48 Years Ago: “Summary of Progress”- Final Report on the Special Project to Prevent Eutrophication of Lake Okeechobee

48 Years Ago: Summary of Progress…

A look into Florida State Archives

Leading up to 2024’s “100 year anniversary of the St. Lucie Canal,” Ed and I visited the State Archives of Florida in Tallahassee. We had called ahead and the archivist had set all aside having to do with the “Final Report on the Special Project to Prevent Eutrophication of Lake Okeechobee.” This very important document, published in November of 1976, was key in directly and indirectly improving the situation of the St. Lucie River and all the Everglades. Its research faced head on the deteriorating health of Lake Okeechobee; documented the importance of Kissimmee River restoration for nutrient reduction and water quality;  called for the halting of back-pumping into Lake Okeechobee from the Everglades Agricultural Area south of the lake; and even inquires implementation of Best Management Practices by the Agriculture industry and stricter rules for sewage management from developing cities.

The seven pages of the document I share today is from the summary and is part of the lead up to the Final Report. As is always the case, the final report is  much more polished. The seven pages of the 1975 “A Summary of Progress of the Special Project to Prevent the Eutrophication of Lake Okeechobee,” is not. You will see handwritten corrections and notes in the margins. A very powerful way to view a working document. “Old school” for sure!

Forty-eight years have passed since this homework led to the famous 1976 publication “The Final Report on the Special Project to Prevent Eutrophication of Lake Okeechobee.” The working document’s historic value cannot cannot be underestimated. Reading it is like looking back into the mirror of time. Here is reflected how much progress has been  made, and how much more still needs to be achieved.

“Lake Okeechobee water quality has been declining noticeably for about twenty years, and the is now best be described as culturally eutrophic…” ~1975 

Today’s 1975 summary of progress led up to 1976  “Final Report…” I will be sharing more of both in the future as we approach the 100 year anniversary of the St. Lucie Canal.

14 thoughts on “48 Years Ago: “Summary of Progress”- Final Report on the Special Project to Prevent Eutrophication of Lake Okeechobee

  1. Blake Faulkner here. I would argue that the water quality didn’t start declining until after the Kissimmee River ditching project was completed in the late 1960s-early 1970s. In the 1950s, the Phosphate level in the Lake Okeechobee water column was less than 40 ppb. It was always considered by Limnologists to be a naturally eutrophic lake, highly biologically productive. But now it is hyper-eutrophic and the Phosphate level in the water column in March 2023 was 282 ppb P. The long term average is around 150 ppb P. The Legacy P in the Lake O. bottom sediment is almost 100,000 tons. Dredging the bottom sediment out is the only effective way to reduce the water column P level. It is too late to fix things by reducing the P in the northern inflows now.

    1. My name is Rotha Allen Randall, formally Rotha MacGill. I was one of the primary authors of the Final Report of the Special Project to Prevent the Eutrophication of Lake Okeechobee. I have been thinking about that project a lot lately. It was the first job I had after graduate school and I am so delighted that people are talking another look at this amazing project.

      Many life took many turns since then, mostly as an environmental scientist, specializing in human health risk assessment. Having been retired for many years now, I find myself volunteering for the nonprofit, Economic Democracy Advocacy. Our focus is in developing carrying capacities for communities and other governmental entities.

      I have recently become acquainted with the work of Charles A.S. Hall. And through Hall’s mentor, Howard Odum, whose work was instrumental to the concepts presented in the Final Report. I feel like I have come home. So thank you sincerely for taking another look at this monumental study.

      1. Dear Rotha, how exciting to receive your message. Thank you so much for your work past and present. I will look into Charles A.S. Hall and am somewhat familiar with Howard Odum mostly from Dr. Knight and the springs advocates. Great to hear from you!

  2. A Summary of Progress of
    the Special Project to
    Prevent the Eutrophication of
    Lake Okeechobee.
    (Copy as of 9-8-75)

    reproduced by
    Department of State
    R. A. Gray Building
    Tallahassee, Florida 32399-0250

    Lake Okeechobee is one of Florida and the Nation’s most valuable natural resources. Benefits provided by the lake are vital to Florida’s economy and the quality of life in South Florida. A significant portion of South Florida’s potable water is ‘derived either directly or indirectly, from the lake. In addition, the lake has significant irrigation, recreation, fish and wildlife, navigation, and other values.
    The lake has been and is being degraded. Poor land and water management practices in the drainage basin threaten to further degrade and destroy the lake’s indispensable values. This was recognized as early as 1971, when the Governor’s Conference on Water Management in South Florida, a special task force composed of scientific, agricultural, conservation, and governmental experts,
    concluded that: “There is a water crisis in South Florida today…
    Every major water area in the South Florida basin, Everglades National Park, the conservation areas, Lake Okeechobee, and the Kissimmee Valley is steadily deteriorating in quality from a variety of polluting sources.”

