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Becoming Water Wise

Article-Becoming Water Wise

In the Seminole Tribe language, Okeechobee means "big water." For Florida cattleman Keith Pearce, whose 3,300-acre family cow-calf operation lies directly adjacent to Lake Okeechobee, it also means big changes.Pearce, an eighth- generation cattleman, first saw those changes in the mid-'80s when water quality issues began to take center stage. Pearce, his mother Marian and sister Nancy operate a ranch

In the Seminole Tribe language, Okeechobee means "big water." For Florida cattleman Keith Pearce, whose 3,300-acre family cow-calf operation lies directly adjacent to Lake Okeechobee, it also means big changes.Pearce, an eighth- generation cattleman, first saw those changes in the mid-'80s when water quality issues began to take center stage. Pearce, his mother Marian and sister Nancy operate a ranch corporation that consists of 900 commercial Braford and Brangus cows and a small purebred Brahman herd.

Lake Okeechobee, the nation's second largest inland freshwater lake, was in the spotlight - and in the Pearce's backyard. From 1975 to 1985, phosphorus levels in the lake doubled to approximately 100 parts per billion (ppb) total phosphorus, causing algae blooms and fish kills. As a result, a wave of water quality regulations soon followed.

Because of the regulations, Pearce changed his fertilization practices on pastures, monitored his grazing practices more closely and began doing his own water quality testing to compare data with the South Florida Water Management District.

"I contend there is a natural phosphorus problem in Lake Okeechobee," Pearce says. "No doubt it's been intensified by agriculture, but the canal systems that were put in place in the 1950s and 1960s have contributed as well," he says.

Even since the 1800s it's been treated as more of a reservoir than a lake, he adds. "That changes what restoration really means and we can never put it back to the way it was."

Ten years after the regulations were initiated, producers and water managers are realizing just that.

A Different Approach "We've realized we are not going to solve the lake's problems through regulations," says John Morgan, director for the South Florida Water Management District in Okeechobee.

"Science is showing us that even if every producer met their regulations, we aren't going to solve the phosphorus problem," says Morgan. He's referring to data showing there were tremendous reductions in phosphorus loading to the lake since regulations were imposed, but those reductions have since flattened out and are even increasing.

Why is that happening? Morgan suggests it's because Lake Okeechobee is not like a northern lake. With an average depth of 14 ft., "it's more like a saucer than a pond, and too many nutrients cause the system to react," he says.

Because the lake has received large doses of phosphorus for more than 50 years, it has accumulated more than 2,000 tons of phosphorus in its upper sediment layers. This could delay the lake's recovery from pollution, even when new phosphorus inputs are greatly reduced.

"It's (the Surface Water Improvement and Management plan) been effective at reducing phosphorus levels in the lake, but there are still areas with problems and we don't know why," says Morgan.

The regulatory approach has also not been effective at keeping the local economy stable. "We got real focused on the environment, but neglected economics and social impact on the area. That's been our learning curve," says Morgan.

The regulations haven't been good for the South Florida Water Management District's image, either. "We have this regulatory program and, for the most part, I would say it's been successful. While it's a small part of what we do, it's become a big perception," adds Morgan.

"Some believe tighter regulations are needed, but we want to look for a more cooperative way," says Morgan. "We believe the next step is getting producers to voluntarily hold water on the land and keep the phosphorus there.

"From that line of thinking, we went to the Florida Cattlemen's Association and said, 'we are water managers, not cattlemen,' and that has led to our developing management practices together," says Morgan.

Similar Scenarios Florida's water quality dilemmas are not unlike similar scenarios being played out in other states. Facing the stereotype that livestock agriculture is one of the biggest polluters of America's rivers and streams, cattlemen across the country are becoming proactive by implementing voluntary guidelines called Best Management Practices (BMPs).

"In our state, water quality and availability will be the single biggest issue in the next 10 years because of the growing population," says Glenn Smith, executive vice president of the Georgia Cattlemen's Association. "If we're going to stay in the livestock business, we must be much more particular about water quality. I'm not pointing fingers to our industry, but we've got to be prepared."

The Georgia Extension Service and Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission developed statewide BMPs in 1994. The BMP guidelines are available to producers in the form of a handbook listing production methods that qualify as "best management" practices.

"If you look through our list of BMPs you're not going to find anything new. It's mostly common sense conservation to reduce erosion," says University of Georgia crops and soils professor Bill Segars, who helped write Georgia's BMPs.

"Many are aimed at row crops because ranchers already have grass in place," Segars says. But he cites streamside buffers, alternative shade and watering sites and pasture management as important practices beef producers can implement to help protect water quality.

"Ninety percent of this management practice process is providing the information for the producer to refer to," says Pearce, who serves on the Florida Cattlemen's committee responsible for developing the state's BMPs. "BMPs will be there to help producers meet the requirements for the SWIM plan."

For example, Pearce says one of the things the committee will be addressing is fertilization and stressing that producers refer to the latest university research recommendations. Current research has determined that fertilization doesn't have to be as heavy as it's been in the past.

