OKEECHOBEE — Matt Phillips of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission addressed the Okeechobee County Commission Nov. 7 about the aquatic spraying program.
Mr. Phillips said the invasive plant management program is a statewide program. He said the goals of the program include proving diverse native plant communities, preventing weeds from negatively impacting habitat.
“We are specifically trying to control invasive plants,” he said. “They are not native to Florida. They have extremely fast growth rates. If you don’t do anything, they can take over a system very quickly. You do have to do some type of management.”
Mr. Phillips said the invasive plant control program goes back to the 1800s when mechanical harvesting was used to keep the river channels clear for navigation.
“Around the middle of the 1950s the first herbicide was developed for plant control,” he said.
Plant management was under federal control in early years, he said. The state really didn’t get involved in plant management until the 1970s.
“In 1994, we got dedicated funding,” he said.
While the use of herbicide “gets the spotlight” they also use biological controls, mechanical harvesting and physical controls such as fire.
“Invasive plants have been a problem for so long, most of our systems are maintenance control,” he said.
“We don’t have a mechanism to prevent some of these plants from coming into the state,” he said. For example, a new invasive, Exotic Azolla, has been found on the south end of Lake Okeechobee.
FWC controls invasive plants on 11 million acres in the terrestrial program with 160 projects. The aquatic plant management program includes 463 lakes and rivers, covering 1.26 million acres with 350 active management programs annually.
The commissioners told the FWC official they have all heard complaints from area residents about the aquatic spraying.
“We hear the contractors spray haphazardly,” said Commissioner Brad Goodbread.
“The native vegetation is also being sprayed.”
Mr. Phillips said they do spray some native vegetation when it is mixed with exotics, but claimed the herbicides do not kill off the native plants.
“With the example of water hyacinths mixed with spadderdock, the product they are using will brown some of the spadderdock but it will kill the water hyacinths,” he said. The spadderdock will grow back, he said. “Within three weeks you can’t tell the spadderdock has been sprayed.”
Mr. Phillips said FWC spent $1.7 million controlling invasive plants on Lake Okeechobee last fiscal year. He said on average they spray about 10,000 to 17,000 acres a year on Lake Okeechobee.
“That is what it takes us to manage floating plants on Lake Okeechobee,” he said.
“Earlier in the year 170,000 signatures told us to stop using glyphosate on Lake Okeechobee,” he said.
“We don’t have an active hydrilla management program on the lake anymore,” he continued.
He admitted FWC still uses glyphosate,
“Glyphosate is used more in the upland program than in the aquatic, but we do use glyphosate in the program,” he said.
“There is not consistent communication coming out from FWC,” said Commissioner Kelly Owens. “That causes a trust issue. That’s why we have people following these guys around the lake. They don’t trust in what is happening.
“These people who are out on the lake, taking videos, posting things on Facebook, are very concerned about what the contractor is doing out on the lake,” said Commissioner Owens.
“My husband is out on that lake almost every day fishing,” she said. “The perception by our local people is there is no accountability, that there are far too many people out there spraying.”
“We have tried to put our information out through our website,” said Mr. Phillips. “We don’t respond to people’s Facebook posts.”
Commissioner Owens also expressed concern about aerial spraying from helicopters when fishermen may be out on the lake fishing.
Mr. Phillips said they do have staff there to warn fishermen about spraying.
Commissioner Bryant Culpepper said he lives on the Kissimmee River.
“Numerous times last week there was an armada of airboats,” he said.
“When you kill that vegetation, it just goes to the bottom,” he said. That builds up the muck on the bottom of the river, which winds up flowing into the lake when they open the water control structures.
“Four years ago they sprayed an area east of the airstrip in River Acres,” he said.
“They killed everything. I lost a couple of big trees killed by that poison.”
He said there has to be a better way to control invasive plants.
In today’s world with the technology that exists, “it would seem to me there are answers out there,” said Commissioner Culpepper.
“I have watched them do it,” he said. “They are spraying everything. They are spraying right into the water.”
Mr. Phillips said FWC is advertising a request for information for better ways to control plants that do not use herbicide.