    The 1973 Florida Legislature, in recognition of the need to protect Lake Okeechobee for present and future generations, enacted
    the Special Project to Prevent the Eutrophication of Lake Okeechobee, hereafter called the Project (Laws os Florida, Chapter 73-355). the legislature decreed that the Project should be carried-out a a cooperative effort between the Division of State Planning, the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control
    District, and the Department of Pollution Control.

    The purpose of this Project is to derive an effective land and water management plan that, when implemented, will prevent the further cultural eutrophication of Lake Okeechobee.

    Intensive research studies of Lake Okeechobee, the water and nutrients entering the lake, and related land use and drainage practices in each of the lake’s as sub-drainage basins have been completed. Methods of study include water quality and water quantity analysis, land use analysis, computer modeling, and other studies.

    “Eutrophication” refers to the enrichment of surface water by nutrients, principally phosphorus and nitrogen. Some lakes that
    are located in fertile watersheds become naturally eutrophic over time. Most eutrophic lakes, however, have become “culturally eutrophic”, meaning. that man’s land use, drainage, and sewage disposal practices result
    in a greatly accelerated enrichment process. Severe eutrophication, known as hypereutrophication, results in the loss of most of a lake’s value to man’s use, as has occurred in Lake Apopka.

    Historical Background

    Many events occurred during the past, century which are significant in the development of the present problems that beset Lake Okeechobee. The major events were:

    1. In 1881, drainage began in South Florida when the State sold Hamilton Disston 4,000,000 acres of land at 25 cents per acre and promised an additional one-half of all land he could drain.

    2. In the early 1900’s, private drainage efforts greatly intensified and farming of the muck lands and other agricultural development began.

    3. In the 1950’s, a major federal public works, the Central and Southern Flood Control Project, was constructed in the basin, including a levee around Lake Okeechobee and numerous canals for drainage, flood control, and, irrigation.

    4. In the 1960’s, the Kissimmee River, the major tributary to Lake Okeechobee, was canalized by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for flood control, and drainage as part of The Central and South Florida Flood Control Project for the District. These events, in conjunction with massive private drainage and agricultural development in the uplands, resulted in enormous agricultural production and urban growth. Unfortunately, a lack of proper planning and understanding of negative consequences has resulted in substantial resource degradation and problems which threaten even more negative effects such as eutrophication of theregion’s surface waters, chronic water shortages and the switching of the regional ecosystem to a less productive type than presently exists.

    If current trends are to be reversed, the present deficiencies in land, and water
    management practices in the region must be recognized and take corrective action taken. The Project when completed in the spring of 1976, will present a management plan for South Florida based upon thorough analysis of numerous alternatives and designed to protect
    the vital functions of Lake Okeechobee and the regional ecosystem for the greater public good.

    The significance of Lake Okeechobee can scarcely be overestimated. During prolonged drought, the lake is the major source of recharge for the Biscayne Aquifer, which is the only source of water for the approximately 2.25 million people in Dade and Broward Counties. In three of the past five years it has been necessary to supply Lake Okeechobee water to recharge the Biscayne aquifer and to regard salt water intrusion. During the latter portion of the 1971 drought, the Miami Springs supply well field was directly dependent on Lake Okeechobee for recharge water delivered by the Miami Canal. This well field supplied 70 percent of the water for domestic purposes in Dade County. Drought conditions in the spring of 1975 again resulted in releases of water from Lake Okeechobee to Dade County beginning in April.

    Lake Okeechobee water quality has been declining noticeably for about twenty years, and the lake is now best described as culturally eutrophic. Five separate studies, including two by nationally known lake scientists as part of the Project, have
    found Lake Okeechobee to be eutrophic. The lake has not yet become enriched to the hypereutrophic state of some Florida lakes such as Lake Apopka, but trends of increasing nutrient loading from present drainage and land use practices clearly point in that direction.

    Should present trends continue and Lake Okeechobee become hypereutrophic, the result will be chronic and pronounced water quality degradation, taste and odor problems (including exorbitant costs for producing potable water), algae blooms, fish kills, loss of sport fish, noxious weed growth, and other problems. Most of these eutrophic characteristics are now expressed by the lake periodically on a short-term basis.

    Hypertrophy would result in these characteristics becoming the predominant long-term characteristics of the lake.

