Florida’s Lake Okeechobee experienced an algae bloom that covered more than 90 percent of the water’s surface during early July. The sludgy growth is certainly not appealing to look at, and residents have reported that it smells like mold. However, the looks and smell of the plant are not the biggest issue at hand.
It’s impact on human health potentially deadly.
The algae is teeming with cyanobacteria, which can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, and throat of those who come in contact with it. Vomiting and abdominal pain can follow…even death for those with weak immune systems, such as senior citizens and children. Ingesting the algae is even worse…and unfortunately many people may incidentally consume it when they eat fish and other marine life that came from infected water. Governor Rick Scott ordered seven counties into a state of emergency.
What caused this sudden influx of toxic growth? Unfortunately, the byproducts of agriculture is one of the major culprits.
When fertilizer runoff reaches the tributaries of the lake, it adds excess levels of phosphorus and nitrogen to the water. Summer temperatures heat up the water, and the stage is set. Algae takes off. The Army Corp of Engineers releases water from the lake via a system of dikes. Now the estuary—which normally has salty water would stifle the algae before it could bloom—gets a burst of fresh water…which helps spread the cyanobacteria.
Can anything be done to limit the amount of fertilizer runoff, before this process takes place? Yes…and it benefits farmers almost as much as it benefits the environment.
If fertilizer is escaping into local waterways, that means that it’s going somewhere aside from crops. Only the most elaborate drainage systems will recycle excess water and fertilizer directly back to your crops…but a grass waterway is a more affordable way to keep fertilizer in your soil.
In these instances, the graduated banks of a drainage waterway allow grass to grow. This grass survives on water that drains off of your fields and into the waterway, and the roots will eagerly gobble up any extra fertilizer that remains in that flow. Not only does the fertilizer allow the grass to grow strong, but it improves the quality of the soil surrounding the waterway. Serving a similar purpose to traditional cover crops, the grass converts excess nitrogen and builds up organic matter.
A side benefit is that the roots of this grass help to prevent erosion, ensuring that you won’t lose any acreage as a result of the waterway.
Drainage water will still get into your waterway, and will then flow into surrounding watersheds. The difference is that now they won’t contain the nutrients that promote unhealthy algae growth in bodies such as Lake Okeechobee.
Mother nature will thank you, and so will local residents who no longer need to worry about the hazards of living near it.