Pollution levels up in Lake Okeechobee
The pollutant phosphorus in Lake Okeechobee has doubled, leaving the water at more than the legal limit during the last decade with a threat of worsening, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Lake Okeechobee is the fourth largest lake in the United States, following behind three of the Great Lakes. After the 1928 Lake Okeechobee flood, which killed an estimated 3,000 people, Hoover Dike was built.
State and federal officials working on the Everglades restoration issues said that the current levels of Lake Okeechobee are four times the legal maximum level of phosphorus for 730-square miles, stated in a prepared statement.
Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips said the excessive amount of phosphorus in Lake Okeechobee affects Lee County residents directly.
“It affects Lee County residents because water released from Lake Okeechobee result in contaminates flowing into the Caloosahatchee and its tributaries. Also, the releases (and the resultant pollutant/phosphorus overloading) encourages algae growth in the estuaries along the west coast, which results in fish kills and detrimental impacts on tourism because of the negative impacts to area beaches,” he said.
“This is something the agencies have known for a long long time, it is just the matter of having the political will to turn it around,” Phillips said.
The prepared statement also stated that “The phosphorus figures would have been worse except that two consecutive dry hydrological years (2007 and 2008 water years) slightly depressed the rate of increase.”
An estimated 656 tons of phosphorus will be added to Lake Okeechobee during the 2009 period, which is the highest pollution level to ever be recorded.
Phillips explained that naturally occurring phosphorus is not a bad thing because it is a growth factor for plants. He said a “balanced amount of phosphorus is healthy.”
“It’s when it starts overloading that an excessive level fills the water body,” he explained.
Phillips said the abundance of phosphorous comes from two different elements, fertilizer and animal waste. He said Lake Okeechobee is experiencing heavy usage of fertilizer and a large concentration of dairy farms along the north side.
The discharge from the dairy farms has found its way to the ground water and surface water, which ultimately flows into Lake Okeechobee, he explained.
“When you have that situation year after year with no enforcement, you get a lake that is heavily contaminated,” he explained.
“You have to identify the water bodies that are impaired and you have to determine how much phosphorus can be in the lake,” Phillips said.
Lake Okeechobee can not exceed 140 tons of phosphorus per year.
He said for Lake Okeechobee to heal and get back to normal phosphorous levels, the Clean Water Act along with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection needs to be enforced.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection enforces the law by issuing permits to limit the amount of phosphorous levels allowed within the water bodies.
“When they see permits are being violated they have to start having penalties, if they see a polluter they need to monitor their permit more closely,” he added.
Phillips said it is a costly situation to repair, due to the decades of neglect. He explained that it will cost millions and millions of dollars to turn the situation around for Lake Okeechobee.