Fieldwork is running just under the 5-year average as farmers dodge raindrops and wait for floodwaters to recede. Inevitably, nitrate levels will rise in nearby rivers and streams as water runs off farm fields AND front lawns.

In places like Florida, high phosphorus levels from ALL sources have been wreaking havoc on the environment and putting a drag on tourism - the Sunshine state’s number one industry. Farmers may get the blame but city dwellers are being put under the same microscope.

Colleen Bradford Krantz has the details. 

Florida’s Indian River Lagoon, one of the country’s most biologically diverse waterways, is facing intense algae blooms resulting in fish kills and other ecological problems.

The suspected culprit: increased phosphorus runoff correlated with a population and construction boom in the surrounding southern Florida region.

The Indian River Lagoon runs 156 miles along Florida’s Atlantic Coast, a high-growth area in a state that has seen more than 1 million acres shift from agricultural use to urban development in 15 years. The lagoon has been repeatedly choked with oxygen-robbing algae fed by runoff from lawn and commercial fertilizer use, as well as other pollutants.

Bob Knight, environmental scientist, Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute: “It’s gotten much worse in the time I’ve been here.”

Paved-over expanses such as roads, driveways and parking lots have allowed runoff to make its way into the lagoon more easily. It has also been fouled by wastewater treatment plants that discharge into the lagoon, sewage spills from the plants during heavy rains, and leaky septic tanks.

Bob Knight, environmental scientist, Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute: “So all these land use changes result in more water use and usually more pollution.”

 

Although federal and state governments have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to heal the lagoon in recent years, an Associated Press examination found that pollution spiked, algae blooms spread and fish kills worsened over the past decade and a half as central Florida’s population swelled faster than that of anywhere else in the state.

Water quality data analyzed by the AP showed that the average level of phosphorus – a byproduct of fertilizers and human waste that algae thrive on – rose nearly 75 percent between 2000 and 2016. Average chlorophyll readings, used to measure the presence of algae, almost tripled.

According to the South Florida Water Management District, farmers further South in the 477,000 acre Everglades Agricultural Area have reduced phosphorus runoff levels by 27 percent in the past year. This exceeds the 25 percent cut mandated by the 1994 Everglades Forever Act. However, environmental groups continue to blame agriculture as a contributor to the problem.

The algae blooms often surround Capt. Rufus Wakeman's charter fishing boat at the dock. He says the sight is hurting tourism and fishing.

Rufus Wakeman, charter fish boat captain: "People are hearing about it all over the U.S. And they're spending their money other places, they're not coming here.”

Over the past two decades, the annual value of the clams, oysters, crabs and shrimp caught along the lagoon has plunged from $20 million to $4.3 million.

Rufus Wakeman, charter fish boat captain: "Our fishing guides, all my friends who are guides, they're not getting the amount of traffic that they used to get and it has taken its toll.”

Senator Bill Nelson is working on a partial solution. When Lake Okeechobee water levels get too high, dirty water is released into the lagoon- leading to many of the current issues.

Nelson is trying to secure funding to filter the lake water, and divert it to the south, into the Everglades.

Sen. Bill Nelson: "So, the idea is to cleanse that water as it comes south without putting it out east in the St. Lucie River and the Indian River Lagoon.”

Officials estimate it would cost billions of dollars and take decades to implement. But those who make their living on the water are unsure how much longer they can wait for change.

 

markettomarket@iptv.org