Environment

South Florida water managers unveil quick fix for Florida Bay

Years of flood control and summer drought triggered a massive seagrass die-off in Florida Bay that scientists say covers about 60 square miles.
Years of flood control and summer drought triggered a massive seagrass die-off in Florida Bay that scientists say covers about 60 square miles. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

As they struggle to gain control of massive algae outbreak that has fouled the Treasure Coast with a green, chunky toxic slime, South Florida water managers on Thursday unveiled a quick fix that they hope will address another simmering crisis: ailing Florida Bay, where miles of dead seagrass could trigger a different algae bloom.

The measures, which will use existing canals, pumps and other features, could double the flow of freshwater that feeds the sickest part of the bay.

But some Keys leaders fear the changes, expected to cost between $1.8 million and $3.3 million, fall far short of the solutions the bay needs to weather future droughts.

It’s a short-term operational fix.

Monroe County Mayor Heather Carruthers

“It’s a short-term operational fix,” Monroe County Mayor Heather Carruthers said. “Until we have permitted distribution sites to get water into the bay, we’re only going to be doing tweaks.”

In recent months, Florida’s coasts have been pounded with water problems compounded by an aging flood control system that diverts the natural flow of water south and forces managers to dump water east and west when Lake Okeechobee rises too high.

Over the summer, dry conditions withered the bay, driving up salinity and triggering the massive die-off that has spread to about 60 square miles. Further north, the opposite occurred. Record winter rain forced massive releases of water from the lake to protect its aging dike. The deluge of polluted water sickened both coasts, igniting an algae bloom that slimed rivers and beaches to the east when summer temperatures soared.

On Thursday, district staff reported that conditions in the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie River had begun to ease somewhat as releases from Lake Okeechobee have been cut back. The district began holding water north of the lake in the Kissimmee River basin and also diverted some water south into Palm Beach County. The governing board also approved steps to speed up work needed to store more water on public and private lands.

To the south in Florida Bay, district officials said increasing water into Taylor Slough in Everglades National Park could help revive the central bay. The changes in how water flows from water conservation areas to the north should also ease flooding of farmlands to the east.

It would certainly be a big pay-off ecologically and not only to the natural system but help the farming system as well.

South Florida Water Management District Board member Sandy Batchelor

“It’s brilliant,” board member Sandy Batchelor said. “It would certainly be a big pay-off ecologically and not only to the natural system but help the farming system as well.”

After the drought, salinity in the bay spiked while the flow of freshwater into the bay dropped below required levels. The combination set off a chain reaction that scientists worry could ignite a repeat of an early 1990s algae bloom that left the bay sick for years and crippled the region’s $723 million a year fishing industry. Problems over the years have been made worse by the flood control measures that kept farm fields dry but also prevented water from going into marshes in Everglades National Park.

To help move water and balance those interests, the plan the district unveiled Thursday both plugs gaps where water seeped east into fields and uses detention basins and canals to move more water into the headwaters of Taylor Slough. Altogether the district expects to increase the amount of water by about 6.5 billion gallons a year, or just under 10,000 Olympic swimming pools a year. Critics say that’s a relative drop in the bucket.

9,842The yearly increase in water to Taylor Slough measured in Olympic swimming pools.

“If they could convince anyone that all it takes is $1.8 million to fix Florida Bay then I’ve got some oceanfront property up in Ohio,” Everglades Foundation wetland ecologist Stephen Davis said. “They can increase the flow of water in Taylor Slough, but you can only do that when there’s plenty of water to begin with.”

The bigger problem, which the drought highlighted, is that when the steady sheetflow of water that historically moved from Lake Okeechobee is cut off, the bay quickly withers. John Mitnik, the district operations, engineering and construction chief, said the bay receives about 45 percent of its freshwater from rainfall. Over the wet winter, the district increased water flowing into Shark River Slough.

The bigger question is what do you do during a drought year or dry year.

Everglades Foundation wetland ecologist Stephen Davis

“The bigger question is what do you do during a drought year or dry year,” Davis said. “Florida Bay still goes hypersaline or dies because there’s no new water from the north.”

District staff plan to present the plan to the Monroe County commissioners at their July 20 meeting, when the board will consider a resolution urging the district and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to speed up work to help the bay.

“Conceptually, we think it’s a great idea. But what else does it do? Double what?” county administrator Roman Gastesi said. “We just hope it doesn’t cause any other side effects.”

  Comments