Florida’s Water Quality Woes

Florida’s Water Quality Woes

Being in the panhandle of Florida you may, or may not, have heard about the water quality issues hindering the southern part of the state. Water discharged from Lake Okeechobee is full of nutrients.  These nutrients are coming from agriculture, unmaintained septic tanks, and developed landscaping – among other things.  The discharges that head east lead to the Indian River Lagoon and other Intracoastal Waterways.  Those heading west, head towards the estuaries of Sarasota Bay and Charlotte Harbor.

 

A large bloom of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) in south Florida waters.
Photo: NOAA

Those heading east have created large algal blooms of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria). The blooms are so thick the water has become a slime green color and, in some locations, difficult to wade.  Some of developed skin rashes from contacting this water.  These algal blooms block needed sunlight for seagrasses, slow water movement, and in the evenings – decrease needed dissolved oxygen.  When the algae die, they begin to decompose – thus lower the dissolved oxygen and triggering fish kills.  It is a mess – both environmentally and economically.

 

On the west coast, there are red tides. These naturally occurring events happen most years in southwest Florida.  They form offshore and vary in intensity from year to year.  Some years beachcombers and fishermen barely notice them, other years it is difficult for people to walk the beaches.  This year is one of the worst in recent memories.  The increase in intensity is believed to be triggered by the increase in nutrient-filled waters being discharged towards their area.

Dead fish line the beaches of Panama City during a red tide event in the past.
Photo: Randy Robinson

On both coasts, the economic impact has been huge and the quality of life for local residents has diminished. Many are pointing the finger at the federal government who, through the Army Corp of Engineers, controls flow in the lake.  Others are pointing the finger at shortsighted state government, who have not done enough to provide a reserve to discharge this water, not enforced nutrient loads being discharged by those entities mentioned above.  Either way, it is a big problem that has been coming for some time.

 

As bad as all of this is, how does this impact us here in the Florida panhandle?

 

Though we are not seeing the impacts central and south Florida are currently experiencing, we are not without our nutrient discharge issues. Most of Florida’s world-class springs are in our part of the state.  In recent years, the water within these springs have seen an increase in nutrients.  This clouds the water, changing the ecology of these systems and has already affected glass bottom boat tours at some of the classic springs.  There has also been a decline in water entering the springs due to excessive withdrawals from neighboring communities.  The increase in nutrients are generally from the same sources as those affecting south Florida.

 

Florida’s springs are world famous. They attracted native Americans and settlers; as well as tourists and locals today.
Photo: Erik Lovestrand

Though we are not seeing large algal blooms in our local estuaries, there are some problems. St. Joe Bay has experienced some algal blooms, and a red tide event, in recent years that has forced the state to shorten the scallop season there – this obviously hurts the local economy.  Due to stormwater runoff issues and septic tanks maintenance problems, health advisories are being issued due to high fecal bacteria loads in the water.  Some locations in the Pensacola area have levels high enough that advisories must be issued 30% of the time they are sampled – some as often as 40%.  Health advisories obviously keep tourists out of those waterways and hurt neighboring businesses as well as lower the quality of life for those living there.

 

Then of course, there is the Apalachicola River issue. Here, water that normally flows from Georgia into the river, and eventually to the bay, has been held back for water needs in Georgia.  This has changed flow and salinity within the bay, which has altered the ecology of the system, and has negatively impacted one of the more successful seafood industries in the state.  The entire community of Apalachicola has felt the impact from the decision to hold the water back.  Though the impacts may not be as dramatic as those of our cousins in south Florida, we do have our problems.

Bay Scallop Argopecten iradians
http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/bay-scallops/

What can we do about it?

 

The quick answer is reduce our nutrient input.

 

The state has adopted Best Management Practices (BMPs) for farmers and ranchers to help them reduce their impact on ground water and surface water contamination from their lands. Many panhandle farmers and ranchers are already implementing these BMPs and others can.  We encourage them to participate.  Read more at Florida’s Rangeland Agriculture and the Environment: A Natural Partnership http://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/nat/2015/07/18/floridas-rangeland-agriculture-and-the-environment-a-natural-partnership/.  

 

As development continues to increase across the state, and in the panhandle, sewage infrastructure is having trouble keeping up. This forces developments to use septic tanks.  Many of these septic systems are placed in low-lying areas or in soils where they should not be.  Others still are not being maintained property.  All of this leads to septic leaks and nutrients entering local waterways.  We would encourage local communities to work with new developments to be on municipal sewer lines, and the conversion of septic to sewer in as many existing septic systems as possible.  Read more at Maintaining Your Septic Tank http://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/nat/2017/04/29/maintain-your-septic-system-to-save-money-and-reduce-water-pollution/.

