Fault the Scott administration for the nutrient loads to Lake O.

A sad sight on June 29th, a dead goliath on west coast, left, and toxic algae back of Florida Sportsman offices, in a composite image from FS online coverage this summer. Goliath image: Jess Zack Breznican, Boca Grande Beach. Dock: David Conway, Stuart

In the last seven years under Gov. Rick Scott and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the state hobbled water quality management mechanisms that had been helping Lake Okeechobee. The work of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and water management districts included water testing, creating regulations and enforcing water quality standards, and overseeing major agreements for the improvement of Florida’s water quality to limit the nutrients flowing into Lake O—nutrients linked to blue green algae and likely to coastal red tide. However, the Scott administration’s willful resistance to regulations and its blind eye to the scientific study of the sources and causes of the algae blooms and red tide have evidently contributed to the plague of pollution in Florida’s waters.

First, some good news. Ever since nutrient loads in the nine Florida watersheds around Lake Okeechobee became a matter of scientific study in 1972, testing, regulations and best management practices were put in place to limit and control the flow of these nutrients from farms, ranches and residential districts. Lawsuits helped to enforce the regulations along the way, like the suit in the late 1970s that forced changes to limit the amount of backpumping from the Everglades Agricultural Area into Lake O. State and federal legislation, and programs such as best management practices, dairy relocations, regional water quality projects and cooperation between governments along with a long list of restoration projects, like the Kissimmee River Restoration Project also helped. With better standards, regulations and practices in place, came encouraging results. By 2005, total phosphorus loads to Lake O and total nitrogen loads to Lake O all began a decline. By 2010, for instance, though phosphorus loads into Lake O were still not meeting state-mandated target total maximum daily loads (TMDL), they were reaching near-historic lows (data from SFWMD).

Both phosphorus and nitrogen loads to Lake O have been increasing since 2010.

Then came Gov. Rick Scott, Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam and Matt Caldwell (elected to the Florida House in 2010 and now running for Comm. of Agriculture). Scott began to dismantle the programs, standards and agencies whose purpose was to monitor and improve Florida’s water quality in its watersheds, rivers and Lake O, all of which flow into our oceans. Since 2011, when Scott got into office, the critical measures of phosphorus load and nitrogen load into Lake O started to increase, and they are all still on upward trends.

In a letter dated April 22, 2011, the Scott administration’s first Sect. of FDEP filed a petition to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to “withdraw its [EPA’s] January 2009, determination that numeric nutrient criteria are necessary in Florida. It [the petition] also requests that EPA restore to the state its responsibility for the control of excess nutrients, including the pursuit of nutrient criteria…As clearly demonstrated, the State of Florida, including its citizenry, local governments and businesses, is very committed to addressing excess nutrients pollution.”

What a bitter, bitter irony in that last sentence.

For starters, Scott’s administration and appointees to the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) failed to execute options to the U.S. Sugar agreement negotiated in 2008, which would have helped find a path to improving the discharge problems from Lake O. The state purchased 26,800 acres from US Sugar in 2010, before Scott’s tenure. The state had an opportunity to purchase additional US Sugar land in 2013 but did not. Again in 2015, the state decided against purchasing available option lands, passing up on a total of 153,200 acres in this decade.

The way the Scott administration has addressed nutrient loading in Lake O and its resultant pollution is to disregard scientific studies of it. As an example, consider the numbers coming out of the Florida DEP regarding nutrient loading. In 2016, FDEP’s numbers for the 5-year average phosphorus load entering Lake Okeechobee suggest a drop by 67 metric tons from 448 metric tons in the 12-year starting period. Good news, right? However, data from the South Florida Water Management District actually show an increase in 2016 loading average to 489 metric tons, which is almost 5 times the target level. How could this be?

South Florida Water Management District figures for loads into Lake O tell a different story than Florida Department of Environmental Protection numbers do.

Pretty simple, says Gary Goforth, a 32-year veteran environmental engineer in Florida, whose focus for the last three decades has been on environmental restoration programs in the Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades ecosystem. In the early 2000s, he was the chief consulting engineer for the South Florida Water Management District’s (SFWMD) $700 million Everglades Construction Project, which oversaw the construction of over 41,000 acres of treatment wetlands. As an independent engineering consultant, he’s conducted extensive hydrologic and water quality studies of Lake O and the associated Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.

“The FDEP doesn’t even use the South Florida Water Management District’s loading data in their annual assessment. They completely ignore it,” Goforth says. They create their results with a computer model that assumes optimistic load reductions for various land uses, for example, agricultural best management practices. It’s unbelievable. I’ve met with FDEP for hours over many days, and they don’t want to hear about why their results are flawed.”

If it seems green algae is worse in recent years, you’re right: It nearly covered Lake O in varying concentrations this summer, as seen in this satellite image. NOAA (Derived from Copernicus Sentinel-3 data from EUMETSAT)

Every year, Goforth calculates the inflow from the nine surrounding watersheds into Lake O—and for the first half of 2018 he’s documented a striking rise in the inflow from two watersheds: Lake Istokpoga and the Indian Prairie. The quantities of water flowing into Lake O from those watersheds are both about 4 times greater than for the same period in 2017. There also happens to be a nearly 20,000-acre tract of sugar cane growing in the Indian Prairie basin, where nutrient monitoring is lacking and regulations have been eased. What nutrients accompany the inflows? What could be the effect on the increased algae blooms in Lake O? It’s difficult to tell, because there are not enough monitors of nutrient levels in upstream waterways to determine specific hotspots.

