. Ask any biologist who studies lakes and rivers. Anytime a human enters an ecosystem, it changes.
The more humans, the more change. The University of Florida Water Institute Report explains: “An extensive network of man-made canals, levees and water control structures permeates the south Florida landscape. The land has been ditched, drained and otherwise reconfigured to provide flood protection and fresh water for a current population of more than eight million residents.” Every time any of those humans build a house, school or shopping mall or pave a road or a parking lot, it changes the natural flow of water. And those 8 million residents produce waste that goes into the environment.
Because that population keeps growing, so do the problems.
• If you didn’t vote in the last election, because you were too busy, or you forgot or you don’t want to be called for jury duty (despite the fact that Florida no longer uses the voter list for juries), raise your hand.
• If you have a septic tank and do not have it pumped and inspected at least once every five years, raise your hand. Septic tanks that do not operate properly contribute to excess nutrients in the runoff entering area waterways.
• If your home is on a city sewer system and you never wondered where it goes when you flush, raise your hand. This is especially important if you live in the Indian River Lagoon Basin, where the population has swelled from 250,000 in 1960 to 1.7 million people today. (Check out the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute study, “Evidence of sewage-driven eutrophication and harmful algal blooms in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon.”)
• If you have planted anything in your yard that requires fertilizer, raise your hand. Rain washes fertilizer into waterways, contributing to the excess nutrient load.
• If you enjoy visiting the Orlando area theme parks, raise your hand. The development in the Kissimmee and Orlando area with theme parks, hotels, restaurants, roads, etc., required drainage and flood control and that means water comes down the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes into the Kissimmee River and down the river into the lake much faster than nature intended. Water enters the lake six times faster than it can be released. It starts to stack up against the dike — an earthen berm that was built for flood control, not for water storage. Some areas on the south end of the dike are less than 12 feet above sea level. If the lake’s water level were to be 17 or 18 or 19 feet, and the dike breached, expect loss of life in the resulting flooding.
• Unless you raise all of your own food organically and make sure no runoff ever leaves your property, raise your hand. Although it is not the main culprit, agricultural runoff does contribute to the excess nutrients in the watershed.
But without agriculture, there would be no food. It is also important to note that the farmers have already made a lot of sacrifices to clean up the water.
For example in the mid-1980s, new regulations forced most of the dairy industry out of the watershed. The few remaining dairies in Okeechobee County are required to recycle their own runoff and contain and clean up the water on their property.
OK, I could go on, but it’s getting difficult to type with one hand raised, and you get the idea …
Whose fault are the environmental problems in the South Florida watershed?
There’s plenty of blame to go around for every resident, every visitor, every business and every industry in south Florida.
Who will it take to fix the problem? All of us.
What can you do to help solve the problems?
• You can support legislation to provide more water storage both north and south of Lake Okeechobee, as well as more water storage in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie basins. Water storage to the north will help slow the flow into the lake and also allow natural vegetation to clean the water before it enters the lake. That’s good for the health of the lake, and good for every area that receives water from the lake. It also helps store water that might be needed in the dry season, instead of sending it to tide. Storage in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie basins will do the same for those basins. In addition, storage in the Caloosahatchee basin will provide a source of water for the river in the dry season, to help prevent salt water intrusion.
• You can do your homework during the election cycle and find out which candidates will support plans to clean up the environmental problems. Then you can vote. Then you can continue to hold your elected officials accountable by staying involved.
• You can plant “Florida Friendly” plants in your own yard. And you can resist the urge to water your Florida grass and instead just let it go brown during the dry season because it will come back, as nature intended, when the rains come. For more on Florida Friendly landscapes contact your county extension office or click here.
• You can keep runoff on your own property by using a retention pond, or by just putting up with a soggy yard part of the year. That water is recharging your aquifer.
• You can clean up after yourself. Don’t throw trash, cans or bottles into the water, canals or shorelines.
• If you catch “trash” fish like armored catfish, you can take them with you and dispose of them properly. Don’t just leave them on the canal bank.
• If your home has a septic tank, you can have it serviced regularly to make sure it is operating properly and not leaching nutrients and bacteria into runoff from your property. And if it is failing, it should be replaced (or have your home hooked up to a public sewer system, if that is an option in your area.)
• If you live in an area with a sewer system, you can pressure local elected officials to make sure the sewer systems are kept up properly and not allowed to leach sewage into the groundwater or runoff.
• If you have an RV, you can make sure you only dump your “black water” at designated stations. Never dump onto a road or canal. And if you see another RVer dumping, report them. They are polluting everyone’s water.
• Instead of complaining about the problem and looking for someone or something to blame, you can be part of the solution.
Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at email@example.com