On March 19, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection convened local stakeholders — government representatives, scientists, environmentalists, agricultural operators and others — to continue development of the Lake Okeechobee restoration plan. This meeting was another in a series of monthly gatherings to establish the specific pollutant load reductions and action strategies essential to improving lake water quality.
The March meeting focused on the watershed model being used to identify total nitrogen loads reaching Lake Okeechobee, along with presentations on estimated nitrogen load reductions from existing and proposed projects. Following up from last month’s meeting, projected phosphorus reductions from proposed projects were refined and the stakeholders continue to work on coordinating water quality monitoring efforts.
“The Lake Okeechobee restoration plan is one of the most complicated we have undertaken,” said Tom Frick, Director of the Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration.“It is imperative we bring stakeholders together regularly to learn about the issues, develop restoration project options, and link this effort with other ongoing Lake Okeechobee protection programs.”
At 730 square miles, Lake Okeechobee is the largest lake in the southeastern United States and drains more than 3.5 million acres (5,500 square miles) spanning 10 Florida counties. It is in the heart of the greater Everglades ecosystem that stretches from the Kissimmee River to Florida Bay. With an average depth of only 9 feet, it is vulnerable both to pollution from surrounding land uses and flooding.
Lake Okeechobee is itself a remarkable resource, but it is also a source of water for the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and estuaries. Water releases from the lake to control flooding can deliver too much fresh water and pollutants downstream. Therefore, completion and implementation of the Lake Okeechobee Watershed BMAP will also help restore the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie watersheds, where restoration programs — adopted by the Department in November 2012 and June 2013, respectively — are already underway.
Collectively, the actions of the Department, the South Florida Water Management District, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the hundreds of stakeholders invested in these watersheds will fulfill the objectives of the Northern Everglades and Estuaries Protection Program set by the Florida Legislature in 2007.