It’s a sunny October day on Florida Bay, a place that feels as if it’s the edge of the world. The wind is blowing out of the east making it a rough commute for a fleet of six 17-foot Hell’s Bay skiffs departing the Flamingo Marina.
Aboard each boat is a coalition of individuals with a hand in Everglades restoration—local fishing guides, agencies, scientists, non-profit organizations, and business owners.
Together with Cara Capp of the National Parks Conservation Association and Celeste DePalma of Audubon Florida, we gathered a select group of individuals to discuss the Combined Operations Plan (COP)—a plan to send more water to Florida Bay through a series of recently completed restoration projects. We agreed that the best way to illustrate the need for a fix was to show them the problem firsthand.
We were honored to be joined by the following representatives:
- Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District
- Kim Taplin, Central Everglades Branch Chief, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
- Superintendent Pedro Ramos, Everglades National Park
- Bob Johnson, South Florida Natural Resources Center Director, National Park Service
- James Erskine, Everglades Coordinator, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission
- Mason Smith, Division of Marine Fisheries Management Biologist, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission
- Cara Capp, Everglades Restoration Program Manager, National Parks Conservation Association
- Steve Davis, Senior Ecologist, Everglades Foundation
- Celeste De Palma, Director of Everglades Policy, Audubon Florida
- Jerry Lorenz, Ph.D., State Research Director, Audubon Florida
- Elizabeth Jolin, Director, Florida Bay Forever
The group also included fishing guide Capt. Benny Blanco and Hell’s Bay Boatworks owner, Chris Peterson, who weighed in on the impacts to the fishing and boating industries.
A BRIEF BACKGROUND: WHAT’S THE ISSUE?
Located at the tip of Florida’s mainland within Everglades National Park, Florida Bay is a shallow, inner shelf water body. Historically, it received freshwater flows from Lake Okeechobee, through the Everglades, and saltwater flows from the Gulf of Mexico. This naturally-balanced system created the perfect habitat for a thriving estuary and healthy ecosystem.
For the past several decades, the state’s flood control efforts of Lake Okeechobee have cut off the flows to the Everglades, depriving Florida Bay of the fresh water that it desperately needs and resulting in devastating salinity imbalances.
In 2015, the lack of fresh water and unnaturally high salinity caused a 40,000-acre seagrass die-off that will take decades to recover from. The Florida Bay that was once world-renowned for sight-fishing on clear-water flats is now a barren desert beneath milky, turbid waters.
A TOUR OF FLORIDA BAY: THE GOOD AND THE BAD.
To create perspective, we first ventured to Johnson Key where the water is clean and clear. Capt. Benny Blanco opened up with why the health of Florida Bay is important.
The conversation escalated to red tide, hypersalinity, and a chronic state of drought slamming the already-fragile ecosystem. Superintendent Ramos pointed out a mass of birds circling a mangrove island. Lorenz of Audubon Florida explained, “We look at birds as an indicator of health. They are predators of what lives in the water so, where there are birds, there is a healthy estuary.”
Next, the fleet traveled to Snake Bight, ground zero for the massive seagrass die-off of 2015. Peterson of Hell’s Bay painted a picture of what once was, “Snake Bight was iconic fishing grounds with redfish all over the flats. It was clear. Since the seagrass die-off, there has been a constant decline in the water quality. Seagrass is a nursery for the entire ocean acting as a natural filter and without it, this water will remain chalky and dead.”
SO, WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?
Sending more clean, fresh water to Florida Bay is one of the primary goals of Everglades restoration.
The Combined Operations Plan dictates how water can flow through the infrastructure projects created in South Dade designed to deliver more water to Florida Bay. The government agencies responsible for Everglades restoration developed several alternatives to the plan, all of which provide little to no benefit to Florida Bay. Two of the plans send less water to Florida Bay than current operations and one sends only slightly more water to Florida Bay.
The government has spent $1 billion on the infrastructure projects needed to deliver more fresh water to Florida Bay, but current plans do not show $1 billion of benefit. Benefits for these projects have been significantly scaled back to provide increased flood protection for certain parts of South Dade.
The numerous agencies responsible for Everglades restoration need to be aligned on making sure these projects are utilized to provide maximum benefits to Florida Bay. This tour was intended to gather key constituents and have an open, informal conversation about the importance of optimizing these projects to benefit Florida Bay.
The message of the day: the infrastructure is in place and we need to work together as a network of authorities to ensure action and results.
There is a COP Workshop at the Islamorada Village Center on December 12, 2018, from 9am-4pm where the next steps will be discussed.
Special thanks to Capt. Ryan Accursio, Capt. Ryan Booth, Capt. Adam Debruin, Capt. Benny Blanco and Rainer Schael for sharing your time, boats, and insight to help make this day happen.