Everglades National Park (Pic by Rodney Cammauf, National Park Service; via army.mil)

According to a recently released study by the Everglades Foundation, the agriculture industry is responsible for 76 percent of the phosphorus pollution entering the Everglades. But despite passage of a “Polluter Pays” amendment to the state Constitution in 1996, the ag industry isn’t paying for even half of the cost of phosphorus removal, leaving the balance of the burden on the shoulders of taxpayers.

According to the study, agriculture contributes about 76 percent of the total phosphorus entering the Everglades, and pays only 24 percent of the costs of removing that phosphorus. Residential/commercial/industrial rate payers fund 10 percent of the cost and the remaining 66 percent is passed on to taxpayers.

As The Florida Independent has previously reported, nutrients like phosphorus are harmful to state waterways, because they lead to or exacerbate large-scale algal blooms and fish kills. In Northeast Florida, a string of dolphin deaths was even attributed by some to the overwhelming nutrient load in the St. Johns River.

Though it has a storied past, and is often thought to be one of the most pristine parts of Florida, the Everglades is suffering from a host of problems exacerbated by agricultural practices.

Farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area use sulfate as a fertilizer counter-ion and to increase the acidity of the soil, making fertilizer more readily available to plants, which take in sulfate through their roots. A previous report found that that sulfate, when combined with naturally occurring mercury, creates methylmercury — a substance that some say is to blame for population declines of several Everglades species, including wading birds. Sulfate is currently unregulated in the area.

Phosphorus is also used readily by Agricultural Area farmers and is currently governed by a narrative standard, which states that, “in no case shall nutrient concentrations of a body of water be altered so as to cause an imbalance in natural populations of aquatic flora or fauna.” The federal government has mandated that Florida adopt a more stringent set of criteria governing nutrients like phosphorus, but that mandate has been hotly contested by the agricultural industry (and, often by lawmaker who have received hefty donations from the agricultural industry).

The Everglades Foundation study reveals a trend: The agricultural industry is continuing to inundate the Everglades with both sulfur and phosphorus, but failing to clean up after themselves. The report reveals that about 76 percent of the total phosphorus entering the Everglades comes from agriculture, while 23 percent comes from urban areas. The remaining 1 percent originates from natural areas.

Other key findings of the study:

  • Within the South Florida Water Management District, agriculture discharges 1,449 metric tons of phosphorus and 12,845 tons of nitrogen into surface water.
  • Of the 216 metric tons of phosphorus reaching the Stormwater Treatment Areas, manmade wetlands that are specifically designed to filter pollution before it enters the Everglades, only 28 metric tons are coming from Lake Okeechobee.
  • Wastewater treatment facilities — in residential, commercial and industrial sectors — remove 93 percent of the total phosphorus they produce each year, and account for 16 percent of the total phosphorus load to the environment within the South Florida Water Management District.
  • Residential, commercial and industrial sectors pay 99 percent of the cost to remove the phosphorus they produce, and remove 93 percent of the phosphorus they produce within the South Florida Water Management District.
  • It costs $47 to remove 1 pound of phosphorus with best management practices and $350 per pound to remove it with Stormwater Treatment Areas. By comparison, it costs less than $10 per pound to add phosphorus as fertilizer.

The report’s findings are somewhat surprising, given the passage of Florida’s “Polluter Pays” amendment in 1996. The amendment, which passed with 68 percent of the public’s vote, states that those who produce pollution that flows to the Everglades must be “primarily” responsible for paying the cost of its cleanup.

In a statement, Kirk Fordham, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, says that he hopes the study will “begin a conversation among policy makers, conservation leaders, sugar company executives and other agricultural industry leaders on how to more equitably pay for the cost of cleaning up pollution impacting the Everglades.”

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