Phosphorus and DEP

By Bill Dwinell

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection's initials are DEP. One joke says DEP stands for "Donít Expect Protection", and we wonder if that might be true. Recent discussions with DEP indicate they may approve a permit request from two local dairies to increase their herd sizes by 800 cows each (one from 800 to 1600 and the other from 1200 to 2000). More on this later...

Some interesting numbers may help explain why this is a problem and a great concern of many. The target phosphorus (P) levels entering Lake Okeechobee is a concentration of 40 parts per billion (ppb). The guidelines for cattle ranch runoff is 180 or 350 ppb depending on the kind of grass they have. The current guidelines for dairy operations are 1200 ppb. These guidelines are set by DEP.

How do you get the water going into Lake Okeechobee to 40 ppb when you allow individual operations to exceed these numbers by so much?

The real rub comes when you find out that about half the dairies are not meeting the objective of 1200 ppb. One of the dairies with a request to increase their herd size are meeting the 1200 ppb, but they do not currently have the 1200 cows they are permitted to have, and there are no data that indicates they will still be able to meet it when they get to 1200 cows, and surely no data to indicate they can do it with 2000 cows. This dairy has gotten about $1 million of taxpayer assistance to build better nutrient controls which should improve their ability to remove P, but before the new operation has been tested or proven, they have asked for more cows. More cows means more poop (pollution) containing P.

Many of us believe they should prove the operation will work before they are allowed to increase their herd size. This would allow them to work out the kinks in their system without making the P problem worse and then having to back-off.

Don Linton and I met with Senator J. D. Alexander to discuss our concerns with these plans. He understood our concerns and followed up on our meeting by setting up a conference call between himself, DEP and me. As a result of this call, DEP committed to set up a public meeting to discuss this issue. We will ensure that public notices of this meeting will be made. By the way, I failed to mention that one of the two dairies is in the Lake Istokpoga watershed contributing to the high P levels we are seeing in Lake Istokpoga.