Report: Half of Florida lakes’ surface have ‘elevated’ algae levels

By Jim Waymer
August 5, 2016
Florida Today

Florida waters are growing Should Florida ‘frack’ its limestone for oil and gas? Two geophysicists weigh ingreener, saltier and more toxic in some parts, according to a new report on the state’s waters.

The report from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection shows a mixed bag for the state’s waters, with many trending toward more-frequent toxic algae blooms, fueled by rising nitrates from farm and residential fertilizers, sewage, pet waste and other human-related sources.

While the state has made some progress reducing nitrogen and phosphorus into state waters, conservationists say the reductions haven’t been fast enough to stop recent algae explosions. And as Florida’s population grows, so does the challenge of keeping the state’s waters clean, they say.

“What’s happening in the state of Florida today should be a wakeup call for us all,” said Lisa Rinaman, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, the chief public advocate for the river. “It’s not just an environmental issue, it’s an economic issue. It’s much more cost-effective to stop pollution at its source.”

This week, tests commissioned by Rinaman’s nonprofit group found microcystin — the same blue-green algae toxin recently fouling coastal waters on the Treasure Coast — at more than 120 times health guidelines off a dock in Doctors Lake, an outcropping of the St. Johns River, just south of Jacksonville.

Sometimes, Willie Lorton of Melbourne sees fishing in Lake Washington as pointless. He used to fish on Lake Washington all the time. Now he might go out once or twice a month just to keep his boat motor running.

“This lake isn’t what it used to be, used to be good fishing,” he said as he pulled his boat up on a trailer at the lake’s dock Thursday morning.

This day, he only caught two little bass.

DEP’s new report, called the 2016 Integrated Water Quality Assessment for Florida, spells out why these kinds of toxic algae blooms keep happening, and why some Florida well water is turning saltier and less healthy to drink. The report outlines the overall condition of Florida’s surface and ground water from 2012 to 2014. The Clean Water Act requires states submit the reports to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency every two years, including which waters don’t meet pollution limits.

Key findings of Florida’s 2016 integrated report include:

•One hallmark of algae is elevated in 50 percent of the state’s lake area.

•Nitrates remain the biggest issue in surface waters that get significant inputs of groundwater, especially springs.

•Increasing trends in salt-water intrusion and nitrate and nitrite in groundwater.

•Almost 70 percent of the 2.9 million acres Florida’s lakes and estuaries DEP assessed were “impaired.”

“As far as water quality, much of it looks the same as it has in previous years,” said Julie Espy, program administrator for DEP’s water quality assessment program.

But the rise in nitrogen and phosphorus continues to worsen in many Florida waters, DEP’s report found, especially some of the smaller lakes that get less attention than Lake Okeechobee and other larger waterbodies.

Median levels of nitrate in Florida’s groundwater have increased to more than 1 milligram per liter, 5 times the levels prior to the 1970s, causing many to clog up with plants. As late as the 1980s, median nitrate levels in the state’s groundwater were only .05 milligrams per liter.

Farm and residential fertilizers, sewage and population growth have fed those increases.

Chlorophyll a

This year’s report is the first to use recently approved criteria to estimate percentages of surface waters that are impaired. Those criteria show “nutrient enrichment is extensive” for nitrogen and phosphorus in the state’s surface waters.

That helped set the stage for severe algae blooms in Indian River Lagoon, the St. Lucie River and elsewhere in Florida.

DEP’s report showed roughly 50 percent of Florida’s lake area may have elevated levels of chlorophyll a, indicating algae fed by nitrogen and phosphorus from human activities.

The report found that 70 percent of the state’s 27,561 miles of rivers and streams “can sustain healthy aquatic life,” based on the levels of nitrogen in the water, and 80 percent can based on the phosphorus levels.

“Certainly, certain areas of the St. Johns are getting better,” Espy said. “We’re not seeing wide change, but we are seeing some improvements in nutrients and dissolved oxygen.”

But those improvements haven’t been enough to prevent recent algae outbreaks. This week, St. Johns Riverkeeper’s tests in Doctors Lake — an outcrop of the St. Johns River just south of Jacksonville —found a toxin called microcystin at 120 times health guidelines. A blue-green algae toxin, microcystin is linked with short and long-term health risks. It’s toxic to fish, plants, invertebrates and mammals, including humans and can magnify in mussels, crayfish, fish and crops irrigated with contaminated water.

The World Health Organization recommends drinking water not exceed 1 part per billion and 20 parts per billion for swimming and other recreation. Riverkeepers four tests came in at an average of 2,473 parts per billion.

Groundwater

Overall, DEP’s report found the water quality of potable aquifers was good for the contaminants evaluated by the its monitoring networks. But from 2012 to 2014, total coliform bacteria and sodium met standards less frequently (85 percent and 86 percent of the samples statewide, respectively). Metals and nitrate met standards in almost all samples.

For ground water, wells that showed trends indicated increasing trends for saltwater intrusion.

“We are seeing some encroachment from saltwater indicators along the coastline, but other than that the groundwater is in good shape,” Espy said.

Nitrate remains the biggest issue in surface waters that get significant inputs of groundwater, because of the excessive algae growth it can cause that can impair clear waters, especially springs.

“I think what it really points out is that we need to do more restoration,” Espy said.

Among other actions, the report cites DEP plans to take the following actions:

•Continue to monitor and investigate increased nitrate levels in springs that can result in the overgrowth of toxic blue-green algae and other aquatic plants, as well as saltwater and freshwater harmful algal blooms;

•Promote low-impact development and practices such as green roofs, pervious pavements and stormwater harvesting;

• Implement numeric nutrient criteria to address excess nitrogen and phosphorus in surface water from sources such as septic tanks, runoff, livestock waste, and increased fertilizer use on farm and urban landscapes;

But government does not regulate many of the actions that cause runoff pollution. So the report also calls for more “public education, cultural change and personal stewardship.”

“A simple example is controlling pet wastes, which can add nutrients and fecal bacteria to the landscape that are washed off with each rainstorm. Picking up and properly disposing of pet waste is essential to preventing this source of ‘pointless personal pollution.’ ”

Contact Waymer at 321-242-3663 or jwaymer@floridatoday.com Follow him on Twitter@JWayEnviro and at facebook.com/jim.waymer

Water by the numbers

Florida encompasses an area of more than 45 million acres includes:

•27,561 linear miles of rivers and streams;

•47,708 linear miles of canals and ditches;

•1.6 million acres of lakes, reservoirs, and ponds;

•1.7 million acres of estuaries and coastal waters;

•More than 1,000 springs

Florida’s 2016 Integrated water assessment identified the following waters too polluted to meet designated uses for drinking supply, shellfish harvest or swimming:

•9,642 miles of rivers and streams;

•33,655 miles of canals;

•1 million acres of lakes;

•993,581 acres of estuaries;

•589 miles of coastal waters;

•620 springs.

•87 beaches

Growing water demand

In 1950, Florida’s 2.8 million residents used about 1.5 billion gallons per day of fresh ground water and surface water. By 2005, that grew to almost 7 billion gallons per day (62 percent ground water; 38 percent surface water), the report said, and water consumption is projected to increase to 9.3 billion gallons per day by 2020.

Source: Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Final 2016 Integrated Water Quality Assessment for Florida, June 2016

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