Slow progress despite efforts to fix Orange Lake pollution


The surface of Orange Lake is often as smooth as a mirror, disrupted only by the occasional boater’s wake or a duck skidding to a watery landing. But the calm is deceptive. The lake is polluted and, despite attempts to fix it, there isn’t much to show for the effort.

The popular fishing and recreational lake is impaired. Florida environmental agencies officially designated it so nearly 15 years ago. Its main problem: high concentrations of polluting nutrients that have flowed in from the watershed and from neighboring waterways.

The main culprit is phosphorus, much of it coming from residential and agricultural fertilizers. The pollutants also come from Newnans Lake, making their way to the Orange through River Styx, Prairie Creek and Camps Canal; and from Lochloosa Lake by way of Cross Creek, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

In 2003 the FDEP set a total maximum daily load for phosphorus entering Orange Lake. In 2007 it created the Orange Creek Basin Management Action Plan (known as a BMAP, for short,) which covers Orange Lake and its neighboring water bodies. The BMAP is a blueprint to manage and improve the basin’s lakes, including a nutrient-reduction effort for Orange Lake. The Orange Creek Basin covers Orange Lake, Newnans Lake, Lake Wauberg, Hogtown Creek, Sweetwater Branch, Tumblin Creek and Alachua Sink.

The FDEP continued and updated the plan in 2015, took stock of its progress, and created new restoration projects. The plans call for a total phosphorus level of 0.031 milligrams per liter (mg/l,) in Orange Lake. That’s equivalent to a 45 percent reduction of the nutrient currently present in the lake. The strategies focus on improving stormwater treatment and control programs; identifying the sources of nutrient discharges and then working to reduce them; and educating the public.

But despite the FDEP’s efforts for the past several years to make the lake healthier for the fish and wildlife that depend on it, progress has been incremental at best: Phosphorus levels have remained the same some years and even gotten worse in others.

“Water quality in Orange Lake has been declining since 1985,” according to the FDEP. “Annual average (total phosphorus) and (total nitrogen) concentrations have increased between the 1993-2000 total daily maximum daily load data period and the post-BMAP period of 2008-2013.”

Several requests to speak to an FDEP official went unmet. Agency spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller e-mailed a reporter excerpts from its BMAPs and cited the agency’s restoration efforts and projects to reduce nutrient flow into the lake.

“In the case of the Orange Creek Basin BMAP, the total number of projects identified in the two phases adopted to date is 205; total completed projects to date 115,” Miller wrote.

Asked why water quality hasn’t improved, Miller e-mailed back: “Natural systems take time to respond to reductions in pollutant loading, and for some lakes the impacts from interconnected waters or in-lake processes will continue to be seen even after successful completion of restoration projects.

“Setting water quality restoration goals and accompanying restoration plans is an inherently adaptive process,” she continued. “The department continues to work with stakeholders not only to monitor progress toward achieving restoration goals in the lake, but also to identify and implement additional projects as needed to improve water quality.”

Area environmentalists, residents and scientists say the state’s efforts are not enough. FDEP’s own data shows its efforts don’t appear to be panning out.

Orange Lake’s phosphorus level between 1995-2000 was an average of 0.5mg/l, nearly twice the goal, according to FDEP. Between 2007-2013, the total phosphorus level was three times the goal amount. It was even worse — – about four times the goal amount — – between 2008-2014.

The higher-than-desired phosphorus levels lead to unwanted vegetation, which congests boat ramps and parts of the lake and makes boat passage sometimes impossible. Vast portions of the lake are marred by tussocks: a mix of floating mud, soil and decaying vegetation. These floating islands, home to vegetation, animals and birds, often cover much of the lake. The lake’s size fluctuates depending on drought conditions. In dry times it can shrink to 3,000 acres; at its height it can swell to more than 15,000 acres.

People dispute whether the tussocks occur naturally or form because of the lake’s overabundance of unwanted nutrients.

The health of the lake matters because it is a popular destination for fishermen and boaters. People who live in the Orange Lake area, and businesses that make their trade from the tourists and sportsmen, want the lake restored and grumble about the slow progress. Orange Lake also is a visible sign of how the state’s larger environmental protection efforts are progressing.

While phosphorus levels aren’t diminishing, FDEP says at least it knows where the pollutants are coming from. About 49 percent of the total phosphorus in Orange Lake comes from Newnans Lake and Lochloosa Lake, according to FDEP data. Phosphorus from upland, wetland areas and the atmosphere account for another 32 percent. FDEP estimate that 21.5 percent of the phosphorus entering Orange Lake’s watershed comes from agricultural land. Because Orange Lake, Newnans Lake and Lochloosa Lake are so interconnected, reducing phosphorus levels in Orange Lake is complicated.

FDEP estimates that more than half of the Newnans and Lochloosa lakes’ phosphorus comes from internal recycling of their nutrients. The agency says that since so much of the lakes’ phosphorus is internally recycled, it makes it difficult to reduce the levels.

Consider these modest improvements, which are the most recently recorded:

+ An estimated 27,889 pounds of total phosphorus enters Orange Lake annually. FDEP wants to reduce that to 15,262 pounds per year. In 2015, FDEP reported its efforts had resulted in reducing the lake’s phosphorus by 54 pounds annually.

+ Newnans Lake sees 25,732 pounds of phosphorus entering its waters annually. The state wants to reduce that to 10,924 pounds annually. In 2015, FDEP reported its efforts had resulted in reducing phosphorus entering that lake by 655.7 pounds annually.

+ Combined, Lochloosa Lake and Cross Creek receive 21,640 pounds of phosphorus annually. The state wants to reduce that to 12,330 pounds. In 2015, FDEP reported it reduced phosphorus 1,032 pounds annually.

