South Florida Water Management District: Extra sampling can track, prevent algae blooms

TCPalm covers the South Florida Water Management District's dramatic expansion in its water quality monitoring in Lake Okeechobee and interviews Mark Perry.

See the full article online here.


With a goal of preventing pollution in general and blue-green algae blooms in particular, the South Florida Water Management District is proposing a dramatic expansion in its water quality monitoring in Lake Okeechobee, the lake's watershed and the St. Lucie River and Caloosahatchee River watersheds.

Under a proposal to be presented Thursday to the district's board, the agency would increase:

  • The number of water quality monitoring sites from 163 to 243
  • The frequency of sampling, in many case from once to twice a month
  • The number of algae-friendly substances, such as nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer runoff, sampled for

The plan is still being developed, said Susan Gray, district chief of applied sciences, so details may change with board input.

Know the sources

"The first step in preventing blooms is to reduce the nutrients in the water," Gray said. "To do that, you need to know where the sources are so you know where to focus your efforts."

Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart, agreed.

"We need to have a better understanding of where the pollution in the lake and in the estuaries comes from," Perry said. "Once we can say, 'It's coming from that area,' we can work with the landowners there to stop it. They need to be held responsible for what's running off their property into our waterways."

Taking care of a pollution problem upstream, Perry said, "is a lot better, a lot cleaner and a lot cheaper, than taking care of it downstream. We'll still need the downstream projects, the billion-dollar reservoirs and stormwater treatment areas; but the more water we can clean at the source, the better those projects can perform."

Now and then

Here's a look at the current monitoring program and the currently proposed expansion.

Lake Okeechobee

  • Now: Monthly sampling at 17 to 19 sites; also sample for algae and toxins on request or when bloom is observed 
  • Expanded: Biweekly sampling for algae and toxins at 32 sites during algae season (May-October), monthly sampling the rest of the year

Lake Okeechobee watershed

  • Now: Monthly sampling at 113 sites — for phosphorus at all, for nitrogen at 40
  • Expanded: Biweekly sampling at 150 sites for phosphorus, nitrogen, temperature, dissolved oxygen and more

St. Lucie River watershed

  • Now: Biweekly sampling at 31 sites for nitrogen and phosphorus
  • Expanded: Biweekly sampling at 46 sites for phosphorus, nitrogen, temperature, dissolved oxygen and more

Caloosahatchee River watershed

  • Now: No district sampling (Local entities sample in coastal and tidal basins)
  • Expanded: Biweekly sampling at 15 sites for phosphorus, nitrogen, temperature, dissolved oxygen and more

'Will be expensive'

Water sampling in the watersheds will be done both by hand and at automated sampling stations. Plans call for most of the extra sampling to be done via contracts with private companies rather than hiring additional staff. 

The district also will have to expand its lab facilities to handle the extra samples, Gray said, "and there are private, outside labs that we can use as well."

All the extra work and extra equipment "will be expensive," Gray said, although she declined to give a cost estimate because "the actual numbers still have to be refined."

To pay for the expansion, the district will look for money within its budget for the upcoming fiscal year and look for state grant money, Gray said.

Part of the resolution being considered Thursday by the board authorizes Executive Director Drew Bartlett to "negotiate and enter into an agreement to provide the district with funding to implement an expanded monitoring network."

Last year, the district spent $12 million on water quality testing throughout its 16-county area.

DEP leads algae effort

Algae samples will still be sent to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection lab to identify species and determine toxicity levels.

"DEP still has the lead when it comes to algae monitoring," Gray said. "We'll continue to take algae samples wherever and whenever requested by DEP."

With a commitment from the board, "we can be moving on this fairly quickly," Gray said, possibly by the beginning of the next fiscal year Oct. 1.

The district can start with "the easiest parts" that don't require buying equipment, such as intensifying the monitoring schedule, she said. "In fact, we've already gone to some biweekly monitoring at some sites in the lake."