Research sheds light on Lake Okeechobee issues

A visiting scientist from China helped Florida Gulf Coast University with a newly-published study surrounding Lake Okeechobee, and the research was no easy feat.

Lake O’s seemingly endless stretch of water is breathtaking. Now, research two years in the making gives us a better idea of what’s going on beneath the surface. That’s where FGCU’s Everglades Wetland Research Park comes in.

“We get three, four, five visiting scientists a year coming to our lab,” said Bill Mitsch, director of the FGCU Everglades Wetland Research Park.

Professor Pei Ma from China teamed up with Mitsch to study Lake O beginning in 2018.

“She did a marvelous thing. She took samples twice, once in the wet season, once in the dry season, went all the way around the lake,” Mitsch said.

In turn, researchers studied the isotopes found in those samples, which act as sort of a name tag.

“The isotope tells you where it came from and this study actually identified the principal source for the nitrate that’s in the lake,” Mitsch said. “We can’t follow it all the way to the Gulf of Mexico yet, but in the lake, it was primarily agriculture that was causing nitrate pollution in the lake.”

The research shows fertilizers and soil nitrogen were the main contributors.

“Everybody assumes it’s always the cattle causing the pollution and this said no, no, it wasn’t that, it was the runoff from agriculture,” Mitsch said.

Now that the research is published, the next step is controlling the nutrients going into the lake.

Mitsch and his colleagues hope to study pollutants in red tide to see if there are any connections.

NOTE: We reached out to the Florida Ag Coalition regarding the findings. A spokesperson sent us a statement saying, “Florida has the most progressive program in the country when it comes to protecting Florida’s water resources. Florida’s farmers, growers and ranchers implement best management practices that are science-based and proven to protect and restore Florida’s water resources. The new Clean Waterways Act strengthens, takes our efforts a step further. The law strengthens agricultural best management practices and requires on-site verification every two years so we can do more to protect our environment and ensure that our efforts are making a difference.”

Reporter:Stephanie Byrne
Writer:Jackie Winchester
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