 

And then there are the lawns. We all enjoy nice looking lawns.  However, many of the landscaping plans include designs that encourage plants that need to be watered and fertilized frequently as well as elevations that encourage runoff from our properties.  Following the BMPs of the Florida Friendly Landscaping ProgramTM can help reduce the impact your lawn has on the nutrient loads of neighboring waterways.  Read more at Florida Friendly Yards – http://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/nat/2018/06/08/restoring-the-health-of-pensacola-bay-what-can-you-do-to-help-a-florida-friendly-yard/.

 

For those who have boats, there is the Clean Boater Program. This program gives advice on how boaters can reduce their impacts on local waterways.  Read more at Clean Boaterhttps://floridadep.gov/fco/cva/content/clean-boater-program.

 

One last snippet, those who live along the waterways themselves. There is a living shoreline program.  The idea is return your shoreline to a more natural state (similar to the concept of Florida Friendly LandscapingTM).  Doing so will reduce erosion of your property, enhance local fisheries, as well as reduce the amount of nutrients reaching the waterways from surrounding land.  Installing a living shoreline will take some help from your local extension office.  The state actually owns the land below the mean high tide line and, thus, you will need permission (a permit) to do so.  Like the principals of a Florida Friendly Yard, there are specific plants you should use and they should be planted in a specific zone.  Again, your county extension office can help with this.  Read more at The Benefits of a Living Shoreline http://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/nat/2017/10/06/the-benefits-of-a-living-shoreline/.

 

Though we may not be experiencing the dramatic problems that our friends in south Florida are currently experiencing, we do have our own problems here in the panhandle – and there is plenty we can do to keep the problems from getting worse. Please consider some of them.  You can always contact your local county extension office for more information.

Addressing Eutrophication in Florida, one watershed at a time

Addressing Eutrophication in Florida, one watershed at a time

Local estuaries are a beautiful place to explore with your family. Credit: Matthew Deitch, UF IFAS Extension

Florida’s rivers, springs, wetlands, and estuaries are central features to the identity of northwest Florida. They provide a wide range of services that benefit peoples’ health and well-being in our region. They create recreational opportunities for swimmers, canoers, and kayakers; support diverse wildlife for birders and plant enthusiasts; sustain a vibrant commercial and recreational fishery and shellfishery; serve as corridors for shipping and transportation; and support ecosystems that help to improve water quality. Maintaining these aquatic ecosystem services requires a low level of chemical inputs from the upstream areas that comprise their watersheds.

Aquatic ecosystems are especially sensitive to nitrogen and phosphorus, which are key nutrients for the growth of plants, algae, and bacteria that live in these waters. High levels of these nutrients combined with our sunny weather and warm summer temperatures create conditions that can lead to rapid growth of aquatic plants and algae, which can cover these water bodies and make them no longer enjoyable for people and wildlife. It can also cause dissolved oxygen levels to fall, as plants respire (especially at night, when they are not photosynthesizing) and as bacteria consume oxygen to break down dead plant material. Low dissolved oxygen can create conditions that are deadly for fish and shellfish.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) lists more than 1,400 water bodies (including rivers, springs, wetlands, and estuaries) as impaired by pollutants. Many of these are impaired by excessive nitrogen or phosphorus. It is a daunting challenge to reduce pollutants in these water bodies because their inputs frequently come from all over the landscape, rather than a specific point—nutrients can come from agricultural fields, residential landscapes, septic tanks, atmospheric deposition, and livestock throughout the watershed.

In Florida, FDEP has begun a program to reduce nutrient concentrations in impaired watersheds by collaborating with landowners and other stakeholders to develop management programs to reduce pollutants entering the state’s waters. This pollutant reduction program is currently focused on Florida’s spring systems, including Jackson Blue Spring and Merritt’s Mill Pond in Jackson County. Merritt’s Mill Pond is a 4-mile long, 270-acre pond located near Marianna, and it is a popular regional destination for swimming, boating, kayaking, and fishing in the Panhandle. Its main source is Jackson Blue Spring, which produces, on average, more than 70 million gallons of water each day. Excessive growth of aquatic plants and algae in the pond during summer reduces the area available for swimming and boating. In 2014, FDEP began working with agricultural producers, residents, developers, local government officials, and other stakeholders to identify nutrient contributions in the Merritt’s Mill Pond watershed and develop an action plan to reduce nutrients entering the pond in the coming decades. Collaborations with stakeholders help to improve the accuracy of pollutant estimates, and to ensure the plan is designed appropriately to achieve desired ecological outcomes.

This Action Plan for reducing nutrients into Merritt’s Mill Pond provides an opportunity for land managers to implement their own plans to reduce nutrient contributions without FDEP imposing rigid regulations or mandating particular actions. People can choose from an array of Best Management Practices designed to reduce nutrient contributions, and the state has made funds available for people to help implement these plans. Implementing this Action Plan will restore the wonders of Merritt’s Mill through the 21st Century.

