Monday, October 19, 2020

Florida Beaches vs. Lake Okeechobee

Stepping Stones


Submitted Photo

It’s a hot topic of conversation among politicians, farmers, tourists and tour operators… What’s with all of this brown water at our area beaches?

There’s nothing new about it; this problem has plagued coastal residents and visitors for some time. But where does it start, how did it get to the beaches and what the heck are “nutrients?” Water releases from Lake Okeechobee are the end result, but the problem starts well north of there. Let’s try and sum this up in just a few paragraphs.

Fortunately, Collier County beaches are spared the burden of upset individuals since this brown water rarely reaches our area. However, the coastlines closest to the Caloosahatchee River are very hard hit, especially Fort Myers and Sanibel Island. Algae blooming along these beaches traces its origin to residential, commercial, farm and cattle ranch settings as far north as Orlando.

There is no doubt that vast areas of land drain into Lake O where waters high in phosphorus content have fertilized the growth of unimaginable algae blooms that are discharged to the ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Phosphorous is a nutrient. Nutrients are defined as substances used by organisms to survive, grow and reproduce. Phosphorous in plants is very important and it is classified as a “macronutrient” because of the large amount required. Along with nitrogen and potassium, it is one of the three main nutrients necessary for plant survival.

Herein lies the problem. Excess phosphorous and nitrogen are partly responsible for the decline of surface water quality. The above-mentioned “villains” have been linked to eutrophication, a biological process in ponds, streams and lakes (Lake O?) where excessive algal growth occurs. In several cases the algae have actually depleted oxygen levels, which could kill fish and other marine life.

Nearly three million acres of land and tributaries drain their water into Lake O.

This overdeveloped and over drained area allows too much pollution to enter this giant of a lake. The problem has been shaping for decades and there is no easy fix. Some point fingers at the highest level of government stating that the failure to fix the federally controlled dike around the lake necessitates discharges to the Gulf and ocean because the high water levels cannot tolerate the deteriorating earthen structure and could cause a rupture.

Others will say that it is a state responsibility by allowing land to become, again, over drained and over developed. In addition, the state recently had the opportunity to buy land south of Lake O to be used for water storage and reduce the amount of discharge to the coastlines. Not too long ago the state legislature passed a revision to the water quality law that allowed the continuation phosphorous discharges as long as they complied with best management practices. These practices are essentially voluntary measure and not hard limit laws.

A lot of fingers point to “Big Sugar,” the cane fields of Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar around the southern rim of the lake. Although they are not the primary source of nutrients flowing into Lake O they were pretty quick to drain excess waters from their fields back into the lake when Irma hit us last year.

To break it down a bit, 37% of phosphorous comes from land north that drains into the Kissimmee River, from vegetable farms, citrus groves, cattle ranches dairy farms and lawn fertilizer from residential areas leading all the way back to Orlando. Sugar lands, today, only account for about 6%. However, a 1992 study found that sugar fields accounted for 28%, which means that there may be a historic load of phosphorous already in the lake.

In conclusion, there seems to be a conglomerate of problems leading to a solution of discharging waters to area beaches. We have a failing dike, an excess a runoff from lands north of Lake O, industry south of the lake that pumps its nutrients back to the lake, a lack of reservoirs to use as holding areas and probably five or six more causes that we have not addressed here.

So, what is the solution? Should the state, federal government and local communities say, “Can’t we all just get along” and find an answer? Is there not a body of non-politically motivated saviors that can lead us out of this mess?

For the sake of the tourists, residents and businesses that would be great! Oh, yes…don’t forget one other entity here. How long will this continue before the main lady in charge, Mother Nature, yells “Enough!” and puts her foot down.

Act fast, humans, before the course cannot be reversed.


Bob is an owner of the Dolphin Explorer, a dolphin study group and eco-tour working from Marco Island. He is also the author of two books available locally and the owner of Stepping Stone Eco-tours. Bob loves his wife very much!

One response to “Florida Beaches vs. Lake Okeechobee”

  1. David Friedman says:

    This is one of only a few articles that begins to discuss the source of the problem and that is the EXCESSIVE runoff from the contributing WATERSHED!
    Most of the posts only focus on the end point Lake O. They fail to recognize that the land use disturbances in the watershed are creating this excessive rainfall runoff accelerating the transport of nutrients and pollutants.
    Furthermore the EXCESSIVE runoff alone is a major pollutant!
    If these organizations only focus on pushing water south and fail to address the problems within the watershed all they have done is contribute to further pollution of the Everglades.
    I am a retired Soil Conservationist studied coastal soils, and these disturbed soils are permanently dysfunctional.
    Efforts MUST be undertaken within the watershed.

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