There are watershed success stories across the state, in the EAA (south of Lake O) and the C-139 Basin, Goforth points out, that have lowered their phosphorus loads with best management practices (BMPs). There is help—and millions of dollars—at the state level, for landowners to implement BMPs to reduce their nutrient pollution, he says.

More funding for study of contributors to the algae problem would help, and a bill to be introduced by U.S. Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL 18th District) seeks such funding. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) are sponsoring the Water Resources Bill, which among other measures would support the construction of the EAA reservoir south of Lake O to store, clean, and move water south.

Such study is unlikely to come under Scott’s potential heir to the seat, Adam Putnam. The Scott administration’s legislative moves, with Putnam as Sect. of Ag, amounted to a campaign to end any federal oversight of water standards and to disband prior agreements meant to improve water quality coming out of Lake O.

“The FDEP doesn’t even use the South Florida Water Management District’s loading data in their annual assessment. They completely ignore it,” Goforth says. They create their results with a computer model that assumes optimistic load reductions for various land uses, for example, agricultural best management practices. It’s unbelievable.”

Early this decade, Goforth and his team, including L. Hornung Consulting, Inc. and Soil and Water Engineering Technology, Inc., in association with the SFWMD, worked to develop reasonable nutrient load reductions for each of the nine subwatersheds discharging into Lake O. Goforth’s numerical studies and recommendations would have helped the agency find areas surrounding the lake that weren’t cutting phosphorus pollution enough to meet state standards, but in 2014, those recommendations—and all references to Goforth’s technical studies—were removed completely from a SFWMD annual report after meetings, calls and emails with U.S. Sugar lobbyist Irene Quincey. As reported by TC Palm in 2017, the sugar lobbyist’s changes to the report redirected its intent to be similar to the state’s much weaker stance on nutrient loading, much less strict and less enforceable.

That weaker plan, called the Basin Management and Action Plan (BMAP), replaced the stricter requirements of the FDEP and SFWMD permitting programs designed to achieve compliance with water quality standards and the total maximum daily load (TMDL) requirements. The 2016 water bill signed by Scott stopped the effort to regulate nutrients from every basin, and instead moved to the Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) process. That law deleted requirements that phosphorus loads into Lake O had to meet the TMDL target by January 2015. The state of Florida had set that TMDL in 2001 through The Lake Okeechobee Protection Act, and established the deadline of January 2015 to reduce loads to the established target. The law that Scott signed in 2016 struck out that January 2015 deadline and instead replaced it with a minimum 20-year cycle of the BMAP process—essentially a moving target that few scientists would expect to be met, especially without effective testing and monitoring (practices that were also deleted from the 2016 law).

“Here’s the state government pushing back an important deadline for at least 20 years,” says Goforth, “and really it’s an ambiguous deadline. It basically says that if the loads aren’t met by this time, then the FDEP needs to send a report to the legislature explaining why the loads haven’t been met. The plan doesn’t even pretend to show how the load reductions might be met.”

Cuts to the FDEP, Testing and Enforcement

Scott and his team took the shears to the primary agency protecting Florida’s waters, air and grounds, the Florida DEP. In the early 2000s, the agency ran with an annual budget averaging $1.9 billion and employed more than 3,600 employees. The Scott administration spent years cutting employees and that budget, repeatedly, so that today about 2,930 employees work at the agency, which has a budget of about $1.53 billion (about 25 percent less than a decade prior, even without adjusting it for inflation.) The Florida DEP also has the responsibility to keep air and soils and water safe from contaminants that are a risk to public health, and in that role it has failed to sufficiently warn and alert the public to the human health dangers from red tide and toxic blue-green algae. These dangers and risks are not sufficiently publicized by the state.

Scott’s administration also slashed funding for the South Florida Water Management District, in charge of permitting and monitoring effluent pollution in waterways around Lake O. SFWMD now operates with less money than it did 10 years ago and with hundreds fewer staff members to do its work. In all, in his first year, Scott cut $700 million from Florida’s water management districts. This year their total budgets are still $400 million below what they were when Scott took office, as reported by PolitiFact Florida.

As a result of staff and funding cuts, the state’s network of water monitoring sites has dwindled. Over the last decade, state and federal funding that helped to pay for an extensive network of testing sites around South Florida shrank, dropping the number of those stations from 350 stations to 115, according to the Florida International University’s Southeast Environmental Research Center, as reported by the Miami Herald this August. In 2014, the state cut funding to about 30 percent of the stations in Biscayne Bay which has suffered significant seagrass decline in the last decade. The federal Environmental Protection Agency also dropped 43 stations in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, where coral disease is growing.

At the same time, the Florida DEP has opened 75 percent fewer pollution regulation enforcement cases since 2011 (according to a study by the Florida Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility). In fact, enforcement cases have dropped off a cliff in the state. They’ve fallen from about 1,600 cases in 2010 to about 220 in 2017. Fewer pollution regulation cases are being opened, fewer are being prosecuted.

Fewer—and lower—water quality standards. Less water quality testing. Fewer prosecutions of violations. Such actions have reversed the trend of decreasing nutrient loads flowing into Lake O. That upward trend of nutrient flows into Lake O since 2010 has the Scott administration’s signatures all over it—and so do the summers and wildlife lost to blue-green algae and red tide in recent years. FS

First published in Florida Sportsman Magazine October 2018

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