Environment

Monroe County urges faster fixes for Florida Bay

Audubon Florida biologist Jerry Lorenz holds a stalk of dead seagrass. Since last summer, about 50,000 acres of seagrass have died, wiping out critical habitat for the bay’s marine life.
Audubon Florida biologist Jerry Lorenz holds a stalk of dead seagrass. Since last summer, about 50,000 acres of seagrass have died, wiping out critical habitat for the bay’s marine life. Miami Herald Staff

Less than a week after South Florida water managers unveiled a quick fix to bring more fresh water to wilting Florida Bay, Monroe County commissioners joined the outcry demanding faster work to repair the Everglades and move water south.

Frustrated by efforts so far, commissioners said state and federal officials need to stop neglecting environmental problems that eat away at the state’s tourism and fishing industry, two staples for the county’s island chain that generate up to $4.5 billion annually. Commissioners were particularly critical of a government plan to buy more land that is expected to take seven years, saying the state needs to move faster.

They plan to hand deliver the resolution to Gov. Rick Scott Tuesday in Key Largo.

Everybody in this room knows we need more storage to clean water before moving it south.

Monroe County Commissioner David Rice

“Everybody in this room knows we need more storage to clean water before moving it south,” said commissioner David Rice. “What we don’t know is how much and where. To me, seven years to get that answer is totally unacceptable.”

Over the last year, about 50,000 acres of seagrass wilted and died in the central bay after a regional drought sent salinity soaring. The conditions raised fears that the die-off could trigger a massive algae bloom — in the late 1980s a similar die-off triggered a bloom that caused the bay to collapse — and mirror the kind of damage now playing out on the Treasure Coast, where freshwater algae blooms have decimated estuaries.

At its driest, the amount of water sent into the northeastern bay by the district dropped to about 78,000 acre feet, far under the volume called for in state regulations. The bay has twice exceeded salinity standards, prompting calls for the district to reconsider the amount of water it moves into the bay.

While no significant bloom has been documented this summer in Florida Bay, anglers have reported seeing “algae balls,” charter boat Capt. Bill Wickers, a board member of the key West Charter Boat Association, told commissioners.

When I was a kid, you could see the bottom in a hundred feet of water.

Key West charter boat Capt. Bill Wickers

“Our board is very, very concerned because we have watched the downward spiral of water quality in the Keys,” he said. “I’m 69 years old now. When I was a kid, you could see the bottom in a hundred feet of water. Without the water down here, we don’t have quality of life and we don’t have a way to make a living.”

Buying additional land from U.S. Sugar to store and clean water south of Lake Okeechobee has been a critical sticking point, with federal officials and environmentalists backing the measure. State officials have declined to pursue a land-buying option that the sugar industry opposes.

Wednesday’s resolution urges the state to buy land but not at the expense of ongoing projects. The Central Everglades Planning Project, which has been authorized by Congress but so far not funded, is expected to restore about 65 percent of the flow heading south and into Florida Bay, even without the land, said Mayor Heather Carruthers.

“This is why it’s important to not get in the way of this process with lawsuits, which you know there will be millions of them if we say we want to buy this land,” she said.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, both Miami Republicans, have both been pushing for congressional support for the Central Everglades project.

But environmentalists say for the project to work, land south of the lake needs to be in place to store and clean water. They are now pressing to expand the focus of a planning effort aimed at finding storage north of the lake to also include that land. A public meeting on the plan will be held Tuesday in Okeechobee.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Ernie Marks, the South Florida Water Management District’s newly appointed director of Everglades Policy and Coordination, outlined fixes approved by the district governing board last week. The plans should increase water flowing into Taylor Slough, which feeds the central bay, by about 20,000 acre feet per year. Critics say that’s not nearly enough to sustain the bay during droughts. By comparison, about eight acre feet per hour were being flushed from Lake Okeechobee at the height of releases.

It’s the first step in an evolution as we go through Everglades restoration.

Ernie Marks, South Florida Water Management District Director of Everglades Policy and Coordination

The fixes, expected to cost up to $3.3 million, could be in place as early as November and would largely use existing structures with the addition of a pump. Gaps in a levee would also be closed and vegetation cleared.

“It’s the first step in an evolution as we go through Everglades restoration,” Marks said.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich

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