Imagine you have a swimming pool with 100 water pipes discharging into it. Sixty-seven of the pipes constantly release rotten seaweed and fish carcasses into your pool. You hire someone to fix the problem, and he only repairs two of the pipes.
Would you be content with the water quality of your pool? If pipes continue bringing dirty water into your pool, it will never be fully clean or healthy for you to enjoy. This is the case in the Florida Keys, where two-thirds of the canals have “impaired” water quality.
Currently, only six of the 335 impaired canals in the Florida Keys are being ameliorated. The Florida Keys’ Canal Restoration Program should be considered a higher priority for state and federal government agencies that control county funding for projects. However, to illustrate the significance of this issue at the state and federal level, we must realize its importance as a community, first.
A combination of septic tanks, accumulation of organics (e.g. fish carcasses and seagrass), and the shoddy physical construction of canals (long, deep, and dead-ends) has contributed to the poor quality of water in canals today. For instance, a deeper canal has much less water movement, leaving most of the water stagnant so that organics remain in one place to decay. This also fosters a mosquito breeding ground. A canal with “impaired” water usually emits foul smells, is murky and has low oxygen levels. These conditions are unsafe for human health, and can become toxic to most aquatic organisms.
The Florida Keys is home to a National Marine Sanctuary that is famous for having the only living coral reef in the continental U.S. The problem is that all canals discharge into this pristine environment. As a result, these unique ecosystems with high biodiversity and productivity are being spoiled. Canals discharging unhealthy water harms not only the environment, but also the economy, since the community depends on fishing and tourists as its main sources of income.
People come from around the world to see the waters and marine life of the Florida Keys, bringing income to the region. Furthermore, clean canals increase the property values of homes on the water. Remediating these canals will ensure a good economy for the Keys, a healthier environment and an increase in water-related social and recreational activities.
Some common methods to improve canal water quality include weed gates, culvert connections, removal of accumulated organics, backfilling deep canals and pumping. Residents believe that some of the methods are too invasive and will cause greater harm to the environment, such as backfilling because it can cover benthic (living on the ocean floor) organisms.
However, these methods will eventually improve conditions so that more organisms can thrive in these environments. Also, some residents are against having surveys and remediation projects done on their property. Although these projects are inconvenient for a short period, the benefits far outweigh the costs over time. We need the compliance and patience of Florida Keys’ residents to engender a more productive and biodiverse aquatic community.
Another limitation to restoration efforts is a lack of funding from the state and federal level. Keys’ residents can help with this issue. Once we all see the importance of this issue, we can unite and share our thoughts with agencies controlling local funding. Monroe County Sustainability Program Manager Rhonda Haag, says that we need more community outreach and involvement, because as this increases, so do their funding sources.
One way you can get involved is by going online to www.monroecounty-fl.gov and looking under “Canal Restoration.” This site lists the dates of subcommittee meetings where you can voice your opinion and find out more ways to get involved in remediation efforts. You can also send letters and petitions to our representatives, Florida officials and the Department of Environmental Protection, to give personal accounts on the severity of the issue, strengthening the case for more funding.
None of us want to swim in a dirty pool, so let us get off our tanning chairs and do something about it.
Monica Camacho was raised in Key Largo and is an environmental engineering student at the University of Florida.