“This is where all the little life in the bay starts, and the big life follows,” backcountry guide Capt. Xavier Figueredo said as he surveyed a section of dying Florida Bay seagrass from his skiff last week.
A combination of last summer’s major drought and the continued blockage of natural freshwater flow from the mainland has Keys anglers, environmentalists and elected officials bracing for catastrophe in the bay as the summer heats up.
The 850-square mile bay only recently recovered from a 1987-1991 seagrass die-off that triggered a massive algae bloom that smothered bay sponges and chased off much of the area’s treasured fish populations.
A similar die-off is happening again because the bay’s salinity levels spiked beginning last summer causing oxygen deprivation, leading to an increase in hydrogen sulfides that are choking the roots of the seagrass that is vital to Florida Bay’s ecosystem.
Last summer’s drought exacerbated already-high salinity levels caused by a century of blocked freshwater that naturally flows into the bay from Central Florida and Lake Okeechobee. The water stopped flowing because of continued housing development and agriculture. It historically traveled from the lake through Everglades National Park and into Florida Bay.
“Right now, because of all the development in South Florida over the last 100 years, very little freshwater in Florida ends up in the bay,” said Figueredo, a founding member of Florida Bay Forever, a Keys conservation group.
And, because of last year’s drought, Figueredo said Florida Bay now has five times the salinity than the makeup of the open ocean, creating uninhabitable conditions for a once vibrant ecosystem teeming with sealife.
“It fried everything,” he said. “An entire fishery was wiped out in a year.”
Most experts agree that there is little to nothing that can be done to stop the seagrass die-off and resulting algae blooms this time, but groups like Florida Bay Forever, the Everglades Foundation and the Audubon Society of the Everglades say there are ways to prevent similar phenomena from happening again.
“This is still one of the most beautiful bays in the world,” Figueredo said. “Hopefully, it will stay that way.”
But implementation of major initiatives like the Central Everglades Restoration Plan, a framework approved by Congress in 2000, has stagnated. The plan called for the completion of 68 projects to increase water flow into the by 2038. Elizabeth Jolin of Florida Bay Forever said less than a third of the projects have been completed.
A plan to create a huge storage area for fresh water south of Lake Okeechobee that could be released when needed has also stalled. Conservationists say elected officials who cater to the demands of Florida's two major sugar-producing companies are to blame. An option for the state to buy 46,000 acres of land south of the lake belonging to the U.S. Sugar Corp. expired last October.
Mike Forster, a Village of Islamorada councilman, local business owner and also a founding member of Florida Bay Forever, said the state and the sugar industry should revisit the proposal.
“What a great legacy to their kids it would be to save the environment,” said Forster, an avid backcountry boater. “They could be heroes.”
Florida Bay consists of 27 individual basins and is lined with tens of thousands of acres of seagrass.
Forster said everyone in Florida should be concerned and on board with efforts to resume historic freshwater flows throughout the state. Even the influential sugar farming industry has a stake in more freshwater, Forster said.
“We’re not against agriculture. We all support farmers,” he said. “But we all support clean water for the state of Florida, and we all need to come together under one umbrella.”
There are signs of hope and progress. Construction of a 2.6-mile bridge elevating a stretch of U.S. 41 could begin in the fall. The $180-million federal/state project is designed to increase freshwater flow through the Everglades and into the bay.
The 275-mile Tamiami Trail was built a century ago to connect Tampa to Miami. It did just that, but it also stopped the natural flow of water through the Everglades.
A one-mile bridge on the trail was built about four miles east of the proposed bridge in 2013.
U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, said such projects demonstrate work is being done to prevent future die-offs in Florida Bay, but more needs to be done and quickly.
“The question is, can we accelerate it,” he said.
Meeting with state, federal officials
The Village of Islamorada is holding a public meeting on the issue, with representatives from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District expected to attend.
The meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, June 21 at 10 a.m. at the Founders Park Community Center at mile marker 87. The meeting is also expected to be broadcast live on Comcast Channel 77 and streamed on the village’s website, www.islamorada.fl.us.