Florida Farmers Need Not Sink Amid Algal Bloom Stink [Opinion]

South Florida algal bloom from the air near Stuart, FL
Image courtesy of Martin County, FL (martin.fl.us)

Where were you when the green monster invaded South Florida’s waterways earlier this summer? If you are a Florida farmer, you were stuck right in the middle of the muck — whether you wanted to be or not.

When all eyes turned to indelible images of the thick, pea-soup-like substance oozing and undulating atop the faint movement of water that lay beneath it, farming and fertilizer practices were put on the spot as a main suspect in the natural disaster.

Whether or not that assessment is fair, the perception exists among the general public that corporate farming is oblivious to the environment. Growers know that is not the case.

Matter Of Factors

According to data from the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) have been setting the standard in best management practices implementation. For the last two decades, water flowing from farmland in the EAA achieved high marks in phosphorus reductions that significantly exceed those reductions required by law (25%).

Reports show BMP efforts during Water Year 2015 yielded a whopping 79% phosphorus reduction from the 470,000-acre farming region. Water Year 2016, despite historic rainfall, still was a win with a reported 27% reduction.

The fact is Florida is not alone in this water quality quandary. This year has been particularly bad for algal blooms around the country. Residents along the West Coast and Lake Erie, as well as in Utah and Idaho can attest to this.

The severe nature of the most recent visit from El Niño certainly can be added to the conversational mix related to our water woes. South Florida set records for rainfall this past winter. There was no “dry season.” Just ask citrus growers as they continue to deal with the effects of postbloom fruit drop brought on by the less-than-ideal weather abnormalities.

Another major factor to consider that seems to be missing from most of the narrative is people. Florida is the third most populated state in the U.S. More than 1,000 people move to the Sunshine State every day. Along with that kind of critical mass comes a huge strain on natural resources.

Clear As Muck

Since the algal bloom crisis reared its ugly head, government agencies have taken mighty measures to mitigate the mess. One method SFWMD employed was water farming/storage north of Lake Okeechobee. Nearly two years ago, SFWMD’s Governing Board approved agreements to more than double the overall water retention capacity in its Dispersed Water Management program.

The approved contracts (totaling $135 million) added a cumulative potential of 95,812 acre-feet of storage to the program, or about 36 billion gallons annually. That acreage is coming in handy now.

So, is water farming the answer in stopping future algal blooms? A recent reader poll indicates you’re not totally convinced.

It’s probably safe to say this won’t be the last large algal bloom, and the media will come calling again. In the meantime, be prepared, proactive, and farm smart. There is much at stake.

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