Water Solutions

For 21st Consecutive Year, Everglades Farmers Exceed Phosphorus Reduction Requirements

By Nancy Smith, Sunshine State News
August 12, 2016

Despite the challenge of “an insanely wet ‘dry season'” — 10 inches in January alone — Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) farmers were able to keep their 20-year hot streak alive.

Pamela Wade, in charge of Everglades regulation for the South Florida Water Management District, delivered the good news to the District’s governing board Thursday: Farmers again exceeded phosphorus reduction requirements for water flowing from their farms to the Everglades, making this the 21st consecutive year they have met the state’s water-quality standard south of Lake Okeechobee.

Wade said phosphorus was reduced 27 percent in the 477,000-acre farming region south of Lake Okeechobee for the 12 months ended April 30. Florida’s Everglades Forever Act, enacted in 1994, requires the amount of phosphorus leaving the EAA to be 25 percent less than before the reduction efforts began, Wade said. It is not a year-to-year comparison.

During the previous 20 years, the EAA averaged a 56 percent reduction in phosphorus, she said.

But she added, this year was particularly challenging — in fact in an earlier statement Governing Board member Melanie Peterson called it an “astounding accomplishment” — considering the high water levels from record rainfall. The EAA experienced the wettest January since record keeping began in 1932.

“There’s always a greater runoff response when we see such unprecedented rainfall and significant flooding in the basin,” Wade said.

During a year of El Nino rainfall — at times more than 350 percent above average — the growers’ science-based “best management” farming practices, such as on-farm erosion controls and more precise fertilizer application methods, pulled them through.

Since 1996, Wade said during a slide presentation, those measures have prevented more than 3,055 metric tons of phosphorus, including 51 metric tons in the most recent period, from leaving the EAA.

Nevertheless, environmental organizations — for example, Audubon Florida — claim meeting the 25 percent phosphorus reduction is keeping the bar too low. It’s an easy threshold to reach, Audubon Executive Director Eric Draper has said. Draper was unavailable for comment Thursday.

Agriculture is a powerful economic driver for the state of Florida. In the 700,000-acre EAA, the primary crop is sugar cane, but other crops such as winter vegetables, sod and rice are grown there, too. In fact, the EAA is known as “the nation’s salad bowl.”

“The Everglades Agricultural Area is a uniquely productive farming basin, unlike any other in the nation,” said EAA grower Paul Orsenigo of Pahokee-based Grower’s Management, the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association’s incoming chairman. “Not only does the EAA provide abundant supplies of rice, sugar cane and vegetables — including enough lettuce for 3 billion salads — but EAA farmers are also essential partners in the success of one of the world’s largest environmental preservation efforts.”

Said John Scott Hundley of Hundley Farms in Belle Glade,“Hearing these results makes all of the hard work and long hours we put in during this tough year even more worthwhile. I’ve been working on our family’s farm for 26 years, and I can’t remember a tougher year managing water, outside of a major storm.  I’m proud of these results because they exemplify the expertise of the growers who were able to manage their farms in a way that protected local food supply and continued to provide water-quality performance for the Everglades.”

District officials said South Florida’s water, especially water the district moves into Everglades National Park, is cleaner than it has been in generations and meets stringent water quality requirements.

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