Water Managers Question Everglades Cleanup Standard
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. _ In the midst of pushing for a $1.75 billion land deal to boost Everglades restoration, South Florida water managers on Wednesday suggested lessening the cleanup requirement that guides work to fix the River of Grass.
Trying to clean water by building filter marshes on phosphorus-rich farmland hasn’t gotten the water quality to levels set after years of legal wrangling, according to the South Florida Water Management District.
Now, with the district angling to buy out U.S. Sugar and use the company’s 187,000 acres of farmland to recreate the connection between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, some of the agency’s top officials on Wednesday said the phosphorus cleanup goal is unrealistic.
“That seems to be an unreal, impossible goal to get to,” said Patrick Rooney Jr., who represents Palm Beach County on the nine-member board appointed by the governor.
The state already has spent more than $1 billion trying to meet the phosphorus standard.
Board member Charles Dauray questioned whether water in a baptismal font would be considered clean enough to meet the standard.
“How do we get out of the corner that we are in?” asked Dauray, who represents Southwest Florida.
The district should focus on getting better at cleaning water, not easing standards, said Charles Lee, senior vice president of Florida Audubon. Getting the U.S. Sugar land to store and clean water should help, he said.
“Audubon and many others fought for more than a decade to set … the only scientifically defensible standard,” Lee said. “I would vehemently disagree with the premise that the standard can’t be met.”
To settle lingering environmental lawsuits over the quality of water flowing to the Everglades, a federal and state agreement in 1992 called for cutting phosphorus to 10 parts per billion.
Phosphorus comes from fertilizer as well as the natural decay of soil on hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural fields from north of Lake Okeechobee to the edge of the Everglades.
Storm water that drains off the land carries phosphorus south, fueling the growth of cattails that squeeze out sawgrass and other native vegetation vital to the health of the Everglades.
New farming practices helped cut phosphorus flowing to the Everglades. The district also has built about 50,000 acres of filter marshes south of Lake Okeechobee, using plants to absorb phosphorus before it gets to the Everglades.
Water that sometimes comes in with 100 to 200 parts per billion of phosphorus can leave the treatment areas with 15 to 50 parts per billion, according to the district. So far, it hasn’t met the 10 parts per billion standard.
“It’s never going to happen,” said district board member Michael Collins, who lives in the Keys. “Somebody is going to have to get some realism into the discussion.”
It can work if the state uses the U.S. Sugar land to enlarge stormwater treatment areas and to store more of water, Lee said. Now, too much water rushes through the filter marshes too fast to meet the cleanup standards, he said. “The U.S. Sugar deal just changes the whole potential,” Lee said.
The district board on June 30 authorized moving ahead with negotiations with U.S. Sugar for the buyout. A report on the long-term cleanup plan is due in December.
Using expensive chemical treatments and exploring other biological techniques are among the alternatives if the filter marshes don’t work.
“The requirement doesn’t go away,” said Chip Merriam, the district’s deputy executive director.
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