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Data Series 613

Prepared in cooperation with
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,
South Florida Water Management District, and
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services

Concentrations and Loads of Nutrients in the Tributaries of the Lake Okeechobee Watershed, South-Central Florida, Water Years 2004–2008

By Michael J. Byrne, Sr., and Molly S. Wood

Thumbnail of report coverAbstract

Lake Okeechobee in south-central Florida is the second largest freshwater lake in the contiguous United States. Excessive phosphorus loading, harmful high and low water levels, and rapid expansion of non-native vegetation have threatened the health of the lake in recent decades. A study was conducted to monitor discharge and nutrient concentrations from selected tributaries into Lake Okeechobee and to evaluate nutrient loads. The data analysis was performed at 16 monitoring stations from December 2003 to September 2008.

Annual and seasonal discharge measured at monitoring stations is affected by rainfall. Hurricanes affected three wet years (2004, 2005, and the latter part of 2008) and resulted in substantially greater discharge than the drought years of 2006, 2007, and the early part of 2008. Rainfall supplies about 50 percent of the water to Lake Okeechobee, discharge from the Kissimmee River supplies about 25 percent, and discharge from tributaries and groundwater seepage along the lake perimeter collectively provide the remaining 25 percent. Annually, tributary discharge from basins located on the west side of the Kissimmee River is about 5 to 6 times greater than that from basins located on the east side. For the purposes of this study, the basins on the east side of the Kissimmee River are called "priority basins" because of elevated phosphorus concentrations, while those on the west side are called "nonpriority" basins. Total annual discharge in the non-priority basins ranged from 245,000 acre-feet (acre-ft) in 2007 to 1,322,000 acre-ft in 2005, while annual discharge from the priority basins ranged from 41,000 acre-ft in 2007 to 219,000 acre-ft in 2005.

Mean total phosphorus concentrations ranged from 0.10 to 0.54 milligrams per liter (mg/L) at the 16 tributaries during 2004–2008. Mean concentrations were significantly higher at priority basin sites than at non-priority basin sites, particularly at Arbuckle Creek and C 41A Canal. Concentrations of organic nitrogen plus ammonia ranged from 1.27 to 2.96 mg/L at the 16 tributaries during 2004–2008. Mean concentrations were highest at Fisheating Creek at Lake Placid (a non-priority site), and lowest at Wolff Creek, Taylor Creek near Grassy Island, and Otter Creek (three priority basin sites), and at Arbuckle Creek (a non-priority basin site). Mean concentrations of nitrite plus nitrate ranged from 0.01 to 0.55 mg/L at the 16 tributaries during 2004–2008. Mean concentrations measured in priority basins were significantly higher than those measured in non-priority basins.

Nutrient concentrations were substantially lower in the non-priority basins; however, total loads were substantially higher due to discharge that was 5 to 6 times greater than from the priority basins. Total phosphorus, organic nitrogen plus ammonia, and nitrite plus nitrate loads from the non-priority basins were 1.5, 4.5, and 3.5 times greater, respectively, than were loads from the priority basins.

In the non-priority basins, total phosphorus loads ranged from 35 metric tons (MT) in 2007 to 247 MT in 2005. In the priority basins, the loads ranged from 18 MT in 2007 to 136 MT in 2005. In the non-priority basins, organic nitrogen plus ammonia loads ranged from 337 MT in 2007 to 2,817 MT in 2005. In the priority basins, organic nitrogen plus ammonia loads ranged from 85 MT in 2007 to 503 MT in 2005. In the non-priority basins, nitrite plus nitrate loads ranged from 34 MT in 2007 to 143 MT in 2005. In the priority basins, nitrite plus nitrate loads ranged from 4 MT in 2007 to 27 MT in 2005.

First posted April 24, 2012

For additional information contact:
Michael J. Byrne, Sr.
U.S. Geological Survey
Hydrologist, Florida Water Science Center - Orlando
12703 Research Parkway
Orlando, Florida 32826
(407) 803-5575

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Suggested citation:

Byrne, M.J., Sr., and Wood, M.S., 2011, Concentrations and loads of nutrients in the tributaries of the Lake Okeechobee watershed, south-central Florida, water years 2004–2008: U.S. Geological Survey Data Series 613, 22 p.




Purpose and Scope

Description of Study Area

Previous Studies



Water-Quality Protocols

Analytical Methods

Quality-Control Sampling and Requirements

Load Calculation Procedures

Nutrient Loads


Nutrient Concentrations

Computation of Loads


Selected References

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