Everglades photo

Local officials laud South Florida Water Management District’s commitment to increased monitoring

WEST PALM BEACH – The South Florida Water Management District announced Aug. 8 that it will significantly ramp up water quality monitoring efforts within the Northern Everglades watersheds and Lake Okeechobee. 

Currently the District samples water quality once a month from 151 monitoring stations scattered across an 8,600-square-mile drainage area that also serves as the headwaters of the Everglades. The SFWMD Governing Board’s recent decision will raise the number of monitoring stations to 243 across the nearly 5.5-million-acre region and increase water sampling to twice monthly. Its members also expanded the parameters of what water quality indicators District scientists measure, which will now include tracking nitrogen at previously uncollected sites, along with tracking water temperature and dissolved oxygen.

Water Management District Governing Board Chairman Chauncey Goss credited the renewed water quality push to both his fellow Board members and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “ambitious effort to improve water quality in the Everglades.”

“More scientific data leads to better decisions and helps us achieve more now for Florida's environment,” he said. “That is why we are investing in a robust scientific monitoring infrastructure, so we can have the most complete picture possible of the health of this great ecosystem to make the best possible decisions to restore and protect it.”

The St. Lucie Watershed will be home to 15 of the new monitoring sites, some of which will measure the local runoff from basins previously unmonitored by the Water Management District such as the C-23, C-24 and C-44 canals. Those particular waterways have borne a significant amount of the nutrient load – and occasionally masses of frequently toxic blue-green – that have clogged up the St. Lucie Estuary. Another 15 of the new monitoring stations will be placed in the Caloosahatchee Estuary on the west coast, another area that has suffered extensively from the algae invasions over the last few years. Thirty-seven of the new sites will be placed in the 3.5 million-acre watershed north of Lake Okeechobee that many blame for the nutrient load entering the lake to begin with.

Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, a former Sewall’s Point mayor and commissioner who Gov. Desantis appointed to the SFWMD Board last February, also credited her fellow Board members for ramping up the District’s water quality monitoring efforts.

“We did this by giving SFWMD staff direction to implement Governor DeSantis’ Executive Order 19-12 that calls for all things to be put into place that will lessen/stop the toxic blue-green algae outbreaks in the St Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries,” she said. “As we know, in recent years, toxic algae has been coming from Lake Okeechobee. 2019 has not been toxic as the Army Corps of Engineers has not been discharging from the lake. Our St Lucie River is impaired, but the lake releases are the source of the Cyanobacteria toxic algae blooms.”

The City of Stuart’s perch on the banks of the St. Lucie River has seen blue-green invasions of algae choking its picturesque canals and expensive marinas more than once over the last few years. Stuart Mayor Becky Bruner has high hopes for the new focus on increased monitoring but believes more needs to be done to hold water polluters accountable.

“More monitoring can pinpoint the amount of pollution in each area and how can we solve that area’s pollution,” she said. “I want to see all stakeholders working together monitoring north, south, east and west of Lake O and come up with stricter and stronger laws if you’re the polluter. We need to get out of the problem and get into solutions.”

Her counterpart on Florida’s west coast, Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane, actually visited Stuart a couple years ago during the height of a blue-green algae crisis to share his city’s struggle during a massive protest meeting at City Hall. He shares Mayor Bruner’s hope for improved water quality resulting from the increased monitoring push.

“The City of Sanibel commends the SFWMD for expeditiously implementing the water quality measures outlined in Governor DeSantis’ Executive Order 19-12,” he said. “The expansion of water quality monitoring within Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee, St. Lucie and Lake Okeechobee watersheds is critical for assessing and solving our water quality problems in South Florida.”

Rae Ann Wessel, the natural resource policy director of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, is another voice from the west coast that wholeheartedly backs the latest District measures.

“We are glad to support the South Florida Water Management District's bold expansion of water quality monitoring stations and increased nutrient sampling throughout the Caloosahatchee, Lake Okeechobee and St. Lucie watersheds,” she said. “This data is absolutely critical to understand where nutrients are flowing into our water so the District can design and apply solutions in the right places to achieve the highest benefit at the best cost.”

Back on the east coast, Florida Oceanographic Society Executive Director Mark Perry has frequently addressed the nutrient loading problems of the St. Lucie River locally and concurs with the sentiments expressed by Mayor Ruane and his environmental counterpart from the opposite side of the state.

“I applaud this action by the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board,” he said. “Florida's coastal ecosystems are an incredible natural treasure, and today's move to increase water quality monitoring gives water managers the tools to make better decisions based on science.”

Stuart City Commissioner Merritt Matheson said he’s attended several of the recent workshops conducted by the Water Management District and left “impressed” by the new board members’ “clear focus on the ecology of the Northern Everglades and estuaries such as the St Lucie and Caloosahatchee.”

“The increased monitoring and sampling is a step in the right direction,” he said. “I fully support the Army Corps of Engineers and in their decision to use their discretion to lower the level of the lake prior to the summer rainy season. This lowering allows the lakes grass beds to rejuvenate, and in turn, improve water quality. The added benefit is more capacity in the lake prior to the need for unnatural discharges into the St Lucie Estuary.”

His fellow Stuart Commissioner Mike Meier agrees.

“The more data we are armed with, the better we’ll be able to make decisions about lake management and local watershed management,” he said. “And with increasing federal and state attention on the human health and ecological effects of harmful algal blooms, more data will also make us more eligible for federal and state assistance and funding.”

Martin County Commission Chairman Ed Ciampi called the Aug. 8 announcement a “welcome addition” to the collaborative efforts of the District and other organizations through the watershed.

“The more information on what is in the water and where the sources are located, the better,” he said. “This additional information will help us figure out how to stop it. This is a large long-term problem with many different contributing factors, which requires a vast amount of possible solutions.”

Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein lauded the work of both Gov. DeSantis and the SFWMD.

“As part of these efforts, we are working to expand Florida's water quality monitoring network,” he said. “The work that South Florida Water Management is doing complements the increased monitoring efforts that we are implementing at DEP. Our collaboration and joint efforts will ensure that measures taken to protect and improve water quality and reduce harmful algal blooms are working.”

Back in Martin County, Ms. Thurlow-Lippisch insists that much more can be done on the local level to improve water quality.

“I think we can help improve Martin County’s water quality by paying attention to the new monitoring system and addressing the hot spots it reveals first,” she said. “Also, at all times we should try to put more native and Florida-friendly plants in our yards lessening turf grass that requires lots of water and fertilizer. We should never fertilize during hurricane season. Until we can get grants in place to change out our septic tanks that are close to watersheds and rivers, we should get our systems checked once a year to make sure they are working properly. Last, we should all be aware that everything that is in storm water runs to the river, so live as clean as possible and never pour oil or put trash into the drainage system.”

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