"My fertilization practices have changed with research findings," says Pearce. "Plus economics have changed. I try to fertilize once a year to be more cost-effective and water conscious. If it's a hay pasture I'll do it twice."

Of Florida's efforts, Morgan says, "I like to call it adaptive management because we are always looking to improve. 'Best' is really a misnomer because they change. If I had a vision of what would come, it's a menu of management practices that would allow landowners to pick what works for them," says Morgan.

Site-Specific And Voluntary But coming up with that menu of management practices can be a tough task. "With a state as diverse as Florida, it's difficult to write BMPs that apply to everyone in the state. Therefore, these practices must be site-specific and voluntary," says Pearce.

"We want to be as specific as we can without being regulatory," says Pearce. "These are best management practices, not best management regulations."

In developing Georgia's BMPs, Smith says a broad approach was taken. "They aren't very detailed, but they weren't intended to be. Technical issues change, that's why Extension and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are needed to help tailor practices and put them in place," says Smith.

"It is important that the basic premise is that they are voluntary. BMPs can't be mandated because of differences in typography, soil types, etc.," adds Smith.

And as long as they are voluntary, Smith believes BMPs will work. "You can influence more people this way than a heavy handed approach," he adds.

"It's an agency developed piece, but in Georgia they included ag and environmental groups to review drafts and talk through the direction the material was going. We felt if we didn't get involved and develop voluntary BMPs there would be mandatory ones in the future. Because of our involvement, I believe we had a great hand in shaping these for the cattlemen," says Smith.

Four years later, Smith says he sees increasingly more beef producers talking about erosion and water quality and asking what they can do to improve things. "That's what BMPs are about," says Smith.

Florida hopes to have their BMPs developed and implemented by beef producers by June 1999. "We are concentrating on water quality for now. At a later time we hope to include management practices for wildlife enhancement and beautification," says Pearce.

And it appears Florida's BMPs will arrive none too soon. With hiking trails and shopping centers being planned to boost recreational opportunities around the 120-mile circumference of Lake Okeechobee, it's certain that the water quality of the lake will remain in the public eye. But Florida's cattlemen hope their efforts at being water quality conscious will keep them in the public eye as well.

In 1987 the Florida Legislature required the South Florida Water Management District to "design and implement a program to protect the water quality of Lake Okeechobee."

Initially, the finger was pointed at the dairy industry. By June 1987 the Dairy Rule required all dairy operations within the lake basin to implement management practices to reduce phosphorus inputs into the lake. A target of no more than 1.2 mg/L of phosphorus runoff was set. Some producers were told to build treatment systems or they could take the dairy buyout and leave the watershed.

Once dairy operations were in check, beef cattle operations were identified as the largest remaining human-related source of phosphorus to Lake Okeechobee. In 1987 the Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) Act was passed to regulate runoff from beef operations. Water quality targets for beef producers were set at .18 mg/L phosphorus runoff.

But a compromise was reached and beef producers must not be above .35 mg/L phosphorus where water leaves their property, says Florida cattleman Keith Pearce.

In the early 1900s, portions of the Everglades south of Lake Okeechobee were drained and developed into farmland. But, by the 1920s, two major hurricanes struck South Florida, flooding hundreds of acres and killing thousands of people. To prevent such devastation from happening again, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Herbert Hoover Dike, which still surrounds the lake's perimeter.

Today, South Florida has 1,800 miles of canals and numerous miles of levees and other improved waterways designed to help "tame" the unpredictable weather extremes of the region. But with water quality issues surfacing, a study is being conducted to re-evaluate the water infrastructure to see if it serves the needs of today, according to John Morgan, director for the South Florida Water Management District in Okeechobee. "We are talking about putting wiggles into the straight canals and developing more storage areas and buffers to help filter out some of the pollutants."

The recommendations for BMPs (Best Management Practices) must be based on solid research. The MacArthur Agro-Ecology research center near Lake Placid, FL, is helping beef producers gather that research.

"The center is run like a typical cattle ranch because we want real-life research," says Gene Lollis, MacArthur ranch manager. The operation, which lies north of Lake Okeechobee, includes 3,200 head of Brahman, Braford and Angus cross cows on 10,300 acres.

Over the next three to five years, MacArthur's researchers will be looking at different stocking rate densities and the effect they have on water quality. Sixteen, 50 to 80-acre experimental pastures have been designed to isolate the surface runoff from each individual pasture.

The project is a collaborative effort that involves cattle ranchers and scientists from the University of Florida and its Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), the Archbold Biological Station, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and the Florida Cattlemen's Association.

Lollis hopes the MacArthur ranch becomes a voice for the cattle industry and that cattle can coexist with the environment. "Our intent is to bring the two worlds together," says Lollis. "We can't keep looking at things as us and them."

"Cattle have been here since the Spanish lost them. They've become part of the ecosystem, and they can be a management tool to achieve our objectives," says John Morgan, director for the SFWMD in Okeechobee.