North of Lake Okeechobee – Is That the Problem?

Dirty water flows into Lake Okeechobee in flood times at six times the rate it can be dumped back out.

Is that the whole problem and the place we should be concentrating our efforts?

The short answer is “No.”

ALL the water users and ALL the drained land around the Lake are the problem.

It’s important to understand that the problem is not just about what flows into the Lake . It’s about what can’t flow out.

And a big part of the problem is that what flows from the drainage around the Lake – east, south, and west – to the coast and to the Everglades, is too dirty, too much, and too fast.

The whole plumbing system of the Greater Everglades Ecosystem is at fault.

The agricultural area south of Lake Okeechobee gets blamed because it’s huge and has huge impacts.

That area south of the Lake is now a shallow bowl instead of a gently sloping flowway because of subsidence of the peat soils.

It needs to be pumped out every time it rains so crops won’t flood. It needs irrigation water every week it doesn’t rain to keep the crops growing.

The drainage water pumped out of the fields needs to be treated in vast stormwater treatment areas to be cleaned up before it can be sent south.

Storing irrigation water in Lake Okeechobee through the dry season means Lake levels need to be kept higher.

The Everglades Agricultural Area is a problem because it’s huge and because of where it is. The drainage water going south has to be squeaky clean or it will kill the Everglades . Storing more water in the Lake for irrigation means keeping Lake levels higher and dumping on the estuaries more often.

It’s not just because there is 430,000 acres of sugarcane growing there. The same would be true if it were orange groves or sod farms or suburban housing.

The east and the west sides of the Lake contribute to the problem with their own dirty drainage and water demands and the demands of utilities for coastal cities.

THAT SAID, there is lots that needs to be done north of the Lake .

Runoff from Orlando needs to be cleaned up. Sewage package plants, high density septic systems, and leaky sewer pipes need fixing. Fertilizer ordinances are needed so we don’t put nitrogen on lawns in the summertime when it runs off with the first heavy rain. Sludge should not be spread on pastures where it adds to dirty runoff.

The Upper Chain of Lakes are the headwaters of the Kissimmee River . A release schedule exists that the Corps of Engineers follows to keep them from flooding. That schedule needs to be revised. Keeping the dike from breaking and keeping water out of houses are appropriate priorities, but keeping lakeside lawns dry in really heavy rains, at the expense of the downstream system, is not. They need to hold more water and let it out slowly.

The Kissimmee River used to wind 100 miles down to Lake Okeechobee . Our last great environmental stupidity was channelizing the Kissimmee into a 50 mile ditch in the name of flood control. The water from the natural winding river where it came into Lake Okeechobee had 20 to 40 ppb Phosphorous. The water from the ditch carries 80 to 180 ppb Phosphorous into the Lake . The ditch brought too much dirty water too fast down to Lake Okeechobee .

About 13 miles of a planned 22 miles of the Kissimmee ditch have been restored to a winding river so far. More needs to be done.

There is a glimmer of hope for the Kissimmee Valley in the Obama administration’s designation of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge. With the help of the Nature Conservancy the first parcel is in federal ownership. The plan is for 50,000 acres of outright purchase and 100,000 acres of easements on cattle ranches to assure that we don’t pave over what we’re trying to restore.

Lake Okeechobee went belly up in the late 1970s with continuous algae blooms lake-wide. There were massive fish kills and the whole thing stunk. Water supply for lakeside towns was cut off because it was unsafe to drink.

Since then numerous plans have been adopted to clean up runoff into the Lake . They haven’t been implemented or they haven’t worked. Fourteen years ago the target was to reduce Phosphorous inflows from 500 tons a year to 140 tons a year by 2015. Fourteen years later, one year short of the fifteen year deadline, inflows still average 500 tons a year.

The State Dept. of Agriculture worked with farms to adopt best management practices to decrease sediments and nutrients in runoff. The BMPs were voluntary, unlike those applied to sugar farmers south of the Lake . They have not cleaned up the water.

Kissimmee inflows to the Lake are not the only problem. East of the Kissimmee , the Taylor Creek and Nubbin Slough dairy basin is still flowing into the Lake at 5 to 600ppb Phosphorous.

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan provides for reservoirs and stormwater treatment areas in Okeechobee Countyto slow down and clean up that runoff. They need to be planned and funded and built. The state needs to acquire the land well ahead of time so that can happen.

There are important things NOT TO DO.

Before the housing bubble burst in 2008 there were developments waiting in line to build cities within the Kissimmee drainage basin. They went away because of economics. They need to stay away or the work of restoring the Kissimmee and the hope of restoring the Everglades will be lost.

Plans are being pushed for the state State Dept. of Transportation to sponsor a public/private partnership for toll expressways in the region. Those plans need to go away. If we want to make things worse, we shouldn’t bother with restoration. If we want to restore the Greater Everglades Ecosystem, we shouldn’t be making things worse in the headwaters.

Getting the water right north of the lake is a part of fixing the larger failed plumbing system.

The short list of what needs to be done:

  • Adopt fertilizer ordinances, clean up sewage, and make improvements to urban runoff to reduce the nutrients. Stop spreading sludge on the land.
  • Adjust the water release schedules for the Chain of Lakes
  • Restore more of the Kissimmee ditch.
  • Fund land acquisitions and easements for the new National Wildlife Refuge.
  • Declare an Area of Critical State Concern to adopt land use regulations that assure that the Kissimmee Prairie won’t be paved over
  • Buy the necessary land and construct CERP reservoirs and stormwater treatment areas in Okeechobee County .
  • Mandate Best Management Practices and water quality regulations that work and solve the problem at the source.
Doing ALL of that won’t restore the Everglades or protect the coastal estuaries from Lake dumping.

Doing ALL of it is a necessary part of a comprehensive solution that will solve the problem.