WEST PALM BEACH — The South Florida Water Management District governing board is considering changes to the phosphorus and nitrogen reduction rules in the northern Everglades. At their Aug. 8 meeting at the SFWMD district office in West Palm Beach, Steffany Olson, SFWMD Science Supervisor, explained the process for amending the Florida Statutes related to the workshops of the district. She said the rule making process requires public workshops (each with at least 14 days advance notice), publication of proposed rule changes and opportunity for rule challenge.
She encouraged the governing board members to read the statute for themselves. The Northern Everglades Program is more than 20 pages and references other statutes, she said.
The Florida Statutes regarding the Northern Everglades — in general the area between Orlando/Kissimmee and Lake Okeechobee — have been changed many times over the years.
• In 1987 the statute was originally enacted as the Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) Act.
• In 2000, SWIM Act was revised to become the Lake Okeechobee Protection Act (LOPA).
• In 2005, LOPA was amended, including expanded boundaries for the Lake Okeechobee Watershed. The Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) statute was amended to include statewide Basin Management Action Plans (BMAP) by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).
• In 2007, LOPA became the Northern Everglades and Estuaries Protection Program (NEEPP). It was further expanded to include the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee River watersheds.
• In 2012, FDEP adopted the Caloosahatchee River Watershed BMAP.
• In 2013, FDEP adopted the St. Lucie River Watershed BMAP.
• In 2014, FDEP adopted the Lake Okeechobee Watershed BMAP.
• In 2016, NEEPP was amended: BMAPs are the “watershed phosphorus control component for Lake Okeechobee” and the “pollutant control program” for the estuaries.
The legislative purpose of NEEPP is “to improve the quality, quantity, timing and distribution of water in the north Everglades ecosystem …” and “ … provide a reasonable means of achieving the total maximum daily load requirements and achieving and maintaining compliance with state water quality standards.”
NEEPP includes the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Basin Management Action Plan, which is to be coordinated between SFWMD, FDEP and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS). FDEP was tasked with taking the lead on water quality measures. SFWMD was given the responsibility of taking the lead on hydrologic improvements. FDACS was given the lead role in developing Best Management Practices (BMPs) for agricultural uses within the northern Everglades.
“We know the plan we have now isn’t working,” said SFWMD governing board member Ron Bergeron. “I look forward to the monitoring so we can see where the problems are.”
Ms. Olson said the rule making process is quite complicated. If the governing board approves changes to the regulatory plan in September, Legislative ratification could be in April 2021.
“We are anticipating active engagement and healthy debates,” she said.
During the public comment period, those who manage ranches in the Northern Everglades tried to explain some of the complexities in that watershed.
Dr. Hilary Swain, director of Archbold Biological Station, said the station, with a 10,000 acre, full-scale working cattle ranch, is representative of this watershed. “We have decades of data from this working cattle ranch,” she said.
She said about 1 million acres of the Okeechobee watershed is in working ranches. It’s a different landscape than the land south of the lake, and it is essentially privately owned, said Dr. Swain.
The acid, sandy soil has subsurface sheet flow. While the areas south of the lake can be managed with canals and berms, building berms north of the lake would change the whole hydrology, she explained. The soils vary with sand ridges, some areas in dry prairie and some wet prairie. Ranches also contain numerous small, seasonal wetlands.
“We are managing a sponge and not a bathtub,” Dr. Swain said.
Research at Archbold station has shown that legacy phosphorus is the big issue.
She encouraged the governing board to use the resources of the station’s living laboratory to learn more about the watershed and about cattle ranching in Florida.
“Cow-calf operations are probably the most passive land use we could have,” said Gary Ritter of Florida Farm Bureau. “Cattle have been on the land more than 100 years.” He agreed legacy phosphorus is the real issue.
Matt Pearce, president Florida Cattlemen’s Association, corrected Mr. Ritter on one point. Cattle, he said, have been in the watershed for about 500 years. Cattle grazed the watershed long before there was any problem with the nutrient loads in the water.
He said there are many misconceptions in the public about the cattle industry, especially about the use of fertilizer.
Mr. Pearce, a seventh generation Florida cattlemen, said he was raised to believe it is his responsibility to take care of the land, a responsibility he will pass on to his children.
“If I abuse the land, my kids are not going to have the same that I did,” said Mr. Pearce. “You don’t maintain the land throughout seven generations without caring for it.”
“I ranch from Clewiston to Perry, Ga.,” he said, explaining that in addition to his family’s 1,500 acres, he manages another 8,000 acres, part of it leased from the SFWMD.
He said he only fertilizes about 5 percent of the land.
It’s not cost effective for ranchers to fertilize a lot, he explained. “When we do, we’re taking soil samples and following Best Management Practices (BMPs).
“The district property I manage, we don’t fertilize it, he said.
“The district owns 130,000 acres along the Kissimmee River,” Mr. Pearce continued. “There is no fertilizer applied to that.”
Of the land owned by SFWMD, 70,000 acres are grazed by cattle. There is no fertilizer being applied on that land, he continued.
“The perception is that we’re putting fertilizer out on a lot of property and we’re not,” Mr. Pearce said.
Mr. Pearce said the high levels of phosphorus in the water flowing into the lake is legacy phosphorus, much of it unleashed by the channelization of the Kissimmee River for flood control.
One of the largest pockets of phosphorus wasn’t mined by industrial industry, Mr. Perace continued. It was unintentionally mined by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when they dug the Kissimmee River channel, he said.
The phosphorus rich material was placed on the spoil bank, and when it rains that phosphorus goes into the river, he said. Then when the corps decided to “restore” the river, they started putting that phosphorus-rich spoil, now in loose form, back into the river, he continued.
When a big storm, like Hurricane Irma, sends massive flows of water down the Kissimmee River, it blows the soil out of the channel, sending it into Lake Okeechobee.
“That is why we have phosphorus spikes,” when there is heavy rainfall, he said.
“I don’t know anybody in here who can fix that.”
The flow down the Kissimmee River is increasing, as is the nutrient load, due to increased development at the top of the watershed in the Orlando/Kissimmee area. Another theme park is planned near Shingle Creek, the headwaters of the Everglades, Mr. Pearce said.
Seventy-two million people visit Orlando a year, Mr. Pearce said. They contribute to the economy, but they are also contributing to the watershed.
“We want to help, and we can use cattle as a tool,” he said.
He said cattlemen want to be at the table when the state considers any changes to the regulations.