Tallahassee — Water pollution in Florida’s Lake Okeechobee has reached new record levels and threatens to get worse, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency figures jointly released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Council of Civic Associations, Inc. The key pollutant, phosphorus, has approximately doubled in Lake Okeechobee over the past decade and is now at a level four times the legal limit, making prospects for restoring the Everglades remote.
In a September 8, 2009 e-mail circulated to state and federal officials working on Everglades restoration issues, EPA official Eric Hughes summarized the latest “Total Phosphorus” data for Lake Okeechobee:
- Current levels are “approximately 4 times” the legal maximum level of phosphorus for the 730-square mile lake. The phosphorus figures would have been worse except that “two consecutive ‘dry’ hydrological yrs (2007 & 2008 water years)” slightly depressed the rate of increase;
- In the 2009 period, an estimated 656 tons of phosphorus will be added to Lake Okeechobee, the highest pollution level ever recorded in the nation’s fourth largest lake; and
- Phosphorus levels have steadily worsened in Lake Okeechobee, with the current five year pollution average more than three times the first recorded five year average in the late 1970’s.
“There is a 300 square mile ‘muck zone’ on the bottom of Lake Okeechobee containing 100 tons of phosphorus for which there is no clean-up plan,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former water enforcement attorney with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “No wonder Lake Okeechobee is like the elephant in the living room that everyone absolutely dreads discussing.”
Florida is legally committed to reaching a maximum limit of 140 tons of phosphorus per year (compared with the current 572 ton-per-year average) in Lake Okeechobee by 2015, a mandate that now seems impossible. At the same time, a series of federal court decisions have excoriated EPA’s lack of oversight for failing to enforce Clean Water Act protections in the Sunshine State.
“The Everglades cannot be restored until Lake Okeechobee is cleaned up because we cannot pump dirty water through the national park,” said Civic Council Association President Ann Hauck. “Billions of dollars of taxpayer funds have been wasted on a restoration plan that is not restoring anything.”
When the nutrient-laden waters of Lake Okeechobee are diverted to protect the Everglades, algal blooms result in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, causing devastating losses for both local fishing and tourism industries.
“Lake O is being run like a giant algal bloom assembly line,” Phillips added, noting that both PEER and the Council of Civic Associations have been calling for an investigation of the utter breakdown in EPA management and enforcement. “EPA needs to clean house in its Atlanta regional office and bring in some folks who know what they are doing.”