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Florida tops list for most polluted lakes in the U.S., study finds

 Thick algae mats clogged the Pahokee Marina on Lake Okeechobee last year.
Lannie Waters
/
Miami Herald archives
Thick algae mats clogged the Pahokee Marina on Lake Okeechobee last year.

Florida has climbed to the top of another ignominious list, thanks to i t s hundreds of thousands of acres of d i rt y lakes .

The state 's wat ers have long been foul ed by dirt y st ormwa ter and al gae bloo ms fed by fertilizer run off fro m farms. N ow a new study examining water quality across the U.S. shows Florida rank in g first for the highest total acres of lakes too polluted for swimming or healthy aquatic life. That means water can have high levels of fecal matter and other bacteria that can sicken people , or h ave low levels of oxygen or other pollution that can harm fish and other aquatic life. The state ranked second for polluted estuaries.

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The Environmental Integrity Project launched the project to track the progress of the Clean Water Act as it nears its 50th anniversary .

“Fifty years ago, we had the imagination and political will to face big problems and try to do something about them,” said Eric Schaeffer , the proje ct's executive director and former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulatory office . “We're hoping at this half - century mark that we can find the courage to recommit.”

The group based the findings on Florida’s 2020 water quality report filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The same reporting from other states was used to compile the rankings. Ohio and the Great Lakes were excluded because they compile data on lakes differently.

The 1972 law made it a federal crime to directly discharge pollution into waters, but remained vague about run-off that drains into waters. That’s created decades of problems for states like Florida, where farms and dense urban areas line waterways.

Across the U.S., it’s also allowed industrialized agricultural operations to largely bypass pollution limits, Schaeffer said.

“A failure to confront agriculture is probably the biggest program failure in the Clean Water Act,” said Schaeffer, who resigned from his EPA post in 2002 after criticizing the Bush administration for gutting the Clean Air Act. “We have to confront the fact that agricultural runoff is really the leading cause of water pollution in the U.S. today. I don't think that was true so much 50 years ago.”

In Florida, nearly 900,000 acres of lakes are classified as impaired for swimming or healthy aquatic life. About 2,500 acres of estuaries are polluted, accounting for 99 percent of the total assessed.

A big driver of that is Lake Okeechobee, which covers about 450,000 square acres and has been polluted by decades of agricultural and stormwater run-off. The $23 billion Everglades restoration plan is intended to undo much of the damage caused by polluted water flowing out of the lake. But Florida has not yet been able to slow the amount of phosphorus flowing into the lake, which can feed algae blooms .

The amount remains about three to five times higher than the 140 metric ton limit set by the state. A nd even more legac y pho sph orus sit s in about four inches of muck at the bottom of the lake .

The state and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are now in the midst of revising restoration work plann ed fo r Lake Okeechobee . P l an s originally included about 46,000 acres of storage but will now include about 50 deep aquifer storage and recovery wells at 10 locations around the lake.

The Clean Water Act was created in 1972 after decades of industrialization had left the nation’s waters a foul, stinky, poisonous mess. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River set the stage after routinely catching fire , finally drawing national attention and a renewed concern over polluted rivers across the U.S. The law set goals for reaching healthy targets for recreation and aquatic life by 1983 and stopping the discharge of pollution i nto navigable waters by 1985.

"Things have changed for the better since then, there's no doubt," Schaeffer said. "The Potomac River is now a major bass fishery. You can actually canoe down the Cuyahoga River. But we don't have the fishable, swimmable waters we were promised, and we have more work to do before we get them. "

The law made it a federal crime to discharge any pollution from “a pipe” or point source into waters and required states to regularly monitor water for impairments. That meant industrial facilities or sewer plants, like those in South Florida, could no longer dump waste directly into canals or the ocean. The EPA used the law to force Florida Power & Light to create cooling canals for Turkey Point rather than dump water used to cool the plant directly into Biscayne Bay.

But what it failed to address, the study notes, was the run-off that drains from cities and neighborhoods , and especially the tons of fertilizer used in agriculture th at flo w off of f ields and in to water ways ev ery year. While ther e are pollution limits , enforcing the limits is largely voluntary. Florida uses Best Management Practices, or BMPs, for its farms.

The Florida Department of Agriculture has been chronically understaffed and the Department of Environmental Protection has slashed its staff over the years.

A 2020 review of DEP enforcement by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility found that despite promises of reform, enforcement under Gov. Ron DeSantis continued to drop. While the number of inspections increased, finding more cases of noncompliance, the rate of enforcement fell.

DeSantis also formed a task force aimed at tackling t he toxic algae increasingly spreading in state waters. But so far, state lawmakers have failed to adopt t he task force' s recommendations.

In o rder to a chieve th e goa ls set out i n the Clean Water Act , the report recommends Congress:

* Require pollution standards be updated more frequently to keep pace with changing industry.

* Close the loophole for u rban and agri cultur al run-off.

* End the patchwork of guidelines across states and set universal standards.

* Make it easier to enforce clean-ups.

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Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.