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Dire report on water quality in Florida lakes

Be honest–if not for the fear of alligators, would you willingly swim in a lake in Florida? If the answer is yes, you may want to reconsider according to a recent study. Using data analyzed from the US Environmental Protection Agency, the study found that Florida’s lakes rank #1 nationally as the most polluted. For a state that prides itself on having some of the best beaches and relies heavily on tourism (Florida’s top economic driver), this should be a strong call to action. Our elected officials must take aggressive and proactive steps to protect our water and health. And, as voters, we need to elect leaders who will put the health of our water and community members first.

In recent years, Florida’s water woes have made international headlines. This has included everything from the toxic blue-green algae blanketing coastlines in southern Florida estuaries to the horrific red tide outbreak, exacerbated by the dumping of more than 200 million gallons of polluted waste water from Piney Point phosphate site, to the record manatee deaths caused by declining seagrass statewide. This study suggests that pollution in our freshwater lakes is just as bad with “nearly 900,000 acres of lakes classified as impaired for swimming or healthy aquatic life.” And of the estuaries assessed, about 99%, accounting for 2,500 acres, were also classified as polluted.

Lake Okeechobee is certainly the most well-known lake in Florida. It spans 730 square miles and has been called the liquid heart of the Everglades. During the mid-20th century, ditching and channelization to create drier lands for development drastically altered the flow patterns within the Everglades. Historically, water flowed south from the lake into the slowing-moving “river of grass,” ultimately ending in Florida Bay. But as development and agriculture built up around it, the lake has received much of the polluted runoff. Due to the altered flow patterns, polluted water from the lake now is discharged into Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, leading to cyanotoxin (blue-green algae) blooms and other calamities. Restoring historic flows and the habitats within the Everglades is a state and national priority. We’ve already invested billions of dollars and it will take decades to complete all of the projects within the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. 

It is important to note that restoration aims to repair a disturbed ecosystem while conservation focuses on preventing the ongoing degradation of ecosystems. So, while these restoration efforts are worthy investments, they point to the growing need to avoid widespread ecological disasters in other waters in Florida before they happen. 

Unfortunately, Lake O isn’t the only problem. Florida has more than 30,000 lakes, many of which are used for fishing, swimming, or other recreational activities. Lakes, even more so than other waterbodies, are particularly susceptible to pollution because they are often closed systems. Lakes, by their very nature, have little to no input of water besides rain and, of course, surface water runoff. Pollution from agriculture and urban stormwater, which include nutrients, fecal bacteria, sediments, fertilizers, other chemicals, and even heavy metals end up in our lakes. They can take a long time to degrade and, in some instances, can remain in the water column or in sediments for decades or longer. They can also be ingested by fish and shellfish and become more concentrated and toxic as smaller fish are eaten by larger ones. 

Once pollution has entered lakes, dirty sediments and muck can accumulate on the lake body making it extremely expensive and challenging to remove. To do so, the material has to be dredged up, sent to a landfill, and if polluted with dangerous compounds like heavy metals, requires special disposal as contaminated material. The cost of cleaning up our already-polluted waterbodies is already high, and only increases if pollution continues to flow into them. 

It is crystal clear that we need to be doing more to prevent water pollution at its source. During the recent 2022 Florida Legislative Session, Tallahassee’s lawmakers failed to deliver on promises to clean up our water. Several common-sense bills were never heard in committees. Among those good bills that failed were:

  •  Implementation of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force” (SB862/HB561) by Sen. Linda Stewart (D-Orlando) and Rep. Joy Goff-Marcil. 

This good bill would have implemented some of the recommendations of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force, including an inspection program for septic systems. It would have also prioritized pollution reduction and water conservation projects that yield maximum results. FCV has supported this common-sense bill for the past two years because implementing these recommendations is essential to addressing water pollution from various sources that can cause harmful algal blooms.

  • Safe Waterways Act/Public Bathing Areas” (SB 604/HB393)

This bill would have taken a proactive step toward protecting public health. It would have required the Department of Health and local health departments to notify the public when elevated bacteria levels are detected in public bathing areas, like beaches, springs, and lakes. As water pollution presents an increased risk to human health, this bill would have provided an important safeguard for people, especially vulnerable community members. SB 604/HB393 was never heard in the House and was only discussed in one Senate committee. 

It’s imperative that our lawmakers do more to protect all of our water – including our lakes, rivers, springs, oceans, and groundwater. In the meantime, if you and your family are planning a vacation by the lake, it may be best to look before you leap. 

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