OKEECHOBEE — Cattle ranches have been in the Lake Okeechobee watershed since pioneers first settled the area, but before the Central and South Florida Project for Flood Control, the nutrient loads entering Lake Okeechobee were not a problem, Gary Ritter of Florida Farm Bureau told South Florida Water Management District representatives at the Nov. 5 workshop in Okeechobee.
“The legacy issue is in many cases the result of flood control canals that were created in the northern watershed,” said Mr. Ritter.
“Examine the nutrient dynamics that are going on in these canals,” he suggested.
“Agriculture has been in the watershed for many decades. The real problems started when the flood control system was put into this watershed,” he said.
Tracking the phosphorus load coming from the canals themselves was just one of the suggestions made at the workshop on Chapter 40E-61 of the Florida Administrative Code.
Steffany Olson, SFWMD science supervisor, explained Florida statute requires the district to revise the rules for the Lake Okeechobee watershed and develop new rules for the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee watersheds.
Due to high phosphorus and/or nitrogen levels in Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee River and the St. Lucie River, all are considered impaired waters by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. FDEP developed maximum TMDL (total maximum daily loads) for phosphorus and/or nitrogen.
Ms. Olson said some stakeholders were disappointed the draft rule was not available to review before the workshop. She said they wanted public input before the draft. “The watershed is about 5 million acres. It is very diverse. There are urban areas. There are agricultural areas,” she said.
“Once we have text drafted, we will do workshops again,” said Ms. Olson.
The draft concept will include requirements for monitoring in lieu of BMPs (best management practices). Farmers and ranchers who are already enrolled in the BMP program through the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services may continue with the BMPs or opt instead for direct monitoring on the nutrient levels in runoff from their property.
The new rules will also include additional monitoring of nutrient load throughout the watershed. The results of this monitoring could trigger things such as stormwater treatment areas and regional projects, she explained. SFWMD also wants input from stakeholders on how to reduce the nutrient load entering the waterways.
Ms. Olson said they “will accept all ideas, but each idea will have to be compared to what our legislative directives are,” she continued. An idea that may work for one area may cause a severe hardship on another set of stakekholders, she said.
“We need to make sure the rules are reasonable,” she said.
The new rules will address monitoring in lieu of implementing BMPs.
Monitoring will have to be specific. “We also have to consider what is practical,” she said.
She said SFWMD will take the feedback we get from the workshops, will go back and draft some rule text that will be available for discussion for the second round of workshops in 2020.
Comments can be made at the meetings, on the sfwmd.gov website or in written form.
Wes Williamson said he is concerned that any new regulations on cattle ranches could put some ranches out of business. That could have some “unintended consequences,” he said. Cattle ranching is one of the least intensive uses of the land. If a rancher can’t make a living and is forced to sell, that land might wind up in development or other uses which would be more harmful to the environment.
“You can also regulate ag out of business,” he warned.
Beth Lewis of The Nature Conservancy said cattle ranches provide critical habitat for native wildlife.
“We have spent years since the 1970s working with ranchers to preserve wildlife corridors and to preserve areas for water retention,” said Ms. Lewis.
We’ve got to make sure we retain those habitats.”
She said if new rules cause cattle ranches to go out of business, that would negatively impact native wildlife, including endangered species.
“I think the idea of monitoring and looking at nonpoint sources that have not opted into the BMP program will be an important part of this effort,” she said.
“Farmers have spent 20 plus years and a lot of money implementing agriculture BMPs, (best management practices), said Wes Carlton.
“Everybody needs to do their part. We all agree on that,” he said.
Mr. Carlton noted the maps from the C-23 basin show monitoring of the agriculture areas, but not in the urban areas.
“Right now all you are checking is ag water,” he said. “You are not checking all of the runoff from Port St. Lucie and Palm City.”
“That area is lined with houses and septic systems,” he said. “With some fairness, we need to check them all.”
Paul Gray, of Audubon Florida noted some areas north of the boundary of the SFWMD drain into the district. He asked if SFWMD will coordinate with other water management districts to address nutrient load entering the watershed from the north.
“I know of a couple properties adjacent to the Taylor Creek region where they have got soil sampling on their property from the dredge for those canals,” said Nyla Pipes of One Florida Foundation. “The soil they put back on those properties from those canals was really high in phosphorus. “We’re talking about a lot of flow and a lot of movement of nutrients. There is a lot to be said for the nutrient loading in those canals and adjacent to those canals.”
Lake Okeechobee area residents who filled the Williamson Conference Center at Indian River State College in Okeechobee on Tuesday spoke in support of more water quality monitoring throughout the watershed, especially in the urban areas. They asked that data from water quality monitoring from all state, county and city agencies be shared with the public. They also asked about BMPs for urban areas, and suggested future workshops in Okeechobee be held after 5 p.m. so residents would not have to miss work to attend.
SFWMD is initiating a public rule-making process to support water quality improvements in the Northern Everglades.
The SFWMD Governing Board approved the public process last month to revise Chapter 40E-61 of the Florida Administrative Code. The rule was originally created in 1989, and in 2016, the Florida Legislature passed laws requiring SFWMD to revise the rule to support Northern Everglades restoration. The purpose of the rulemaking process is to amend Chapter 40E-61 to:
• Be consistent with the 2016 Northern Everglades and Estuaries Protection Program (NEEPP or 373.4595, F.S.) and Section 403.067, F.S., including for the Lake Okeechobee Watershed.
• Develop rules for Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie river watersheds.
• Provide for a monitoring program for non-point source dischargers required to monitor under Section 403.067, F.S.
• Provide for a research and water quality monitoring program.
The public engagement process will include workshops and opportunities to provide input through the district’s website. An interactive web board can be found there and also allow the public to submit comments online.
The scheduled public workshops for the rule-making process include:
• Nov. 15, 10 a.m. at the Fort Myers Regional Library, 1651 Lee St., Fort Myers, 33901.
• Nov. 19, 10:30 a.m. at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension Osceola County, 1921 Kissimmee Valley Lane, Kissimmee, 34744-6107.
• Nov. 19, 4 p.m. at the Indian River State College, Chastain Campus, 2400 S.E. Salerno Road, Stuart, 34997.
• Nov. 20, 10 a.m. at the South Florida Water Management District Headquarters, 3301 Gun Club Road, West Palm Beach, 33406.
The Nov. 20 meeting at 10 a.m. will also be broadcast online at SFWMD.gov and YouTube.com/SFWMDTV.