VoteWater Deep Dive: Big Ag’s big pollution is a big problem for Florida

The question was simple, the answer complicated. But it needn’t have been.

In late January Adam Blalock, Deputy Secretary for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, gave a presentation on water quality to the new House Water Quality, Supply and Treatment Subcommittee, talking about the state’s efforts to clean up water pollution.

He explained “BMAPs,” the “Basin Management Action Plans” which are the state’s primary means of improving water quality. The goal is to slash nutrients flowing into some 38 basins around the state via programs and strategies such as permit limits on wastewater facilities, urban and agricultural “best management practices” and other activities designed to meet pollution reduction targets established by a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL.

It’s complicated and bureaucratic, with regulatory authority split between FDEP and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS). Most importantly we know from media coverage that the program is not achieving its goals, though Blalock didn’t belabor the point.

When it came time for Q-and-A, Rep. Katherine Waldron (D-Wellington) asked the obvious question: “What would you consider the biggest source of pollution in our state right now?”

Blalock hemmed and hawed. “It really varies from BMAP to BMAP,” he said, which is technically true. “In some of our BMAPs, it’s very equally distributed; you might have 30% domestic wastewater, 30% septic tanks, 30% agriculture; other places it might be much more on septic tanks or wastewater or you might have areas like the Lake Okeechobee BMAP or some of our springs which have a higher percentage being agriculture, non-point sources, stormwater.”

Hearing the answer, you might come away with the impression that there’s no single source that’s worse or more prevalent than the others.

But any honest assessment of the state’s BMAP data, particularly for the plans pertaining to the Lake Okeechobee, St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee basins, can only come to one conclusion:

In many basins, the biggest source of pollution is agriculture — in many cases, by a mile.

State data (and modeling) tells the tale

At least half of the state’s BMAPs list agriculture as a “principal” source of nutrient pollution.

The Lake Okeechobee BMAP, adopted in 2014, is a case in point. The state breaks down the sources of Total Nitrogen (TN) and Total Phosphorus (TP); most of the pollution is from “non-point” sources, meaning it doesn’t flow out of some industrial pipe somewhere.

So where DOES it come from? The report looks at 9 separate sub-watersheds and lists the percentage of TN and TP thought to originate from agriculture, urban and “natural” sources.

In 7 of the 9 sub-watersheds, agriculture is the leading polluter. In the Indian Prairie sub-watershed, it contributes 84.9% of the total phosphorus, 73.8% of the total nitrogen, according to the state data.

The figures are even more eyebrow-raising in the South Lake Okeechobee sub-watershed, where agriculture contributes a whopping 91.6% of total phosphorus, and 90.6% of total nitrogen.

So OK, Lake Okeechobee is ringed with farms, it makes sense that agriculture should be a major contributor to the pollution that plagues the watershed. But the situation is hardly confined to Lake O.

The St. Lucie River and Estuary BMAP was originally adopted in 2013. Of 11 sub-watersheds analyzed, agriculture was determined to be the biggest source of total nitrogen and total phosphorus in five — the C23, C24, C44/S-153, the South Fork, and Ten Mile Creek.

But in terms of the overall total nitrogen and total phosphorus loads in the entire watershed, agriculture was by far the biggest polluter. Of the 4.2 million pounds of nitrogen listed as the baseline annual “starting load,” 2.1 million pounds originated from agriculture. Natural lands contributed the second-largest starting load, at just 798,161 pounds; both Martin County and the City of Port St. Lucie contributed less than 500,000 pounds.

In terms of the total phosphorus starting load, it was even more lopsided: agriculture was deemed to contribute 56 percent of the TP (472,423 lbs. Of the 839,126 total).

And the BMAP called for the biggest polluters to make the biggest nutrient reductions: agriculture was to cut total nitrogen by 884,700 lbs/year (out of a total 125 million lbs./year reduction for all contributors), and total phosphorus by 284,285 lbs/year (out of a total reduction of 407,980 lbs./year).

Same story with the Caloosahatchee BMAP — in all three sub-watersheds analyzed (East Caloosahatchee, Tidal Caloosahatchee, West Caloosahatchee), agriculture was deemed the biggest source of both TN and TP. And in terms of reduction, agriculture was on the hook for 78% of the total TN reduction called for; and 91 percent of the TP reduction.

As noted, this is not the case in each of the state’s 38 adopted BMAPs. In some areas, agricultural pollution — farm fertilizer, livestock waste — is a minor contributor; urban runoff, septic systems and other sources contribute more nutrients to the watershed.

But in the Central Indian River Lagoon, at DeLeon Spring, in the Homosassa and Chassahowitzka Springs Group, in Middle St. John River Basin, at Lake Jesup, the Suwanee River and many more, agriculture plays a major role.

So when asked by legislators what the major source of pollution in Florida’s waters are, Blalock might have truthfully said: One of the biggest polluters is agriculture.

That he didn’t speaks volumes.

Big Agriculture wields a tremendous amount of political clout in Florida and often receives kid-glove treatment from regulators. Case in point would be the “presumption of compliance” afforded to agricultural producers who adopt Best Management Practices, or BMPs. These practices and the nutrient reductions they are expected to achieve play a major role in the BMAPs; but farmers who adopt them are presumed to be in compliance, presumed to be hitting those pollution reduction targets; the state does not systematically check to see if those assumptions are accurate.

The state, then, incorporates those projections, rather than actual data, into its calculations as to how pollution is being reduced in any given BMAP. As Treasure Coast Newspapers/TCPalm reported as part of its landmark 2022 investigation into BMAPs, this paints a rosy picture:

“DEP historically touts progress that often doesn’t match reality because it uses models to give credit for pollution-reduction measures — from reservoirs to informational brochures — assuming they produce intended results,” according to the report. “DEP’s resulting graphics, used in public presentations, show progress is being made.”

But when TCPalm crunched actual data from the South Florida Water Management District, they determined “that Florida’s flagship program to reduce water pollution isn’t working.”

Looks great, but not good enough

On March 6, FDEP provided its latest 5-year update on the St. Lucie River and Estuary BMAP; unsurprisingly, the report was optimistic; 308 projects have been completed, according to the presentation, and it looks the pollution load is being reduced by leaps and bounds:

But remember, this is based in large part on modeled data, not actual data.

And even so, presenters suggested they might not hit the pollution reduction milestones by 2028, as required in the original BMAP; instead, officials may extend the deadline by another five years.

So even with best-case modeled data, the St. Lucie BMAP isn’t hitting its target. And as TCPalm documented, enforcement is practically non-existent.

To change this — and to perhaps make more progress based on actual data — Florida should eliminate the presumption of compliance for producers who enroll in best management practices, and expand testing.

It’s just one step among many needed to clean up our waterways, and it’s no panacea. State officials say most farms in BMAP areas have adopted best management practices, as required by law; but if the BMAPs aren’t hitting their pollution reduction targets, it suggests BMPs may not be delivering all the benefits we’re expecting.

But testing to see if our presumptions are correct — and then having actual data versus rosy modeling projections — could be a first necessary step on the road to acknowledging the scope of the problem — and who’s responsible for it.