South Florida communities confronted with growing water pollution problem

September 16, 2013

water

In a previous post, we discussed how seasonal flooding in the Southeast United States may lead to environmental liabilities for companies in various industries. For several communities in South Florida, the heavy rainfall seen in recent months has already had dire consequences.

Pollution in Lake Okeechobee—the largest freshwater lake in Florida and seventh largest in the United States—has long been viewed as a critical problem by local stakeholders. However, with precipitation falling at nearly twice its usual rate this summer, the resulting flow of water from the lake into connected estuaries has become a cause for alarm.

Problems with pollution, flood control go back decades

In the aftermath of two hurricanes that caused extensive flooding and killed more than 2,000 people in the 1920s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designed a system of channels, gates and levees around Lake Okeechobee to prevent future disasters. The flood control system was expanded in the 1960s after another major hurricane hit the area.

However, the shortcomings of the aging Herbert Hoover Dike have become clear over the years as the earthen mounds that contain the waters of Okeechobee have been eroded by storms. With the Corps unwilling to risk a breach, which would put the vast agricultural tracts south of the lake in grave danger, billions of gallons of water have been released into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers.

For these delicate saltwater ecosystems, the rapid influx of freshwater and pollutants has been devastating, killing off flora and fauna that are vital to the local ecology at an alarming rate. Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society, told the New York Times that the pattern of dumping “cannot continue to happen.”

“These coastal estuaries cannot take this,” Perry said. “Enough is enough.”

According to the Miami Herald, the contamination in the St. Lucie River has become so intense that health officials in Martin County have posted signs warning residents not to come into contact with the water. Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, a commissioner for Sewall’s Point, told the Herald that there is “no excuse for this to keep happening.”

“This is just ridiculous for black water to be running through our estuaries in front of our homes where we play and fish,” Thurlow-Lippisch said.

‘No easy fixes’ to water management dilemma

The problems surrounding Lake Okeechobee have become so concerning that Republican Governor Rick Scott—nationally known for his fiscal conservatism—has proposed more than $100 million in public funding for projects to clean up polluted water and ease the pressure on the dike by allowing more water to flow south into the Everglades.

However, there is no guarantee that the problem can be fully resolved in the near future, especially because stakeholders remain divided on the best course of action.

“I have been doing these water quality programs going on 10 to 12 years,” the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Drew Bartlett told the Herald. “It’s a constant battle to have to bring stakeholders together to reach agreements.”

Even overlooking the political obstacles, Army Corps of Engineers spokesman John Campbell told the Times that there are “no easy fixes anywhere.”

“It doesn’t take long at all to realize what a complex web water management is in South Florida,” Campbell said. “There is no button we can push to magically lower the lake if the inflows coming in exceed the outflows.”

According to Thomas Greco, deputy commander for the Corps’ Jacksonville District, it typically takes as much as a month to lower the lake one foot, even without fresh rainfall. And with the 2013 hurricane season—currently in its peak phase—expected to produce an above-average number of major storms, the Corps cannot count on dry conditions during the coming months.

In light of this fact, Ernie Barnett, interim executive director for the South Florida Water Management District, explained that although the water level in the lake has receded slightly since recent downpours ended, “the concern in still there.”

“All it will take is one tropical storm to put us in a massive crisis mode,” Barnett said.

Until the underlying contamination at Lake Okeechobee is resolved, nearby ecosystems and communities will always be at risk. This situation underscores the importance of taking a comprehensive approach to resolving environmental liabilities.

In cases where stakeholders are uncertain how to tackle complex environmental challenges, working with independent remediation specialists can help ensure that all aspects of the problem are addressed by a cleanup plan.

For more information contact PPM Consultants at 1-800-761-8675