Water Quality Standards Needed to Protect Coastal Estuaries

ABOVE: Recent capture of a widespread bloom in Lake Okeechobee near Clewiston. Image by Ralph Arwood of LightHawk Conservation Flying, shared first on Facebook by the Caloosahatchee Waterkeeper.

Congressman Byron Donalds should be commended for recently filing a bill requiring that the federal government continue to monitor our waterways for harmful algae blooms, even in the event of a government shutdown. Continuous monitoring of the presence of red tide and blue-green algae is important to inform the public of potential health and safety risks.

Unfortunately, there is no threshold that the federal or state government have established for harmful levels of cyanobacteria in blue-green algae or specific focus on managing the source of nutrients that increases the frequency and duration of harmful algae blooms. Our congressional and state delegations should be working with the Department of Health and Human Services, the Florida Department of Health and its local county offices, and the World Health Organization to establish standards for cyanobacteria to protect our waterways from toxic levels that are a persistent threat to the public, fish and wildlife.

Our coastal communities on the west and east coast of south Florida will continue to experience devastating impacts to our economy and coastal estuaries until there is meaningful effort to control the discharge of excessive nutrients and rate of flow from Lake Okeechobee. An extensive source of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen is from the sugarcane fields in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA).

The South Florida Water Management District manages the water level in the EAA at 18 to 24 inches below ground, regardless of annual rainfall fluctuations, to optimize growing conditions for sugarcane to the detriment of the entire south Florida ecosystem.

The sugarcane industry has not been able to comply with federal limits that established the level of phosphorus permitted to flow to the Everglades, and during the wet season, relies on the SFWMD to back pump polluted water from the vast expanse of sugarcane fields in the EAA into Lake Okeechobee. Unfortunately, the water back pumped into Lake Okeechobee from the sugarcane fields is a toxic brew of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that ultimately flows down the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie into our vulnerable coastal estuaries.

There are no numeric nutrient standards for water back pumped from the EAA into Lake Okeechobee. Measurable levels of potential toxins that pose a threat to our waterways is of paramount importance to ensure health and safety compliance and restoration of our coastal estuaries.

Congressman Donalds’ and his congressional colleagues could really make a meaningful difference in moving forward on restoration of our coastal estuaries by demanding that the Environmental Protection Agency establish water quality standards for water back pumped from the EAA into Lake Okeechobee.

Ray Judah
President, Bullsugar.org