OP ED: Wading Through the Muck

Water storage and treatment areas in the Kissimmee area. Photos supplied by One Florida Foundation.
Water storage and treatment areas in the Kissimmee area. Photos supplied by One Florida Foundation.

By:  Capt. Donald Voss, Director, One Florida Foundation, Inc.

There is a load of information out there about the water problems of Central Florida.  In the April 2016 edition of Coastal Angler Magazine, I tried to lay out the basic landscape of the issues.  Now, I would like to expand some.  There are a number of viewpoints about solutions.

What is the goal?  One Florida Foundation, Inc. was formed as a direct result of the ‘Lost Summer’ discharges of 2013.  We were tasked with researching any viable avenue to stop the discharges. In that vein, we did so.  As I stated in March, to relieve pressure on the Lake, we spoke of diverse water storage as a possible solution.

Another important issue with any water moving south is nutrient rich levels in the water.  Water flowing south cannot exceed a phosphorus level of ten parts per billion by court mandate.  With that as a boundary, One Florida Foundation, Inc. has determined through research and interviews with stakeholders, that pollution begins at the headwaters and builds as it moves south, therefore, pollution must be addressed at the point source and as it flows to better prepare the final cleansing moving south from the Lake.

Additionally, as recent occurrences indicate, there is a huge septic leakage issue all along the estuary, the tributaries and the entire Kissimmee Basin.  These systems are, based on published scientific reports, improperly installed.  To be specific, researchers, trying to bypass the confusion of DNA testing and results skewed by rainfall, instead looked for coffee sweetener, sucralose in groundwater and the estuary.  Cows and chickens do not use coffee sweetener, therefore, any such findings would have to be human septic leakages.  It was determined that septic overflows and leakages are a major contributor to the pollution in our waterways and therefore need to be addressed.  A working septic system needs to have 48 inches below the leach field to the top of the ground water.  The average along our estuary and Kissimmee Basin is 6 inches.  A serious effort needs to begin to switch over as many septic systems to sewer as well as to upgrade an aging cast iron and Orangeburg piping system that most certainly is in need of attention.

One thing has proven true in this water issue struggle.  There is no one simple answer to the 100 years of abuse, over fertilizing, careless herbicide use, a build-up of legacy chemicals, pharmaceutical flushing by hospitals and medical facilities and countless other poisons and toxic chemicals carelessly released.  And try as some might, water flows south as does pollution. There are, for flood protection regulations, back-pumping for fields south of Lake Okeechobee, for instance as occurred this January. That amount was around 96,000 acre feet of water and took three days. Hardly as significant as the 160-plus days of discharges we are currently enduring.

Understandably, clean water does not solve all of the issues of discharges east and west because although pollution is a major contributor to harmful algae blooms (HABs), reduced salinity below a factor of 10 exceeding 20 days kills oyster beds and seagrass fields.  Although, people would not be banned from swimming or fishing and the water would not be as putrid looking and smelling, that is a small plus.  The same putrid water flows in and out of Fort Pierce’s Taylor Creek with every tide, 365 days a year, but there are no HABs and citizens swim and fish and play year round.

So, if communities would address septic and sewer issues locally as did the small town of Pahokee, that sits next to Lake Okeechobee, while the federal and state projects move to completion and dispersed water storage concepts around the Lake are employed, by 2035 things could be in far better shape than now and discharges as we know them could cease.

If someone says there is just ONE FIX, please understand, they have an agenda not necessarily placing our natural resources and the future of our Everglades first. Not one single Florida elected official has presented any proposal to buy land south of the Lake to store and clean water.  As with any school child, procrastination is the root of failure. It allows no time to adjust for miscalculations. Just look at BP and all of the assurances offered to protect the Gulf waters and yet, storage around the Lake offers significant backup opportunities.  Cleaning the water is the healthy option.  And, clean water means cleaned of all harmful pollution.  You cannot just restore a flow without restoring water quality.

Reduce the flow; clean the water at the source and as it flows; and send the necessary clean water south.