July 24, 2017
Nitrogen pollution focus of DEP meeting
Water quality scientists and government agencies will meet in Fort Myers Wednesday to talk about the ailing Caloosahatchee River and plans to rid the waterway of tons of nitrogen. More than 11 million pounds of nitrogen flow down the river each year, clouding waters and sometimes feeding algal blooms that can cause fish and marine mammal kills and beach closures.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is responsible for developing and executing a plan to clean up the river, and DEP will lead Wednesday's 10 a.m. meeting at the South Florida Water Management District office on McGregor Boulevard.
As dry season persists, Lake Okeechobee is extremely low
At the center of the meeting is pollution levels in the river that were adopted in 2009. From those rules came what's called a Basin Management Action Plan, or BMAP, a tool used to assess water quality conditions and make plans for cleaning up pollution like nitrogen.
"In the lower basin it's going to be getting our wastewater and storm water systems retrofitted, and even where we've got permits for discharge I think we really need to set a goal as a community to get off discharge all together," said Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers. "Some of that might require advanced wastewater treatment and might include deep well injection for large events — if you get a big storm, what is the better choice?"
The BMAP for the lower portion of the river was adopted in 2012, and the plan requires a review every five years. The meeting is part of the update process. The entire watershed includes the river from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico as well as 37 tributaries and discharging waterbodies. But this phase, which focuses on the lower portion of the river, only accounts for an estimated 15 percent of the nitrogen load. About 85 percent of the nitrogen comes from upstream of a water control structure called the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam near Olga.
Lake Okeechobee releases account for about 61 percent of the nitrogen load.
"We would like to see them look at it as a more holistic approach," said Marisa Carrozzo with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. "You have a plan for reducing phosphorus upstream in Lake Okechobee that was adopted in 2014, but that's only looking at phosphorus. We'd like to see a total nitrogen (maximum) in Lake Okeechobee as well."
DEP says the public can expect “modest” water quality improvements, decreased nitrogen loads and more public awareness about pollution and its sources. Wednesday's presentation will show a Cape Coral catch basin cleanout that reduced the load by 590 pounds of nitrogen and projects completed in other parts of the watershed.
Carrozzo said the Conservancy, one of several groups and government agencies that were part of setting pollution load maximums, would also like the nitrogen estimates to be updated from the 2004 development and land use numbers that have been used as a baseline for the estimates.
"We'd like to see them look at the land use data," Carrozzo said. "(And) we'd like to see actual monitoring of data and trends in the updates. Right now the BMAP shows estimated load reductions and estimates do not give you the full picture of what's happening."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District are heavily involved in the process as these agencies are the ones that actually pay for and construct Everglades restoration projects like the Caloosahatchee Reservoir, or C43. The Caloosahatchee Reservoir is a water storage facility that will be capable of holding about 55 billion gallons of storm water that will be located in Hendry County.
$600M reservoir could hurt rather than help, scientists say
That project will be part of the development of criteria and nitrogen removal plans for the upper portion of the watershed. Caldwell said he has confidence that the long-term process will clean up the river and its estuary.
"I think the BMAP process is a successful one. We’ve kind of cribbed off what they used in Chesapeake Bay 30 years ago and worked that out," he said. "I think the districts take them seriously and are developing good proposals."