WEST PALM BEACH — The South Florida Water Management District Governing Board once again turned their attention on the nutrient load from agricultural properties at their July 10 workshop meeting, with one board member even suggesting that cattle ranches spanning thousands of acres should be required to have perimeter ditches.
The conversation started with a question from board member Ron Bergeron who asked if agriculture industries had to meet the same rules as developers in regard to holding ponds and treating water before it is released.
“In any agriculture activity that is an increase in land use, you have the ERPs — Environmental Resource Permitting Program — that regulates agriculture just like it regulates urban and there is on site storage, attenuation, discharge plan, it’s got to be a certain level before you can discharge, The same ERP program that regulates urban land uses, development, shopping malls, regulates agriculture,” said Rich Budell.
Mr. Budell, who participated in the meeting as an invited member of the panel, has more than 30 years’ experience both developing and implementing water resource protection and conservation policy and programs. He served as director of the Office of Agricultural Water Policy with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for 17 years.
Mr. Budell said any intensification of agricultural land must follow the ERPs.
“You don’t have it on a 5,000-acre cattle ranch because there is no way that you can store or treat runoff from a 5,000 acre cattle ranch because there is no infrastructure to get the water to a holding pond,” he added. “It’s all sheet flow. There is no practical way to implement edge-of-farm treatment on a 5,000-acre ranch.”
Mr. Budell said ranchers follow Best Management Practices (BMP) to limit the use of fertilizer, if they use fertilizer.
“You do BMPs. You do water control structures to try to rehydrate wetland areas and hold water in low lying areas. That is the structure in current law,” he said.
If ranchers use fertilizer, they implement programs and practices such as nutrient management planning, soil tissue testing and target the application of the material to the root zone, he explained. The BMPs also include things such as setbacks from surface water and fencing.
“A cattle ranch where it is just open range — you’re going to make them dig ditches?” Mr. Budell asked.
“A perimeter ditch isn’t very expensive,” opined Mr. Bergeron.
“Around a 5,000 acre ranch it’s going to put you out of business,” replied Mr. Budell.
“I think ditches around a ranch is very simple, very inexpensive,” argued Mr. Bergeron.
“We disagree,” said Mr. Budell. He said cattle ranchers have been very responsive in water quality issues.
“When I fly over Fisheating Creek or our rivers and I see cattle in the water, that’s not responsible management,” said Mr. Bergeron.
Gary Ritter of Florida Farm Bureau said when farmers and ranchers put in ERPs, they are the ones who operate and maintain them. When a developer puts in a stormwater treatment area, that responsibility is passed off to whoever buys the property, he continued.
He said there is not enough water quality monitoring on the urban stormwater systems.
“We have a highly altered system,” he said. “We have large flood control canals north of the lake. We need to look at the nutrient dynamics of the flood control systems. We’ve got to stop ditching and draining our agriculture properties. We need to retain more water on these properties. That is what improves water quality — not perimeter ditching of these properties.”
Ernie Barnett of the Florida Land Council said the governing board should work with the other state agencies.
“DEP is in charge of water quality,” he said. “The Department of Agriculture is in charge of BMPs.
“You have to give some deference to your sister agencies,” he said.
“You can’t do it all. Focus on the hydrology, the timing, the distribution — how it gets into the system,” he said.
“Ditching and diking will not solve the problem north of the lake,” said Benita Whalen of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association. Ms. Whalen is a former SFWMD engineer.
“We’re all facing very difficult statewide water issues,” she said. “The cattlemen have always been a part of the solution. Cattlemen want to continue to be part of the solution.
“They have vast tracts of land and low concentrations.
“They have wetlands and slough systems. You can’t be talking about putting ditches and dikes around there,” Ms. Whalen said.
She said cattle ranches preserve the native wetlands.
“The hydrology is different north of the lake than it is south,” Ms. Whalen said.
Ms. Whalen added that cattle ranchers in Florida are net exporters of total phosphorus.
She said BMPs alone cannot reach the water quality targets. Regional projects in key locations are more effective.
She said south of the lake, expensive regulatory programs caused some ranchers to change to more intensive use of the land.
Drew Martin of the Sierra Club said more needs to be done to protect wetlands from development.
“We need to make it harder for developers to get permits,” he said.
“In Palm Beach County everything green is being eradicated. Wetlands are easy to eliminate. That has to change,” Mr. Martin said. “It should take an act of God to get permission to eliminate a wetland.”