UF's water issues
Lake Alice, other bodies wouldn't meet EPA's proposed limits
Published: Sunday, January 31, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 11:32 p.m.
For many, Lake Alice is one of the more scenic spots on the University of Florida campus, with students studying, picnicking and eyeing alligators in its waters or on its shores. Some people have even been known to sprinkle their loved ones' ashes in the lake.
LAkE ALICE NUTRIENT LEVELS:
2009: No nitrate limit being proposed for lakes. under the limit in nitrogen, about 23 times over the limit in phosphorous.
2008: over the limit in nitrogen (about 1.6 times); over the limit in phosphorous by about 21 times.
2007: over the limit in nitrogen (barely); over the limit in phospho- rous by about 19 times.
But the lake is one of many water bodies on campus that would be considered impaired under new limits on nutrients proposed earlier this month by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous can cause algal blooms that can be deadly for fish and hazardous to humans.
In fact, not a single water body on campus that has been monitored regularly over the past few years would meet the proposed limits, according to a review of campus water quality records. Some nutrient levels are more than 20 times the proposed limits.
The most likely culprit, said Mark Clark, the UF professor in charge of monitoring, is fertilizer used by the University Athletic Association.
The UAA uses fertilizer on a number of fields on campus, including Florida Field, the football practice fields and the baseball diamond, to keep them green and safe for play.
The problem is that runoff from the fields is spreading the fertilizer across campus, causing conditions that are ripe for algal blooms. One such bloom began in Lake Alice before last year's Homecoming game against Arkansas, threatening to turn the water bright green just as thousands of alumni were about to return to campus.
To prevent that from happening, UF applied an extra dose of the herbicide copper sulfate, said Clark, an assistant professor of wetland ecology at UF. The university regularly uses the herbicide to keep the lake looking healthy. Though generally safe, too much copper sulfate can be hazardous to fish and plants.
"If we weren't treating Lake Alice," Clark said, "... then the level of nutrients entering Lake Alice would cause an outcry because it would turn green."
On top of being unsightly, exposure to some types of blooms can cause rashes and asthma-like conditions as well as diarrhea and vomiting. Fish and other aquatic life face their own problems: death, reduced spawning grounds and oxygen-deprived "dead zones."
UF's waters aren't unique, though.
About 1,000 miles of rivers and streams, 350,000 acres of lakes and 900 square miles of estuaries in Florida are considered impaired - or not meeting EPA standards - based on a 2008 assessment. The number is likely much higher, according to the EPA, because there are many areas that haven't been assessed.
The newly proposed limits are a testament to how widespread the problem is in Florida. The EPA decided new limits are necessary for the state because Florida had not met the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act, according to an EPA spokeswoman.
On the UF campus, officials say they are aware of the problem and are working to fix it. "Our sensitivity to this is very high," said Ed Poppell, UF's vice president for business affairs. "We're going to find ways to not have an impact on our water, period," Poppell said. And the UAA, he said, will foot the bill when it's appropriate.
Brian Barton, associate director of operations for the UAA, said the association has done everything it can to reduce nutrient levels on its fields since 2003, when UF began monitoring the water bodies. Barton said the UAA has substituted a fertilizer with lower nutrient levels for most of its needs. The new fertilizer costs about three times as much as the old one - $1,500 a ton versus $460 a ton. Barton said he couldn't estimate how much fertilizer the UAA uses each year.
The association also switched to slow-release products, he said, that are less likely to wash away during heavy rains. "Obviously we want to be a sustainable member of the campus community," Barton said.
Installing artificial turf on one of its football practice fields had the added consequence of reducing fertilizer use as well. Installed in 2005, the artificial turf allows players to practice during periods of bad weather and to prepare for opposing venues that have artificial playing surfaces, Barton said in an e-mail.
Fifteen years earlier, in the summer of 1990, Florida Field switched from artificial turf to natural grass when Steve Spurrier took over as head football coach.
The recent changes appear to be working. Levels of the most worrisome nutrient being regulated - nitrate, a type of nitrogen - have decreased or remained steady at most monitoring locations since 2003, according to information provided by Clark. They are down by almost half at one of the most affected areas, Hume Creek. Levels of overall nitrogen also are decreasing at many locations, while phosphorous seems to be inching up over the same period.
On the whole, though, UF's waters don't make the cut.
In 2009, all of the 11 monitoring sites that might be affected by the proposed limits had phosphorous levels that were too high, according to Clark's interpretation of the standards, while six sites broke the nitrogen limit and four sites exceeded the limit on nitrates.
Nitrate levels at one site last year were about 18 times above the limit, while nitrogen levels were as much as six times too high, according to the latest data on UF's Web site. The average phosphorous level in Lake Alice was about 23 times the limit.
In Alachua County, most of the creeks monitored by the county's Environmental Protection Department would exceed the phosphorous limit, said Robin Hallbourg, a professional geologist with the department.
Between a quarter and half of the county's creeks might exceed the nitrogen limit, and most would not likely be subject to a nitrate limit, Hallbourg said. Many lakes in the area, like Newnan's and Biven's Arm, already are considered impaired by the state. The state ordered UF's Lake Wauburg to be taken off the impaired list this past summer.
The regulation as it's currently written allows the yearly average nutrient levels in a body of water to be over the limit once every three years. Due mainly to high phosphorous levels, none of UF's regularly monitored waters would have been entirely compliant with the new numbers over the past three years.
But, Clark says, high nutrient levels don't always mean a water body is in bad shape. Even with excess nutrients, a stream or lake might not see algal blooms without adequate sunlight.
It's also important to note, he said, that UF's campus - and the Gainesville area in general - has naturally higher phosphorous levels than other parts of Florida.
Taking into account the potential issues with a "one-size-fits-all" set of numbers, the EPA built some wiggle room into its proposed limits.
But UF has even more wiggle room than most. Because Lake Alice is essentially permitted as a stormwater retention pond, not a natural lake, state water quality laws like the ones being proposed by the EPA don't apply to UF.
Nevertheless, UF decided in 2005 to adopt the state standards. Now, it seems, UF will strike out on its own and develop another set of numbers for itself, which might take as long as a year.
Instead of seeing this as an easy out, Clark says he's in favor of creating new criteria specific to UF's campus. UF's naturally high levels of phosphorous, for example, might make it all but impossible to come into full compliance.
Clark says, however, that without anyone to hold UF accountable, the standards could potentially be less rigorous.
"We'd be proposing to ourselves," he said, "which makes us the fox and the hen at the same time."
Municipalities across Florida also will be struggling with how to handle the new limits once they go into effect in October after public feedback.
"This will be a major topic of discussion for a long time, and there's gonna be some major polarizations and lawsuits and legal battles over this," Clark said.
Ultimately, though, the nutrient levels in UF's waters are too high, Clark said, and they should be brought into check. Once UF decides on a set of numbers, it will work with the UAA to meet them. Options include reducing fertilizer use and filtering runoff from the athletic fields.
And though some people might be OK with a green Lake Alice if it means a green Florida Field, Clark said he won't let that fly.
"My expectation is not to take into account the need for a green field," he said. "That's, to me, not a need."