Pumping in polluted water considered to boost Lake Okeechobee
3:41 a.m. EDT, July 18, 2012
More polluted water could get dumped into Lake Okeechobee to boost South Florida water supplies under a new proposal to roll back restrictions on “back-pumping.”
Five years ago, state water managers rebuffed Big Sugar and stopped the controversial practice of redirecting stormwater that drains off South Florida farmland to store it in the lake — while also washing in pollutants from farming.
But now, with the strain of competing Lake Okeechobee water supply needs growing, the South Florida Water Management District is considering a return to back-pumping to help store more water in the lake that serves as the region’s backup water supply.
Supporters of back-pumping say the farmland stormwater runoff that would be pumped back into the lake would make more lake water available for agricultural and environmental needs alike. They say more water in the lake would enable sending more freshwater to the West Coast to help the parched Caloosahatchee River during dry times, without threatening to sap lake water needed to irrigate South Florida farms.
“It’s to prevent the taffy pull, the tug of war between the Caloosahatchee and the [agricultural] lake users for the last drop of lake water,” said Barbara Miedema, vice president of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida. “We support back-pumping as a water management tool.”
But environmental advocates contend that the phosphorus-laden water that flows off sugar cane fields is supposed to be cleaned up and sent south to the Everglades, not pumped back north into Lake Okeechobee.
The potential damage to wildlife and water quality from dumping more polluted water into Lake Okeechobee wouldn’t be worth a slight boost in water supply, environmental groups say.
“They are sort of justifying pollution” Jon Ullman, of the Sierra Club, said about the back-pumping proposal. “Pumping polluted water into the lake … is not a good practice.”
Phosphorus, nitrogen and other nutrient-rich pollutants that wash in with back-pumped water as a result of farming could lead to a dead zone in the lake, resulting in algae blooms and low oxygen levels that kill fish, aquatic insects and disrupt other aspects of the lake’s food chain.
South Florida agricultural representatives say that improved farming practices have reduced the amount of pollution that flows off their land, but environmental advocates contend that it still does not meet water-quality standards.
Environmental concerns persuaded the water district board in 2007 to stop back-pumping for water supply needs, but leadership of the agency changed after Gov. Rick Scott was elected in 2010.
Now district officials say it’s worth considering a watered-down version of back-pumping in the hopes of finding a way to stretch lake water supplies. It would send less water back into the lake than before and that water wouldn’t be as polluted as in the past, according to the district.
The goal is to help the Caloosahatchee “without impacting surrounding ecosystems or water supply for current users,” district spokesman Gabe Margasak said Monday. In August, the proposal goes before the district’s nine-member board, appointed by the governor.
“Any time we move water around, there is always concern,” said Joe Collins, chairman of the district board. “The Caloosahatchee estuary needs additional fresh water … this is at least one option.”
Lake Okeechobee’s water once naturally overlapped its southern banks and flowed south to replenish the Everglades.
But decades of farming and development led to levees and drainage canals that corralled the lake and turned it into South Florida’s primary backup water supply — tapped to irrigate farmland and restock community drinking water supplies.
In recent years, safety concerns about the lake’s aging dike have the Army Corps of Engineers keeping the lake about one foot lower year round. During dry times, that heightens the strain of divvying up the lake water that remains.
Back-pumping would help, agricultural advocates say.
Sugar representatives say that back-pumping doesn’t rob the Everglades of water, because it would occur during the rainy season when much of that stormwater ends up getting drained out to sea to avoid flooding.
“Since you cannot make it rain, this looks like a ‘win-win’ proposition that is extremely critical and timely,” said Judy Sanchez,U.S. Sugar Corp.spokeswoman. “With Lake Okeechobee levels continuing to drop, during the rainy season no less, we support the [water district’s] efforts to protect the Caloosahatchee River and estuary system by storing rainfall however possible in Lake Okeechobee.”
Environmental groups say better conservation would help stretch water supplies.
The district needs to impose more restrictions on agricultural water use during the dry season, not just cut-off the Caloosahatchee River when the lake gets too low, said Paul Grey, a scientist for Audubon of Florida.
And while stormwater water pumped off sugar cane fields might not be as polluted as water that flows into the lake from elsewhere, back-pumping still brings more pollution than would otherwise end up in the lake, Grey said.
“You trade one kind of harm for another kind of harm,” said Grey, who specializes in monitoring the health of Lake Okeechobee. “You are still adding more problems to the existing problems.”