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LAKE OKEECHOBEE

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Phosphorus Problem

Why should we care about phosphorus?

The Everglades Ecosystem is made up rivers, lakes, and the Everglades itself. It begins with lakes just south of Orlando. From here the water travels south into the Kissimmee River. This river feeds into Lake Okeechobee. Water from the "Big O" flows south through the Everglades Agricultural Area (Sugar Mills) and the Big Cypress National Preserve. Eventually the water flows out past the Florida Keys in the Florida Bay.

The phosphorous in Lake Okeechobee is greatly affecting the habitat. Phosphorous is extremely harmful to the ecosystem. One reason is that phosphorous prevents submerged plants growth by not allowing the plants to get enough light. This affects the natural food chain. Fish live within these plants and consequently, loss of these plants means loss of homes for fish. Fish are of course, a source of food for many birds and animals.

While submerged plants can not tolerate high phosphorous levels, some plants relish phosphorous. Cattails are one such plant. This exotic plants strives on phosphorous. Meanwhile, native plants are losing ground and decreasing. Over 20,000 acres of native plants have been lost to exotic plant species.

Phosphorous has also changed the bottom of Lake Okeechobee. It has changed from sand to organic muck. Insects, snails, clams, worms, and other creatures used to live in the sandy lake bottom. These creaures helped to serve as a base for the food chain. Many of the sandy bottom creatures could not adjust to living in the phosphorous-enriched muck. The bottom of the food chain suddenly began to disappear, affecting the numbers of animals.

Probably the most harmful effect of phosphorous is the algal blooms. Algal blooms cause macroinvertibrates to die due to anoxia (lack of dissloved oxygen). This of course, affects fish, waterfowl, and predators at the top of the food chain.

So what does all of this mean? The phosphorous levels affect more than just the Lake Okeechobee Habitat. Since water flows downhill, the phosphorous flows through the entire Everglades Ecosystem. Plants, animals, and humans, are expereincing the negative affects of phosphorous loading!