Septic tanks, not agricultural uses, are the biggest threats to the quality of water in Florida, according to speakers at the annual Farm City luncheon held last week at the South Florida Fairgrounds Expo Center.
The Farm City luncheon is put on by the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce. This year’s focus was the future of water in Florida.
Speakers included keynoter Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce; and panelists Barbara Miedema with the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative; Dr. Brian Lapointe, research professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute; and John Mitnik, director of operations, engineering and construction for the South Florida Water Management District.
Wilson said that with the growing population in Florida, science-based solutions are the only answer to ensure Florida’s water future, adding that many discussions of water and pollution are not fact-based. “Today, we don’t have that luxury, and so we’re huge believers that businesspeople know how to solve problems,” he said.
With more than 20 million people currently, by 2030, Florida will have 6 million more people, with visitors growing from 106 million currently to 160 million visitors annually in 2030, he said.
“The bottom line is we’re going to need more water,” Wilson said. “We don’t expect more rain, we expect better policy, and we’re going to have to get this right.”
Florida uses about 7 billion gallons of water a day, and that is predicted to increase to about 9 billion a day by 2030. “That’s about 20 percent more water in 15 years,” he said.
The use of septic tanks for disposal of human waste and their contribution to the pollution problem has been a large topic of conversation, Wilson said.
“There was a time when science said that was the best thing to do, but now we know better, that in certain conditions and certain places, it’s probably not the smartest thing for us to do,” Wilson said. “If you think about the issues, everybody wants to talk about the lake. Think about north of the lake. It’s estimated that there are between a quarter-million and 600,000 septic systems north of the lake. It has been suggested that we convert as many of those as we can to a public system.”
He said Florida is the national leader in water issues.
“Nobody else comes close to measuring water quality and having the water quality data that Florida does,” Wilson said. “Part of the reason we get criticized is because we have so much data. Other states wish that they had the kind of data that we have.”
Florida gets about 54 inches of rain each year, which is one of the highest totals in the country.
“The problem is we get it in three months,” Wilson said. “Where do you put it? What do you do with it? How do you store it? Incredibly charged political issues, but incredibly important to solve.”
Panelist Mitnik said the historic role of the South Florida Water Management District has been to drain the land and discharge excess water to tide, explaining that Florida land was conveyed by the federal government in 1848 under the Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act.
“It was under the condition that the land be drained for development, for agricultural purposes,” he said. “For the next 130 years, that’s exactly what we did.”
Most of the levee system was built between the 1950s and 1970 to control water levels but get excess water out.
More recent efforts have been geared more toward water retention and habitat preservation.
“Over the last 20 to 25 years, there have been a lot more environmental constraints that have come into the picture,” Mitnik said. “When looking at the southern part of this system being able to move water from north to the south out through the bottom end of the Florida Bay, you have some environmental constraints in the form of the Endangered Species Act and how much water you can physically move into those areas.”
Mitnik said above-average rainfall during the past summer under those constraints forced the SFWMD to release water to the east and west.
Lapointe said that what happened with algae blooms in the St. Lucie area was part of a long-term trend that has been going on for decades, not just in Florida, but nationally and globally.
“It’s a response to increased nutrients flowing to our lakes, our rivers, our estuaries and our coastal waters,” he said.
Lapointe was part of a national team of experts in 1994 that organized a workshop to develop the first national plan to study and mitigate harmful algal blooms.
“To look at what happened this past year, it was an unusually spectacular year for harmful algal blooms in Florida,” he said. We weren’t the only place to have big algal blooms this year. We saw them also in Utah and in some freshwater systems that had very high nutrient levels.”
The summer blooms in the Indian River Lagoon area where he works were preceded by a brown tide that occurred in January, which is brought on by a hardy algae that can survive days without sunlight and derive nutrition from the plentiful organic nutrients, including sewage and lawn fertilizers.
“Some of you may have read the articles on the big brown tide that began in January when we had such heavy rainfall, record rainfall, and these blooms are driven by rainfall events, in many cases the landscape changes, with more development, more people, a variety of human activities that bring nutrients in from many resources,” he said. “Fossil fuels are increasing the concentrations of nitrous oxides in the atmosphere, so increase in the rain itself has more nitrogen falling on the land.”
Lapointe said claims that the St. Lucie blooms over the summer were driven by releases from Lake Okeechobee are not the case.
“They are not hydraulically connected at all,” he said. “The water that comes out of Lake Okeechobee goes into the St. Lucie Canal, the C-44, and 90 percent of that water goes out the St. Lucie Inlet. Virtually none of that goes north of the Fort Pierce Inlet.”
He said research he was involved with used stable nitrogen isotopes to identify the source of the nitrogen that is driving the blooms.
“A lot of these people thought it was coming from fertilizer and agriculture in particular, and we did the study of 2011 and 2012 when we first began to see these brown tides emerging,” he said. “What we found, and what the science told us, was that sewage, and septic tanks, in particular, were likely to be the single biggest contributor.”
ABOVE: Florida Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Mark Wilson.