October 19, 1986
Beneath calm surface,
Florida's largest lake
is choking on algae
By Jkmek HN
OKEECHOBEE, Fla. Dave Swift, up to his el-
bows in Lake Okeechobee, is an environmental private
eye on the sloppy trail of a waterborne monster.
He is fishing for clues, tracking the destruction of
slimy green fingers of algae that surfaced for the sec-
ond time in two months and have begun to choke the
life from Okeechobee, the second largest freshwater
lake in the country.
He finds evidence floating in plain view. Dead apple
snails, the sole food source for the endangered Ever-
glades kite, are one more sign that
.the south Florida lake is suffocating
lOwly in its own pollution.
"It's obvious," says Swift, a re-
"search environmentalist for the
ZliAth Florida Water Management
District, "that something is very
Since the first severe algae out-
.'fieak in August probably the
.Itrt in the lake's history Gov.
".Bob Graham and the state Depart-
ment of Environmental Regulation
have mounted a save-the-lake effort
that officials estimate may cost up
to $125 million.
Algae are microscopic plants
fed by pollutants, in this case high
levels of phosphorus in agricultural
runoff. The plants steal oxygen
from the water and kill aquatic life.
Some fishermen and conserva-
tionists around the state fear that it
may be too late to save the 733-
square-mile lake, which is the pri-
mary water source for the Ever-
glades and south Florida urban and
They point to the death 30 years
ago of central Florida's Lake
Apopka, the state's second largest
lake, as a frightening reminder of
the havoc pollution can wreak.
"It's a fear that's in the back of
all of our minds," says state DER
Secretary Victoria Tschinkel, "that
we have lost a major lake in our
At first glance, Lake Okeecho-
bee's appearance belies its condi-
tion. Fishermen still are catching
plenty of bass. Birds continue diving
But experts say a closer look
shows the algae moving with the
wind, stretching farther across the
water, and closing in on the city of
Okeechobee's drinking water intake
On Saturday, officials were in-
vestigating a fish kill in a seven-
mile stretch of a rim canal on the
lake's northeast side. Swift speculat-
ed it may have been caused by bac-
teria from cow manure flushed into
the water during a recent rain. Offi-
cials could not be reached to con-
firm the cause.
TROUBLE: Enironmentast Dave Swift finds ominous signs in the water of Florid's Lake Okeechobee.
"It's just a cesspool compared
to what it was 10 years ago," says
Scott Driver, a fishing guide, as he
slows his airboat to examine the
water's greenish hue.
For more than 10 years, Driver
has lived in the rural calm of the
Okeechobee community on the
lake's north side, which announces
itself to visitors as the "Speckled
Perch Capital of the World." About
a year and a half ago, Driver orga-
nized the group called Save Okee-
"The people that come to the
communities around this lake have
in their mind fishing," Driver says.
"If we lose it, we lose our drawing
Lake Okeechobee has built a
reputation as the shining star of
bass lakes, "the most productive
bass lake in the world," says Doug
Hannon, a Tampa naturalist and au-
thority on big bass.
In addition to commercial fish-
ermen, the lake is used by tourists
who prefer Okeechobee's wide-open
spaces to south Florida's condo-lined
The lake is the public water
supply for shoreline communities,
and it indirectly serves urban south
Florida as the water is pumped
south to replenish underground wa-
It angers Hannon that billions of
gallons of waste water have been
pumped into the lake despite studies
completed more than a decade ago
indicating that the lake system was
in danger of collapse.
Everglades could be next
"The powers that be say, 'It's
bad, but we're going to save it."'
Hannon says. "It's in grave danger
right now. If the lake goes, the Ev-
erglades will die with it."
State agencies are working on
projects to restore the Everglades
and the Kissimmee River, which
drains into Lake Okeechobee and
has brought much of the pollution.
The only way to save the lake
now, says Ms. Tschinkel, may be to
divert polluted water east and store
it in a reservoir, either to be used
by citrus growers or dumped into
the Indian River estuary. That
would cost at least $75 million, re-
quiring help from the federal gov-
ernment and taking at least five
years, she says.
"We are drawing a line," Ms.
Tschinkel says. "Water supply will
have to take a second seat to the
natural biological functions of the
Farming operations that have
settled on the sprawling land around
the lake depend on its water supply,
particularly in times of drought.
Sugar farms are spread across
400,000 acres in the Everglades ag-
A major question about what
will happen if water is diverted
from the already shallow lake re-
mains unanswered, says Dalton
Yancey, executive vice president of
the Florida Sugar Cane League: "Is
there going to be enough water for
everybody when the lake goes dry?
"It's important to look at Lake
Okeechobee not only from a water
quality basis ... but also you have
to look at it from a water supply
viewpoint, which is a regional view-
point," he says.
Lake Okeechobee has collected
waste water from the region for
years via rivers and creeks, as well
as by a system of drainage canals
that provide water and flood protec-
tion for urban and agricultural ar-
Farmers often are blamed
Though many farmers here have
built lagoons and fenced off canals
and other waterways from cattle to
minimize runoff containing fertiliz-
er, animal manure and sewage, they
continue to draw heavy fire from
"I always knew I was an SOB,"
Jim Enrico of Enrico Dairy Inc.
says with a wry grin, 'but I didn't
know how bad an SOB until the last
Enrico keeps about 1,200 head
of cattle and willingly shoulders
some of the blame for the pollution.
But earlier this year, he quickly
spoke out against a proposal that
dairy farms in the area be bought
out as one solution to the pollution
"A lot of environmentalists
think agriculturalists are only inter-
ested in their little section of the
world," Enrico says. "But we fish
that lake, too. If we totally destroy
that water, we are hurting ourselves
as much as we're hurting anyone
Enrico and fishing guide Driver
worry that too many state agencies
have become involved in the save-
the-lake effort without coordinating
"I still think nobody has a clear
idea of the overall picture and what
is being done to that lake," Enrico
Ms. Tschinkel insists that the ef-
fort to save Okeechobee is "the
most urgent one we have on our
agenda here in the state," and says
at least six state agencies are work-
ing to reach a solution.
But some marina owners who
make their living from the lake say
state officials and others are dis-
torting the true picture of Okeecho-
"If we have bad water, a bad
lake, then I don't see that they
would be catching all these fish."
says Mary Ann Martin, wife of TV
fishing expert Roland Martin, who
runs the Roland Martin Clewiston
Marina on the lake's southwest side.
"Between the press and the politi-
cians, Ithe pollution issue] blew
completely out of proportion."
state researchers and folks who
make their living off the lake con-
tinue to debate just how serious the
problem really is.
"Some people say that the lake
is going to die in a year or two, and
I don't think that's the case," says
Swift. "My concern is that the fre-
quency of these [algae] blooms be-
comes more and more over the
Doug Hannon's concern is that
the fish won't be biting much longer
if someone doesn't quickly put a
stop to the agricultural pollution.
"Let's face it," says Hannon.
"We don't need sugar as bad as we
need the whole south of Florida."
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