    The major causative factors of the present cultural eutrophication of Lake Okeechobee are: (not listed in terms of priority)

    1. Canalization of the tributary rivers and streams,

    2. Back-pumping of highly enriched waters from the Agricultural
    Area, south of the lake, into the lake during the wet season,

    3. Upland drainage practices in the lake’s watershed,

    4. Inadequate nutrient conservation, livestock management
    and other agricultural practices in the watershed, and

    5. Management and regulation of the lake and its tributaries
    which diminish their ability to absorb nutrients.

    On May 22, 1975, water quality experts of the Special Project
    met to discuss the water quality and trophic status of Lake Okeecho-
    bee and. the need for management steps to protect the lake. It was.
    the consensus of that meeting that, based on data analysis, model
    studies, and various other studies of Lake Okeechobee, the lake
    is presently nutrient enriched and eutrophic to the degree that
    management steps to reduce nutrient loadings are clearly indicated.

    Management practices and procedures will be designed by the
    Project to facilitate the lake’s ability to absorb nutrients and to lessen nutrient inputs from the drainage basin.

    The Kissimmee River Valley

    The Kissimmee River Valley Basin in its natural state was native rangeland dominated by lakes and wetlands and drained by the meandering Kissimmee River. Replacement of the river with Canal-38 in the 1960’s greatly accelerated upland drainage and the conversion of native range to improved pasture. One-fourth of the valley’s total area of wetlands and swamps was drained and converted to native range and improved pasture between 1958 and 1972; and, during the same time span, approximately 40 percent of the area’s native range was converted to improved pasture.

    The increase in improved pasture greatly increased the quantity of nutrients carried by runoff, and the loss of 25 percent of the valley’s wetlands greatly decreased the region’s ability to filter runoff. Analysis indicates that, as recently as 1958, most surface runoff to the Kissimmee River received significant soil and vegetative filtering, which kept water quality high. Now less filtering takes place and nutrient loads are much larger and contribute significantly to the cultural eutrophication of Lake Okeechobee.

    In the Upper Kissimmee Valley, sewage from Orlando, Kissimmee, and St. Cloud has caused severe eutrophication of Lake Tohopekaliga, one of the Kissimmee Upper Chain of Lakes. Research by the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission shows the cultural eutrophication of Lake Tohopekaliga to be the result of: (1) treated and untreated human sewage, and (2) water-level stabilization of the lakes under present flood control management practices.

    Lake Tohopekaliga and other lakes of the Upper Chain act as sewage polishing ponds to treat sewage. This is demonstrated by the fact that water leaving the Upper Chain of Lakes and entering Canal-38 (The Kissimmee River) system is of greatly improved quality when compared with water quality in the more northern portions of the Chain of Lakes where sewage results in grossly degraded water quality. Even so, water entering Canal-38 for delivery to Lake Okeechobee is of sufficiently low quality to merit concern and attention. Studies are underway to determine the most optimum regulation schedules to maintain the lakes under present sewage levels and to maintain optimum water storage. Plans to eliminate sewage loadings are also being developed.[but due to funding problems for alternative disposal practices it appears-that some years will be needed to effect significant reductions in sewage inputs]

    Canalization of the Kissimmee River shortened the time necessary for water to pass through the valley. Most of the water purification ability of the floodplain marsh and virtually all of the water purification ability of the natural river channel were destroyed. Average concentrations of the nutrients phosphorus and nitrogen are high along the entire length of the canal, especially below Structure 65C where non-point agricultural runoff into the river results in concentrations that approach values normally associated with impounded waters that are susceptible to eutrophication. Maximum nutrient concentrations are well above levels necessary for sustained algae production.

  3. Thanks for this post Jacqui! I look forward to seeing your thoughts on the report in your next post. My current thoughts revolve around this fundamental question: Can we really make any real progress on Lake O. without addressing the legacy nutrients in the muck at the bottom of Lake O.? Someday I hope Florida recognizes the need to remove the nutrient rich muck via deep injection wells that push the muck out to the Atlantic Ocean…

  4. I remember Art Marshall holding up a draft of this report in the 70’s, delivering an alert at meetings on a lecture tour he conducted continually, discussing these and other issues with activists all around the state. He was particularly concerned about the issues in this report and taught hundreds of active environmentalists the meaning of the word “eutrophication” in the process. I was in attendance at two such meetings: one in Palm Beach, and one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s house, where all the active civic and environmental associations were invited. I had gotten the impression that Art had a hand in the production of the report, as he had in the Governor’s Commission. The world and Florida was properly warned about this, but these were the days of unaddressed pollution, ill advised alterations to the Kissimmee River, and a water quantity focus by the CORPS on all matters, using their cost:benefit analysis as a primary criterion of success. It took catastrophic water quality and biological catastrophes to make them and the state take the warnings seriously. By then, things had gone too far. Eutrophication accelerates over the time it takes to become evident. The time for prevention is passed, and so far I see no real efforts to remediate the problem. May somebody with real authority take this seriously, and soon.

  5. If the powers to be cared about the Glades and Lake Okeechobee or the citizens who live on impaired waters, it would be fixed by now. ,

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