Maintaining vegetation is ‘critical’ to reduce nutrient runoff in stormwater treatment areas

everglades - Florida
Some plant life can effectively remove nutrients from water before it gets to sensitive areas.

The South Florida Water Management District (SFMWD) highlighted efforts to maintain vegetation throughout its water cleaning systems during a public hearing on public recreational issues Monday.

LeRoy Rodgers, who works as a section lead in the Land Resources Bureau, spoke at a SFWMD hearing detailing efforts to grow and oversee vegetation in the state’s numerous stormwater treatment areas (STAs). Those STAs take the form of constructed wetlands, which can help preserve nature in Florida.

“The Everglades Forever Act directs the South Florida Water Management District to construct and operate a number of these large constructed wetlands with the objective of using the natural biological and physical wetland processes that occur in wetlands to remove surface water nutrients — primarily phosphorus — prior to entering the Everglades or other natural areas,” Rodgers explained.

“I’m very lucky to have a great team of biologists and (vegetation) management technicians that are responsible for managing vegetation in the district’s stormwater treatment, or STA, program. That is a critical part of operating these STAs, keeping the vegetation healthy and meeting our goals for reducing nutrients entering to our sensitive natural areas like the Everglades.”

In addition to clearing phosphorus and other nutrients, the STAs are also used by the public for numerous activities such as hunting, fishing, hiking and biking, birdwatching and star gazing.

The STAs utilize vegetation, such as cattail or alligator flags, to absorb phosphorus from flowing water. The process requires workers to artificially increase the growth of effective vegetation, then actively manage that vegetation to optimally sequester nutrients.

Erosion control is also a vital part of establishing effective sequestration systems without harming Florida’s natural systems, Rodgers explained.

“Without a lot of vegetation, the soils are very unstable. They can quickly erode from currents within the STA or if you are to allow boats or other kinds of traffic within the STA during this timeframe. It can cause changes to the topography of the land, and then that leads to problems with even flow down the road,” he continued.

Those managing the STAs must also contend with undesirable vegetation making its way into the structures. Storms, boat traffic and wildlife damage can also affect the health of preferred vegetation.

“We are expanding our capacity to treat surface waters by building an additional STA footprint,” Rodgers said. 

At least one of those planned new STAs has courted a lawsuit. Several South Florida farmers filed complaints last month pushing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to adjust its management plan for the A-2 section of the Comprehensive Everglades Planning Project (CEPP).

That section includes a stormwater treatment area and a reservoir, though neither are yet complete. The complaint argues the Army Corps’ management plan would leave water levels in the A-2 section too low, in violation of the 2000 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). The farmers also worry those lower water levels will be insufficient for their needs.

At Monday’s meeting, SFWMD Executive Director Drew Bartlett said the body would be sure to monitor vegetation health going forward as a new operational plan is being developed for Lake Okeechobee. That plan is likely to change where water is being sent throughout the state.

Ryan Nicol

Ryan Nicol covers news out of South Florida for Florida Politics. Ryan is a native Floridian who attended undergrad at Nova Southeastern University before moving on to law school at Florida State. After graduating with a law degree he moved into the news industry, working in TV News as a writer and producer, along with some freelance writing work. If you'd like to contact him, send an email to [email protected]


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