Robert Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute (FSI) in Gainesville and a frequent critic of the FDEP, said the agency should set priorities and make a political commitment to see them through.

“You cut off the (pollutant) sources first,” he said. “Then you deal with the internal loads.”

Knight said most of FDEP’s efforts are a waste of time and money, and the lack of meaningful nutrient reduction is proof.

“The BMAPS are ineffective for the most part. That’s what we’re seeing. The BMAPs don’t have any teeth,” he said.

Knight also said that a key part of FDEP’s strategy — getting farms to follow “best management practices” to reduce their polluting nutrients from entering the soil and nearby waters — is folly. Best management practices are procedures tailored to individual farms to best reduce the amount of pollution entering the aquifer and surface waters.

Most of the 58,500 acres of agricultural land in the Orange Creek Basin are in the Orange Lake watershed. Of that, more than 38,000 acres are pasture and mixed range land; another 7,500 acres belong to horse farms.

Agriculture uses too much fertilizer, which ends up in the lakes, Knight said. And horse farms and cattle ranches produce too much waste. Despite efforts to get farms to follow best management practices to reduce polluting nutrients, best management practices just aren’t working, Knight said.

Knight said FDEP is using smoke and mirrors to make people think it’s making progress. “The proof is in the pudding,” he said. “If you don’t see some improvement in 10 years.the process isn’t working.”

Knight said that the FDEP touts a long list of projects meant to improve the basin’s water quality, but skims over the fact that there’s no real progress.

“And the public is just not aware of it,” he said.

Robert Palmer is the former staff director for the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space and Technology. He was also a member of the Alachua County Environmental Advisory Committee. These days he’s an active environmentalist and speaker who often participates in the FDEP’s BMAP process.

Asked whether the BMAPs were working to reduce Orange Lake’s harmful phosphorus levels, he replied, “In a one-word answer: No.”

He said that much of the BMAP strategy for Orange Lake depends on getting area farmers to sign up to follow best management practices. The problem is whether state officials are checking to see if farmers are following those practices. If the farmers aren’t, will the state force their hand?

Palmer said he doesn’t hold out much hope for FDEP getting it right. “I would seriously doubt if every farmer followed best management practices, Orange Lake would return to health.because it’s still being overwhelmed by (nutrient) input,” Palmer said.

He wrote FDEP in 2014 warning its BMAP had problems and likely wouldn’t help to meet the agency’s goals of reducing nutrients in the lakes.

He warned that the BMAP plan wasn’t focused on new and effective projects.

“Our fundamental concern is that this five-year plan update is not an action-oriented document, nor does it move us forward beyond the remedial actions proposed in the original 2008 BMAP,” he wrote on behalf of the Alachua County Environmental Protection Advisory Committee.

“The plan proposes ‘an additional 32 management strategies,’ of which 11 deal with nutrient reduction in the lakes. But these 11 strategies are neither ‘new’ nor ‘additional. In fact, they are old and rather toothless,” he wrote.

Despite the criticism, FDEP is doubling down on its efforts. It reported in its 2016 BMAP update that Marion and Alachua county governments continue in their plans to reach out and educate farms about best management practices. Many of the farms are horse farms.

Marion County took other steps, such as canceling street sweeping in the Orange Creek Basin portion of the county. Experts found it was not effective at removing debris from roads without curbs and gutters.

Alachua County made about 7,700 acres in land purchases for conservation in the Alachua Sink and Newnans Lake watersheds. The county is researching ways to remove muck from Newnans Lake and ways to reduce the lake’s external phosphate sources. The county also is working to convince residential property owners to use Florida-friendly landscaping and not high-maintenance turf grass.

While FDEP and environmentalists debate what will fix Orange Lake, many who live in the area or fish and boat the waters agree the conditions are getting worse.

“Years ago any (vegetation) stayed out there,” said Henry Latson, a former equipment operator who lives in Reddick. “There wasn’t enough to come in. You never had problems going out.”

As he lowered his boat into the lake on a recent day, the 72-year-old retiree said he has fished Orange Lake for at least the past 40 years.

“It (the pollutant) is probably coming from the farms and cow pastures. They should chop up all that stuff (unwanted vegetation) in the lake and drag it out,” he said. “But they’re not going to do it. They won’t listen.”

Another area resident, Troy Abner, said his family once owned a grocery store that catered to tourists. The business started in the 1940s and attracted customers by displaying a pet monkey and a chicken that pecked at a miniature piano.

He said FDEP doesn’t take good enough care of the lake.

“These floating islands.the vegetation. They don’t manage it,” said the 54-year-old construction worker. “If they kept it up more, more people would come and generate more revenue.”

Roger Reid, a retired truck driver who often visits the lake, said it isn’t fair to blame current farmers for Orange Lake’s problems.

“Before the horse farms it was all orange groves.and they used fertilizers and when it rained it all washed into the lake,” Reid said. “People didn’t know what they know now.”

John Reid, no relation to Roger Reid, bought the Sportsman’s Cove RV Resort next to Orange Lake a year ago. He said he needs the lake kept clear if he wants to attract people and to rent space in his park. He has 100 RV and mobile home sites, and current occupancy is just 35 percent.

He blames area runoff for the high nutrient content of the lake.

His solution: “You come in here with equipment and get rid of all these floating islands and all that edge grass,” he said. “People need to enjoy it.”

If the vegetation is removed and the state works to keep nutrients out, Reid said, he could rent all his park spaces. But when vegetation obstructs efforts to boat or fish, “it kills us,” he said. “It stops us right in our tracks.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Associated Press


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