In all of the public meetings about the level of Lake Okeechobee, amid discussion of harmful releases to the coastal estuaries, storage reservoirs, Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) wells and deep well injection options, one question always comes up, and is never answered: “Why isn’t water cleaned BEFORE it goes into Lake Okeechobee?”
This may be followed by a related question: “Why isn’t water cleaned BEFORE it goes into the Kissimmee River?”
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials usually defer such questions because while they care about the environment, water quality issues are not part of their mission.
Their job is moving, storing and delivering water.
They often point out that the Kissimmee River Restoration and the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP) will provide some ancillary benefit to water quality.
The 2015 University of Florida Water Institute Study pointed out that water storage is needed north, south, east and west of Lake Okeechobee.
Water storage projects are under construction east and west of the lake.
The EAA reservoir project will add storage south of the lake, and the LOWRP proposes reservoir storage and ASRs north of the lake. While all of that storage is needed, Floridians can’t store their way out of area water problems with giant reservoirs. Even if all of the water storage under construction now and planned for the future had been completed before Hurricane Irma hit, it would not have been sufficient to hold the excess flow to Lake Okeechobee from that storm. Between Sept. 15 and Oct. 23, more than 500 billion gallons of water flowed into the Big Lake — and most of the rapid inflow was untreated, unfiltered drainage from the north.
Another factor to consider is that if the reservoirs had been in place, they would not have been empty when the storm hit; some of the capacity would have been taken up by direct rainfall. And the reservoirs alone do little to clean the water.
Due to a federal lawsuit, water must be cleaned to no more than 10 parts per billion of phosphorus before entering Everglades National Park. (Rainfall contains up to 8 ppb.)
The Florida Department of Environmental Project set that 10 ppb level as the optimal for the native plant life there. Stormwater treatment areas are used to ensure the water is clean before it enters Everglades National Park.
In 1986, FDEP also set a phosphorus target level for Lake Okeechobee at 40 ppb and an annual phosphorus load of no more than 140 metric tons (including 35 metric tons of atmospheric loading, as in phosphorus in the direct rainfall), but in the past 30 years there has been no enforcement.
Thirty years later, the phosphorus loading into Lake Okeechobee has not decreased. In 1986, according to SFWMD records, the phosphorus load into the lake was 421 metric tons. In 2016, it was 543 metric tons.
Much has been done to limit the phosphorus in runoff from cattle ranches and dairies, including the 1986 DEP Dairy Rule, which forced dairies to leave the basin if they could not meet strict standards for runoff. And yet, the total annual phosphorus load into the lake has increased.
With the exception of rainfall, every source of water entering the lake is many times the target level for phosphorus. Meanwhile, continued development at the top of the watershed in the Orlando/Kissimmee area means increased runoff that goes into the river and on into the lake. Every new building, every parking lot, every driveway, every mile of new roadway means increased runoff.
According to FDEP, the greater the volume of water entering the lake, the higher the nutrient loading.
The Kissimmee River and Lake Okeechobee are part of the Everglades. Don’t the lake and the river deserve the same protection from excess nutrient pollution as the southern Everglades?
When the lake level gets too high, coastal communities complain about water released east and west “from Lake Okeechobee” but the water isn’t coming from Lake Okeechobee; it’s flowing through Lake Okeechobee from the north.
To solve the problem of excess nutrient load, shouldn’t we start at the source?