A reevaluation of the cultural eutrophication of Lake Okeechobee using multiproxy sediment records

Daniel R. Engstrom, Shawn P. Schottler, Peter R. Leavitt, Karl E. Havens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

71 Scopus citations


Lake Okeechobee, the hydrological lynchpin of the Everglades ecosystem, is the subject of an ambitious, multiagency restoration effort aimed at reducing phosphorus inputs and resulting algal blooms and impaired water clarity. This restoration is predicated on returning the lake to something closer to its predisturbance condition, but that goal has been challenged on the premise that the lake has always been eutrophic. The resolution of this debate and the appropriateness of the nutrient reduction goals thus depend on obtaining a reliable sediment record of past limnological conditions - the aim of this study. Because of the potential for severe sediment mixing from tropical storms, this investigation used multiple dating tools to examine the integrity of the sediment record and then analyzed proxies for nutrient enrichment, phytoplankton composition, and paleoproductivity. Sediment profiles for atmospheric pollutants, fertilizer contaminants, and radiocesium from three widely spaced cores showed good preservation of stratigraphic detail and coherence with the 210Pb chronologies. These results demonstrated that sediment stratigraphy is largely intact and retains a reliable record of limnological change. Geochemical proxies provide strong evidence of increased nutrient loading beginning ca. 1950. Concentrations of sediment P double, and N:P and C:N ratios drop, while those for N isotopes (δ15N) increase. At the same time, tracers of phosphate fertilizers (uranium, vanadium, and arsenic) rise. These changes are synchronous among cores and constitute a robust, internally consistent record of increasing water-column P. Biotic responses are manifested in higher concentrations and in changing composition of fossil algal pigments, including (1) large increases in the concentrations of chemically robust carotenoids, (2) corresponding decreases in the ratios of pigments from diatoms to chlorophyte and cyanobacterial algae, and (3) increases in UVR-photo-protective compounds indicating greater prevalence of surface algal blooms. This study provides strong evidence that Lake Okeechobee has experienced accelerated eutrophication linked with post-1950s land use changes in its watershed, a conclusion consistent with the nutrient reduction goals of the Lake Okeechobee Protection Program. The results contradict recent claims that the lake's trophic state has not changed over time, as well as the assertion that sediments of large shallow lakes cannot support a reliable chronology of past events.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1194-1206
Number of pages13
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 21 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Algal pigments
  • Eutrophication
  • Florida Everglades
  • Lake Okeechobee
  • Lead-210 dating
  • Nitrogen isotopes
  • Phosphorus
  • Restoration
  • Sediment cores
  • Sediment mixing
  • Total maximum daily load (TMDL)


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