Next Tuesday’s Stuart meeting and others of the ACOE, for input on updating the Lake Okeechobee Operations Schedule, are quickly approaching; if you cannot attend in person, please write. Today I share the letter of Geoffrey Norris PhD, FRSC, who my blog readers are familiar with as he has been a guest writer many times. His is an excellent letter, and can give you ideas of how to compose your own, if you cannot attend in person.
Tuesday, February 19, 2019, 1 p.m. – 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Indian River State College
The Clare and Gladys Wolf High-Technology Center
2400 SE Salerno Road, Stuart, FL 34997
Thank you everyone for being part of the River Movement that is changing state politics and policy so we can leave something better to the children of today, and in the future.
February 14th, 2019
Dear Dr. Ann Hodgson
Re: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District’s meetings for input on the development of a new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) (https://www.saj.usace.army.mil/LOSOM/)
SCIENCE AND STRATEGY FOR MITIGATING CYANOBACTERIAL AND ALGAL BLOOMS IN FLORIDA WATERS
My name is Geoffrey Norris, and I am a resident and property owner in Martin County, Florida. I have recently provided the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with written input to your scoping meetings in the way of anecdotal evidence suggesting that the ACE-mediated water releases are having a devastating impact on the ecosystems of the coastal areas in east Florida. This, in my judgement, is having a severe negative impact on the economy of Florida, which is largely built on and sustained by the natural aquatic ecosystems. I now wish to provide you with my scientific opinion on the cyanobacterial (blue-green) blooms and dinoflagellate blooms (red tides) that are associated with the destruction of ecosystems of the lacustrine, estuarine and coastal waters of much of Florida’s littoral zone.
In the following discussion, the acronym ACE refers to the United States Army Corps of Engineers.
But first let me outline my credentials: I have been actively involved as an earth scientist in the study of microscopic algae (dinoflagellates) and associated organic micro-organisms for about 50 years. My expertise is as a paleontologist, not as a biologist, but I am familiar with earth science and life science literature pertinent to fossil and living dinoflagellates and associated organisms. I have written many research papers on the subject, and am a co-author of a seminal book on the classification of living and fossil dinoflagellates, which continues to be widely referenced by research scientists. I am a Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto where I directed a research laboratory devoted to organic-walled algal microfossils for more than three decades prior to retirement, and was Chair of Geology for a decade. I was a visiting scientist for several months at the Florida Marine Research Laboratory, St Petersburg (now incorporated in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) researching aspects of the life cycle of certain dinoflagellates. I have taught students about marine-estuarine ecosystems in field trips to Florida Bay, the Everglades, and the Keys. I am old enough to remember how Florida once was in the 1960s before habitat destruction had become so severe. More recently I have been involved in extensive applied paleontological research on the geology of the outer continental shelf and continental slope flanking the Gulf of Mexico, including documenting the evolutionary history and ecology of marine and brackish dinoflagellates over the last 60 million years in the Gulf and the adjacent southern states. I am a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, which is more or less equivalent to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences that recognizes the country’s leading research scientists for outstanding achievements.
Background to the problem
As you know, Lake Okeechobee has been converted over the decades from a once-dynamic lake system to a virtually static reservoir. In the early days, input to the Lake was provided upstream by a variety of rivers. Output occurred over the southern rim, discharging water seasonally into the uniquely very wide and very shallow “River of Grass” that traversed the Everglades, and eventually drained into Florida Bay. Over the years (1930-1960), in response to various circumstances, the southern rim was raised and strengthened and eventually became the Herbert Hoover dike. At that point, the lake ceased to exist functionally as a dynamic system, and might now be better called the Lake Okeechobee Reservoir. It is a semi-static system with no natural outflow, and now functions to trap nutrients and hold them indefinitely until the water managers make decisions regarding discharges. This is the nub of the problem – how to control and release water, in what quantities and in what directions, and how to remove the nutrient and microbial overload from the water. For many years the problem was simplistically stated as a flood control measure, but as the nutrient loading and consequent lake eutrophication became more apparent it also became clear that dumping excess water from Lake Okeechobee into outflow canals directed to the east and west coasts was creating a major problem, not solving one.
Cyanobacteria and the Army Corps of Engineers
During the latter two or three decades of the 20th century, phosphorus in the Lake Okeechobee Reservoir increased markedly. High phosphorus content tends to favor cyanobacteria such as the toxic Microcystis, and tends to exclude microscopic and generally benign algae which otherwise might be expected in a lake, for example: dinoflagellates, diatoms, green algae, and other planktic or benthic photosynthetic organisms. Major blooms of blue green toxic cyanobacteria became more frequent and intense in the early 21st century, and now are close to becoming a persistent annual feature in Lake Okeechobee and in the ACE water-dumping grounds. The seasonal release from the Lake by the Army Corps of Engineers of highly toxic water infected with cyanobacteria is simply not acceptable. This is not a solution – this is a travesty and a betrayal of trust by ACE for the American people it serves through their elected representatives in Congress.
The Mission of ACE is clear: “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ mission is to provide vital public engineering services in peace and war to strengthen our Nation’s security, energize the economy, and reduce risks from disasters” (emphasis is mine). Unfortunately, you seem to be doing the exact opposite. How secure can the public feel when you poison our water? How can you claim to energize the economy when you are driving Florida’s principal industries into the ground? How can you claim to be reducing risks from disasters when you are pumping toxic effluent into our environment and endangering the lives of humans and animals alike with disastrous consequences for the ecosystem?
