Understanding Stormwater Treatment Area 3/4

Entrance to Stormwater Treatment Area 3/4 in Palm Beach County, adjacent to Rotenberger Wildlife Management Area – ©Jacob Katel

Everybody knows that sugarcane farms around Lake Okeechobee introduce massive amounts of phosphorus into waters that run into the Everglades, the Gulf of Mexico, Biscayne Bay, and Florida Bay.

These nutrient runoff outflows contribute to death in a vicious circle.

No surprise that phosphorus was first synthesized by a 17th century alchemist in Germany named Hennig Brand. He was working with what he supposed were the metallurgical applications of human urine; namely, how to make gold bricks from golden showers. In 1669, he boiled some pee pee until he could filter the vapors from the paste of it through water. This is how he produced a glowing white element that burnt like a tiny artificial sun. Phosphoros Mirabilis. Phosphorus, from the Greek Phosphoros, meaning, “Light bringer,” which is the Latin translation of the word for Lucifer. Pretty weird, right?

Phosphorus is also found in each and every human cell, which just goes to show there may be a little Lucifer in all of us.

Phosphorus is a chemical element that is beneficial for human consumption in small amounts, but is also a popular ingredient in fertilizers, pesticides, and even human-killing nerve agents in weapons of war. Phosphorus in the watershed renders adult fish dangerous for humans to eat. It also over-feeds bacteria and algae. This affects the chain of life through damages to flora, fauna, and prey that are important to commercially fished species.

South Florida has been experiencing these negative effects for decades.

sta 3/4
A canal close to the Harold A Campbell Public Use Area in the Stormwater Treatment Area 3/4 – ©Jacob Katel.

But the levels would be even greater if not for the solutions that were put in place to try and contend with these realities, namely in the construction of the world’s largest manmade wetlands, a system of treatment and filtration using natural ecology in an unnatural way that is organized in a series of “Stormwater Treatment Areas,” “Wildlife Management Areas,” and “Public Use Areas,” uniting Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties across their western expanses.

Cat tail is a plant that efficiently absorbs, concentrates, and buries chemical elements like phosphorus. And that’s why the combination fish-tank, terrarium, and open-air biosphere of the hunting and recreation grounds that make up the Stormwater Treatment Areas are important.

The cat-tail reed, seemingly named for the puffy, tubular, absorbent outgrowth of its skinny trunk, soaks up chemicals and buries them as the plant breaks down and sinks into the ground. The chemical nutrients phosphorus and nitrogen also trigger cat-tail overgrowth, so pollution begets absorption. For the most part this method is proven to make a significant statistical dent in the pollution’s further reach; and the phosphorus stays put, but it doesn’t cease to exist. At some point, the other shoe has to drop. Like if turbulence releases the buried elements.

Perhaps in the future a dredge can run through the canals and collect all of this used phosphorus and nitrogen and sell it to a fertilizer company.

Bio-Engineering isn’t as complicated as it sounds. The tri-county area has been using it to sweep the problem of pollution under the rug, pretty effectively, but it’s time to try something bold, expensive, and new. Innovations that will help keep nature going, stronger than ever.

By Jacob Katel

Diving into news about water.