Florida’s Algae Blooms and Red Tide are not Caused by Sugarcane Farms
The algae and red tide blooming along Florida’s coastal waterways are concerning to everyone, including those of us in agriculture. It is understandable that many Floridians are upset and are anxious for answers.
Misinformation is being circulated, especially on social media, that erroneously points to sugarcane farmers, south of Lake Okeechobee, as the cause of these ecological problems.
Our farming region, the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), is the most environmentally sustainable farming basin in the nation and does not contribute to algae or red tide in Florida’s coastal waterways.
The fallacy that farms located south of the lake cause algae or red tide on the coasts that are northeast and northwest of our farms ignores the topography and flow of water in this region of the state. Simply put, water flows south from Orlando into Lake Okeechobee; lake water flows south to our farms, and our water flows south to the Everglades.
The areas experiencing the algal blooms are northeast and northwest of our farming region. The water in those areas simply does not come from our EAA farming basin.
1. Why do Lake Okeechobee discharges take place?
Beginning in Orlando, water and nutrients flow south unrestrained through the Kissimmee River and other tributaries into Lake Okeechobee. That equates to water from a 5,000 square-mile area flowing unrestricted into the 730 square-mile Lake Okeechobee.
Water enters Lake Okeechobee from the northern basin 6 times faster than it can be released south, east and west.
Lake Okeechobee water is sent south year-round, through our farming basin to the Everglades. But, when the lake rises too quickly, discharges are also made to the coasts.
2. Do sugarcane farms in the EAA “back pump” their water into Lake Okeechobee?
Farmers have no ability to pump water into Lake Okeechobee. Farmers do not back pump. Further, zero water has been back pumped from the southern basin into the lake this year. The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) sometimes pumps water into the lake from the southern basin as part of its flood-control responsibilities for the health and safety of the tens of thousands of citizens in the Glades communities, who have a right to the same services as residents of coastal and urban communities.
3. Where does the water come from on the east and west coasts where algae blooms are occurring?
The majority of the water and nutrients in the St. Lucie River and Estuary, east of Lake Okeechobee, as well as a majority of the water and nutrients in the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary, west of Lake Okeechobee, are from local runoff from those communities, according to data from SFWMD. No water from our farms, south of the lake, goes to those basins.
4. Why are algae blooms prevalent in those areas?
While it is true that the lake has algae blooms, the coastal estuaries also experience blooms even when discharges from Lake Okeechobee are not occurring due to the high level of nutrients in their local basins. To put it in perspective, in the 5-year period ending in 2017, 74% of the water in the St. Lucie basin was from local runoff, but local runoff contributed 83% of the phosphorus in the water at phosphorus concentrations of 248 parts per billion (ppb). As a comparison, the lake contributed 26% of the water to the St. Lucie basin during the same period, but only 17% of the phosphorus at 150 ppb.
For the Caloosahatchee basin: 65% of the water and 72% of the phosphorus, at a concentration of 212 ppb, came from the local basin. The lake contributed 35% of the flow but only 28% of the phosphorus at a concentration of 83 ppb.
Heavy freshwater inflows from rainfall flush nutrients and other waste from local basins into the rivers and estuaries. When nutrients are present in the water, algal blooms are more prevalent. University research studies have shown nutrients from human waste and runoff are a major issue in Martin County, as more than 20,000 septic tanks are in use along its waterways and leach nutrients into the water when it rains. Algae consume those nutrients as food and the blooms worsen.
5. How much water is discharged south of Lake Okeechobee?
While some claim water is not currently being sent south, the fact is lake water is sent south year round. In fact, 41% of the water this year has been sent south from Lake Okeechobee compared to 15% that has been discharged to the east. Incidentally, we do not have an algae problem on our farms.
6. What can be done to prevent algae and curb discharges?
Comprehensive solutions must be implemented to preserve Florida’s waterways. We have a long track record of supporting plans that will help restore Lake Okeechobee and the coastal waterways.
We are steadfast advocates of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). Solutions to the coastal discharges have been part of CERP for nearly 20 years, with the most effective options being to store and treat the water north of the lake, where it originates, before it pollutes the lake. After being put on hold for a decade (2006-2016), the Army Corps of Engineers and the SFWMD now have a plan, which was released for public input this month. The tentatively selected plan has been shown to reduce discharges to the estuaries by nearly 60%.
CERP also includes water storage and treatment projects in the local coastal basins that will provide additional aid to the rivers and estuaries by holding and cleaning local runoff.
We also support and advocate for the implementation of recommendations from scientific studies that have found septic tanks to be the main cause of local pollution in the St. Lucie River and Estuary and the need to convert to centralized sewer systems with proper wastewater treatment to restore the waterways. The Glades communities, south of Lake Okeechobee, converted many years ago to conserve the local area.
7. Do we need more storage south of Lake Okeechobee?
Unlike the misinformation circulating, storage solutions south of the lake are currently moving forward and EAA farmers supported those projects, as they were part of the comprehensive blueprint of CERP.
In fact, just two years ago, we supported Congressional authorization of the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP), which will convert nearly 18,000 acres of land we now farm into another water-storage area in our EAA farming basin. To date, EAA farmers have given up more than 100,000 acres of productive farmland that has been converted or is currently being converted to restoration projects.
Last year, the Florida Legislature passed a plan that will build a deep-water reservoir on this site allowing the diversion of more than 300,000 acre-feet per year from Lake Okeechobee south to the Everglades, in addition to the water that already moves south. That plan is currently moving forward in Congress and is scheduled to be considered in the fall of 2018. We have supported Congressional approval of this plan.
Finally, state experts and federal agencies have researched and developed many additional plans and solutions to address the volume of water rushing into Lake Okeechobee from the north, including storage wells that modeling shows can curb discharges. We urge our elected leaders to fund and build these projects.
Did Lake Okeechobee discharges cause the red tide that is killing marine life on the west coast?
Red tide off the west coast of Florida is not connected to Lake Okeechobee discharges or sugarcane farming. Scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory, who are experts in the field, report: “Florida red tides develop 10-40 miles offshore, away from man-made nutrient sources. Red tides occurred in Florida long before human settlement, and severe red tides were observed in the mid-1900s before the state’s coastlines were heavily developed. However, once red tides are transported inshore, they are capable of using man-made nutrients for their growth.
Restoration South of Lake Okeechobee – Successfully Sending Clean Water to the Everglades
Our EAA farming basin is proof of the restoration success that can be achieved when local communities work with scientists and state and federal partners to implement these types of restoration plans. For example, as part of the Everglades Forever Act, EAA farmers have implemented on-farm Best Management Practices (BMPs) that have helped our region achieve the state’s water-quality goal – the strictest in the nation – for the past 23 years. Farmers have reduced phosphorus in the water by an annual average of 57% over that time. We are proud of our record as partners in environmental preservation. Because our basin is highly regulated and monitored by the State of Florida, through the South Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the quality of our water is documented and without question.
Further investments in Sustainable Agriculture
We are proud of the way our company operates and our dedicated team that protects the environment day to day while also producing food products to feed the nation. Further to our restoration success, we have also pioneered and implemented the latest advances in technology on our farms to collect, analyze and use data to help us farm more efficiently and continue to preserve our environment.