Earthjustice today announced that as a result of a settlement agreement with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, there will be a 70 percent reduction of phosphorus pollution permitted into Lake Okeechobee in Okeechobee County, Florida. Today’s announcement is the culmination of a four-year effort by Earthjustice on behalf of Florida Wildlife Federation and National Wildlife Federation to clean up and improve water quality in Lake Okeechobee.
“This is excellent science by the Department of Environmental Protection and it’s a milestone toward protecting the lake,” said David Guest, lead attorney for Earthjustice. “For years now, there’s been almost 400 tons annually of phosphorus being absorbed into this most vital lake. It’s been much too much for the lake to handle, and it has been slowly dying. Because it is such an important body of water for all Floridians, what we’ve accomplished here today is huge.”
Today’s agreement set new guidelines for phosphorus intrusion into the lake. While current absorption ranges from 350 to 400 tons annually, the new standards will be set at 140 tons. Included in that figure is 35 tons that may enter the lake from the atmosphere, thereby leaving only 105 tons annually that can enter the lake from ground sources. The Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the lake will be 40 parts per billion, also a considerable reduction. Conservationists hail this as a tremendous victory in the effort to revitalize the lake.
Cattle operations in and around Okeechobee County are the main source of pollution flowing into the lake. The contaminants enter the lake through water control structures such as canals and pumping stations managed by the South Florida Water Management District. Those structures drain a watershed containing numerous feed lot dairy operations and tens of thousands of acres of fertilized pastures, all of which contribute to the immense volume of phosphorus currently in the lake.
“We’ve definitely taken a step in the right direction,” said Manley Fuller of the Florida Wildlife Federation. “But as the headwaters for the Everglades, and as important as this body of water is to all of South Florida, there is much more that needs to be done. It’s fantastic that we’re able to prevent massive amounts of pollution from entering the lake in the future, but now we need to focus our efforts toward cleaning up the contamination that is in there now.”
Since 1976, when cattle operations first flourished in the immediate area, there has been a tremendous decline in the populations of several fish and bird species, including largemouth bass, crappie and most wading birds. The lake is so polluted, in fact, that a good portion of its pollution cycle is internal, coming from recycling of phosphorus within the lake. This excessive nutrient loading poses a potential threat to the lake’s ecosystem, were a toxic algal bloom to occur.
“It’s way past time that the Department of Environmental Protection did something about this critical problem. I’m glad that we’ve got to this point, but now the agency needs to dredge the lake and rid the ecosystem of as much of it pollutant load as possible,” concluded Guest.