This article was written by: Matthew J Deitch, PhD,  Assistant Professor, Watershed Management with the UF IFAS Soil and Water Sciences Department at the West Florida Research and Education Center. For more information, you can contact him at mdeitch@ufl.edu or 850-377-2592.

 

Maximize your farm’s energy savings with FDACS’ free energy evaluations and cost share program

Maximize your farm’s energy savings with FDACS’ free energy evaluations and cost share program

A poultry farm in North Florida used FDACS cost share funds to install solar panels for renewable energy production. Photo source: FDACS Office of Energy

Maximize your farm’s energy savings with FDACS’ free energy evaluations and cost share program

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) Office of Energy is currently offering free energy evaluations and cost share funds to increase on-farm energy efficiency to agricultural producers in Florida. This includes all types of operations, such as row crop, fruit and vegetable farms, nurseries, livestock and poultry operations, dairies, and aquaculture farms.

What is an energy evaluation and how is it done?

The purpose of the free evaluations (which are valued at $4,500) is to let producers know how they can maximize energy efficiency and ultimately reduce costs on-farm. During these evaluations, members of a Mobile Energy Lab (MEL) walk through the operation with the producer, evaluating all forms of energy use. Since energy use is often linked to water use (irrigation pivots, for example), the team also assesses water use.

MEL teams are made up of energy experts contracted by FDACS from one of three universities: Florida A&M University, the University of Central Florida and the University of Florida. The MEL will be made up of members from the university closest to the farming operation being evaluated.

After the MEL team has finished the on-site visit, it prepares an evaluation and sends it to the producer. The evaluation details energy use and makes recommendations about how to increase efficiency on-farm. These recommendations depend on the operation and what the farmer is interested in doing. They can include switching to more efficient lighting, converting irrigation pumps from diesel to electric, using variable frequency drives (VFDs) on milk vacuum pumps in dairy operations and switching to or adding small-scale renewable energy generation, like solar or biomass, among others.

After a producer decides on changes she or he would like to make, FDACS offers 80% reimbursement (or cost-share) up to $25,000 to implement recommendations made in the evaluation.

An additional advantage of having a free energy evaluation completed by the MEL is that the evaluation can be used to apply for cost share funds from the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Producers could potentially receive cost share dollars from both FDACS and NRCS to increase on-farm energy efficiency.

A producer in the Suwanee Valley took advantage of cost share funds to switch from using a diesel irrigation pump (left) to an electric pump (right). Photo source: FDACS Office of Energy

What is the timeframe for applying for energy evaluations and cost share funds?

FDACS offers statewide evaluations and cost share through their FRED Program (Farm Renewable and Efficiency Demonstration). These funds are set to expire September 2018, and so any items or equipment obtained with cost share funds must be purchased and installed by September 2018.

To have enough time to apply for and receive an energy evaluation (which is the first step to obtaining cost share funds), applications for evaluations must be turned in to FDACS by February 1, 2018.

The good news is that a similar program will continue after September. However, it will be in a more geographically restricted area. The Office of Energy received BP RESTORE funds to continue funding energy evaluations and cost share in the Apalachicola and Suwannee River Basins. These funds will be available starting this spring. The office hopes to secure more RESTORE funds in the future to expand the geographic reach of the program.

It’s estimated that dairy farms with 50 cows or more could save 40-55% of milk vacuum pump costs by using a variable frequency drive or variable speed drive (VFD) (shown above) on milk vacuum pumps. Photo source: FDACS Office of Energy

 Who is eligible for energy evaluations and cost share funds?

Producers that are eligible for NRCS EQIP funds are eligible for this energy program. As stated by FDACS, this means a producer has to:

  • Have control of the land for the term of the proposed contract period.
  • Be in compliance with the highly erodible land and wetland conservation provisions described in 7 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) Part 12.
  • Have an interest in the agricultural operation as defined in 7 CFR Part 1400.
  • The average adjusted gross income of the individual, joint operation or legal entity, may not exceed $900,000

If you have any questions about these requirements, please contact Takara Waller at the Office of Energy (contact information listed below).

How do you apply for an energy evaluation?

To apply for an energy evaluation, you need to submit an application to the FDACS Office of Energy. Application forms and instructions on how to submit them, as well as more information about the program can be found at http://www.freshfromflorida.com/Business-Services/Energy/Incentives-for-Agriculture-Producers

If you have any questions, Takara Waller from the Office of Energy can help guide you through the process. Her contact information is:

(850) 617-7470 (phone)

(850) 617- 7471 (fax)

Takara.Waller@FreshFromFlorida.com

For more information about NRCS EQIP cost share funds, contact your local NRCS office. Contact information for offices in the panhandle region can be found at https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/fl/contact/local/?cid=nrcs141p2_015022

Your local USDA Farm Services Agency can also provide more information about cost share programs related to energy. Contact information by county is found by selecting (or clicking on) the county of interest on the following map https://offices.sc.egov.usda.gov/locator/app?service=page/CountyMap&state=FL&stateName=Florida&stateCode=12.

