'Glorified carpenter' develops plan to save Lake Okeechobee
Updated: Feb 19, 2019
Keith Richardson is an example of the way life can produce inexplicable surprises. He is a self-proclaimed “glorified carpenter,” a father of three daughters with never-ending car issues and a husband. He also moonlights as a Florida conservationist.
When he has time in-between working on his two oldest daughters’ matching ‘99 Camaros and working as a construction superintendent, Richardson is developing a plan to solve one of Florida’s most pressing environmental issues: the phosphorus pollution of Lake Okeechobee.
Lake Okeechobee is making national news because multiple beaches have been shut down due to toxic algae blooms in the past year.
The algae blooms are commonly known as “red tide.” This bloom is caused by a build-up of muck that has too many nutrients and not enough oxygen at the bottom of Lake Okeechobee called phosphorus silt.
Florida’s recently elected governor, Ron DeSantis, ran on the platform that he was going to hold “Big Sugar,” companies that grow sugar cane surrounding the lake, accountable for their pollution of Lake Okeechobee. However, Richardson says and that while the sugar industry is a contributing factor, it is not the primary cause.
Richardson believes the burden to take care of Lake Okeechobee will likely be carried by a combination of taxpayers and industry but does not concern himself with assigning blame.
“I haven't thought about it that hard, a part of what we do in construction is not to blame but to solve a problem,” Richardson said. “Because you can sit around all day trying to figure out who did what and why it happened, or you can just fix it.”
In an article titled “Phosphorus - It’s everyone's legacy,” journalist Katrina Elseken argues that, although many blame the industries that operate in the region currently such as agriculture practices and urban development for the phosphorus buildup they are not the only culprits. The pollution of Lake Okeechobee is a responsibility for anyone and everyone who has benefited from the existence of the diverse industry surrounding the region.
“Agriculture, urban development and Mother Nature all played a part in building up phosphorus in the soil as well as in the waterways of South Florida,” Elseken wrote.
According to Elseken, everything from animal waste runoff from dairy farms that began in the 1950’s to the endless golf greens of the Orlando area, or even invasive aquatic plants is creating the crisis the public knows today.
Inspired by agricultural practices of the ancient Mayan nation in Peru, Richardson has spent well over 500 hours of his own time developing a plan that does not simply manage the issue, but endeavors to alleviate it. He said the plan is comparatively cost effective to alternative solutions and will contribute to the health of the lake and the industries that depend on it.
“Nutrients are not the problem with Lake Okeechobee but unutilized nutrients are,” Richardson said.
His plan utilizes dredges to create islands and below transient targeted efficient aeration techniques to expose the phosphorus rich silt to oxygen. Over time the process naturally neutralizes the threat of phosphorus build-up and turns the deposits into life-giving sources to the lake and its dependents.
The risk of not properly addressing the buildup of phosphorus in Lake Okeechobee extends far beyond the shores of the lake itself.
The Sun Sentinel reports that the negative effects of the pollution in Lake Okeechobee spill into the economies of coastal cities that depend on tourism, wildlife that has already suffered extreme habitat loss and Florida’s clean water supply.
Richardson believes his greatest obstacle in this project will be finding an audience that will listen and take action.
“My biggest hurdle is finding an audience...finding who to talk to...after all who wants to know the opinion of a glorified carpenter,” Richardson said.
Richardson believes that like so many other issues that face society today, public attention is necessary for the future of Lake Okeechobee to grow brighter. However, he is not waiting for the spotlight to be shown on the issues that face Florida, but instead is actively working to bring a solution to the table.
By Jessica Lykins and Michaela Payne
Photo Credits to: Lindsay Richardson