No, clearly you are on the wrong track, and you need to reevaluate how you handle the remediation of the Lake Okeechobee Reservoir. Here are some ideas that might be worth exploring as you re-formulate your strategy.
Get rid of the phosphorus from Lake Okeechobee Reservoir
High phosphorus loadings in bodies of water are not new, particularly since the advent of the green revolution in the 1970s. Fertilizer mixes are applied liberally to agricultural land on a global basis, and nutrient pollution of freshwater and marine water bodies is becoming commonplace. Getting rid of bio-available phosphorus (dephosphatisation) in the water and the bottom sediments of the Lake Okeechobee Reservoir would help to reduce the probability of toxic cyanobacterial blooms forming. One possibility is the use of lanthanum-modified bentonites, kaolinites, or zeolites to permanently remove the phosphate from the water. These dephosphatisation agents have been used elsewhere in the world to remediate lakes that have undergone eutrophication and massive cyanobacterial infection. Why not the Lake Okeechobee Reservoir?
Other alternatives to clay minerals used for dephosphatisation include such substances as fly ash. Fly ash is produced in abundance in the Everglades Agricultural Area when the sugar cane is burned off during harvesting– could these tens of millions of tons of vegetation accruing annually be converted to fly ash and captured and collected and used to lock up the phosphorus, rather than continue the present practice of discharging fly ash into the atmosphere and polluting the area for miles around all the way to the coast?
Get rid of the toxic microcystins from the Lake Okeechobee Reservoir
Just a few days ago, a paper was published showing that microcystins (toxins associated with cyanobacteria) from Lake Erie could be removed by using treated rice husks as a sorbent material, and then recycled or disposed of using sand (“Treated rice husks as a recyclable sorbent for the removal of microcystins from water, Dilrukshika et al, Science of the Total Environment, available online 5 February 2019, Elsevier.”) Perhaps there are other agricultural waste products that could be used for this purpose in addition to rice husks. Now is the time to come up with big bold ideas with the potential to address this huge issue. Sitting with your hands on the flood gate controls will solve nothing.
Army Corps of Engineers – stop killing our brackish estuaries with freshwater discharges
Even if nutrients and toxins can be removed from Okeechobee water, the Army Corps of Engineers must stop displacing brackish water that occurs naturally in our estuaries and lagoons with massive amounts of lacustrine freshwater. Freshwater is certain death to estuarine sea grasses, shell fish, bonefish, marine vertebrates and other estuarine fauna and flora. Sending massive amounts of freshwater to offshore marine areas is also not an option for similar reasons and must be stopped forthwith.
ACE should think big! Send the water south again, into the wetlands where it was once a vital component. ACE should think Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’s “River of Grass”! Reconstructed wetlands to bio-cleanse effluent are not new technology, having been used since the mid-20th century, and are now being aggressively installed to efficiently cleanse polluted water in areas such as Lake Erie which has huge nutrient pollution problems and attendant toxic cyanobacterial problems.
Stop using glyphosate/Roundup to kill cattails (Typha) in and around Lake Okeechobee Reservoir.
The Army Corps of Engineers has been killing cattails and other littoral zone plants in and around the Lake Okeechobee Reservoir with glyphosate (Roundup) since at least the year 2000, according to the ACE website. This efficient vegetation killer is known also to magnify the effects of phosphate release in sediments, hence favoring the growth of cyanobacteria. The cyanobacteria in turn are known to be potentially capable of becoming genetically resistant to glyphosate toxicity. Glyphosate is suspected of being harmful to human health, although its putative harmful effects are controversial. Recent court judgements, however, support its status as a carcinogen. For all these reasons, ACE must discontinue the use of glyphosate/Roundup in the Lake Okeechobee Reservoir, and must enforce the ban of back-pumping potentially toxic effluent from the sugar cane fields to the Lake Okeechobee Reservoir.
Red tides and the Army Corps of Engineers
The continued release by the Army Corps of Engineers of massive amounts of nutrient-rich water from the Lake Okeechobee Reservoir into the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico is contributing to the problem of red tides in marine coastal waters caused by blooms of the dinoflagellate, Karenia. Red tides have plagued Florida for a long time, but in recent years blooms of Karenia have changed from being an occasional seasonal nuisance, to a chronic, multi-seasonal, multi-year threat to human health. Nutrient pollution is one of several factors implicated in the rise to prominence of Karenia red tides. The Army Corps of Engineers has a continuing responsibility to preserve the marine ecosystems of Florida as well as reduce the risks to human health by discontinuing the discharge of nutrient-rich water from the Lake Okeechobee Reservoir to the marine coastal waters.
In conclusion, the Army Corps of Engineers is faced with a huge problem, but this should be looked upon as a huge opportunity for your organization to exert its leadership and provide the vital engineering services to the people who so desperately need them.
Thank you for reading my views on this really important issue. I cannot emphasize enough how important it will be when ACE makes the transition to a modern environmentally-conscious organization that truly provides vital public engineering services in peace and war to strengthen our Nation’s security, energize the economy, and reduce risks from disasters.
I sincerely wish your organization both good luck and adequate funding from Congress and elsewhere to carry out your mission effectively.
Geoffrey Norris PhD, FRSC
~2008 Lake Okeechobee Operating Schedule (LORS)
~2019: Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM), a component of the Central & Southern Florida (C&SF) System Operating Plan