Remember: an energy evaluation is the first step in obtaining cost share funds to increase on-farm energy efficiency and savings.

Florida Cover Crops Hold Common Ground

Florida Cover Crops Hold Common Ground

One of the great barriers to progress in most policy discussions is an “Us” vs. “Them” battle based on historic generalizations and unawareness of change and current practices of the two “sides”. The bad news is there has been much such conflict between “farmers” and “environmentalists”, but there is good news out there. As contentious as discussions of conservation and climate change have been, agricultural practices are being driven by changing weather patterns and budget busting input and commodity prices. The beneficiary is soil and water quality and an increase in carbon sequestration.
As a recent article in the New York Times discusses, much of this change is pragmatic, not philosophical or political. With “Almost 1.7 billion tons of topsoil are blown or washed off croplands a year, according to the Department of Agriculture”, American farmers’ innovative practices are addressing a vast problem which creates “billions of dollars in losses for farmers” and untold damage to water quality.

In recent years, row crop farmers across North Florida are increasingly adopting no till planting and returning to cover crop plantings to reduce erosion, increase water infiltration, smother out weeds and keep soils cooler during our blistering summers. Here’s the story of the Florida Soil Health and Cover Crop Group’s first meeting in 2015 and its impact in one field in Jefferson county.
It wasn’t raining on April 1st, when the inaugural tour was held. Participants heard descriptions of the value of a winter cover crop,such as cereal rye, in the production of a warm season cash crop. “Discover the Cover” was hosted by Jefferson County UF/IFAS Extension, the Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation Board, and the Jefferson County office of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in cooperation with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Office of Agricultural Water Policy, Brock Farms. Fulford Family Farms and Fulford 6 Farm.

Kirk Brock told of his years of experience of knocking down a cereal rye cover crop and leaving it on the field to reduce erosion, increase soil organic matter, shade out weeds and increase soil water infiltration. “We fertilize the cover crop and use that rye biomass to provide fertility for the summer crop,” Brock said. His soil pits showed attendees how rye roots penetrate the soil profile and leave channels for movement of water and crop roots to follow.  “We got tired of moving our topsoil back up the hill every year,” Brock said when he explained his journey from conventional farming to no-till planting on his hilly, dry land acreage. “If I had to go back to conventional planting, I’d get out of farming,” the Jefferson County native has said.
After leaving Brock Farms, the group moved to a rye termination demonstration by members of the Fulford families. Visitors watched two different machines flatten the rye in preparation for planting. “It’ll help slow down water movement and keep the soil in the field, “grower Stephen Fulford said as the shiny new roller got its first chance to flatten Florida rye. The roller lays the mature rye down and a herbicide application insures it doesn’t get back up. Stalks aren’t severed; they remain attached to the plant’s mature roots, providing an anchored set of numerous, small obstacles to prevent water flow and soil erosion.
On a warm blue sky day, it was a little hard to visualize the effect the rolled rye might have on surface erosion. As usual, things change. I returned to the roller demonstration field on May 1 after lunch. It had just stopped raining, and the fire ant hills didn’t even have dry dirt on top of them yet. One of the wettest Aprils in history, (11.9” at the Monticello Florida Automated Weather Network station) had concluded with 3.1” of rain on the 29th and 30th. An additional 0.98” (4.08” in less than sixty hours) had fallen that morning.
Water was running down the field road, through a recently harrowed fire line and into the field. The amazing thing? The sediment went no further than three feet into the rye. The rye mat had stopped the sediment and clear water was moving slowly across the field underneath the rolled rye. The still attached rye stems remained parallel to each other.
One of the questions asked at “Discover the Cover” concerned cost effectiveness of such a system. More research needs to be done on actual costs, but one financial fact is as clear as the water at the bottom of these fields. These farmers will be planting as soon as their fields dry out. They won’t be burning any diesel to haul their topsoil back up the hill, and that good Jefferson County soil won’t be lost to the Gulf of Mexico. That’s good news for everybody.

More complete information is available on the high biomass cover crop system in the following UF/IFAS publication: Agricultural Management Options for Climate Variability and Change: High-Residue Cover Crops. If you’d like additional information on cover crop and soil health practices, contact Dr. David Wright at wright@ufl.edu or Dr. Danielle Treadwell at ddtreadw@ufl.edu.