Report shows Florida farms are doing more to avoid Everglades damage

The annual report by the South Florida Water Management District found that farmers in western Palm Beach County have cut the amount of harmful nutrients leaking into the Everglades by twice that’s required by law.

Laser-leveled fields and precise plant feedings helped farmers in western Palm Beach County cut the amount ofharmful nutrients in water moving toward the Everglades last year by 44 percent, nearly twice what’s required by law.

An annual update by the South Florida Water Management District released this month shows farms in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) prevented 107 metric tons of phosphorus from leaving their land in the past year, which exceeds the 25 percent annual reduction required by 1994′s Everglades Forever Act.

Phosphorus has long been an enemy to the Everglades, which evolved to thrive in a low-nutrient environment. Phosphorus in farm and urban runoff allow monoculture thickets of cattail to overtake native vegetation such as sawgrass and spike rush, changing the ecology of the state’s iconic river of grass.

For decades there was little oversight or control of the pollution.

A 1988 federal lawsuit and the Everglades Forever Act helped turn that around.

Since 1996, the average annual reduction of phosphorus from the EAA has been 56 percent compared to a historic base level.

“Good news on water gets lost in the shuffle, but sugarcane farmers continue to clean every drop of water leaving their farms and get good results,” said Judy Sanchez, senior director of corporate communications for Clewiston-based U.S. Sugar. “For more than 20 years, farmers have released water from their farms that is twice as clean as required, and helped restore a healthier, more sustainable ecosystem.”

While a 44 percent reduction is notable, previous years have seen even higher percentages of phosphorus removed. In 2017, 70 percent was removed, with highs of 79 percent removed in 2015 and 2011.

In 2016, only a 27 percent reduction was measured.

Sanchez said rain is the key factor in how much phosphorus stays on the land, including whether rainfall comes in flooding bursts or an even spread throughout the year.

“The bottom line is that a large number of things could influence the annual number,” Sanchez said. “If we could control all of them, we would always have high phosphorus reductions.”

Despite the improvements in water quality, environmentalists said there’s still room to do more.

“They have a right to celebrate and nutrient reductions are good, but let’s not forget that it’s not like they voluntarily decided to put matters into their own hands,” said Celeste DePalma, director of Everglades Policy for Audubon Florida. “There is a regulatory body in this case that is pressing people’s feet to the fire.”

Although “back pumping” of water off farmland and sugarcane fields from south of Lake Okeechobee is often blamed for the algae blooms in the lake, the practice largely ended in the 1980s and occurs now only in emergency situations when communities around the lake are threatened with flooding. There are, however, legacy nutrients in the lake that do contribute to the blooms.

Earlier this year, the SFWMD tried to get out from under a 27-year-old federal court order requiring nutrient reductions. Environmental groups and the Miccosukee Indian Tribe fought the release, saying the district wasn’t ready to police practices on its own.

U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno agreed. In February, he denied the district’s request to end the oversight.

Gary Ritter, assistant director for government and community affairs with the Florida Farm Bureau, said technological advances have vastly improved the ability for farms to reduce nutrient pollution.

Where tractors once plowed fields with less care of how water would flow off of them, now GPS is used to ensure a flatter surface that keeps water on the field. Fertilizer is applied directly to a plant’s root instead of being sprayed haphazardly. Plants are used strategically to reduce erosion.

“Agriculture has gotten very high tech,” Ritter said.

Kmiller@pbpost.com

@Kmillerweather

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