At the southernmost tip of the Florida peninsula, there’s an unassuming map dot that marks a place called, Flamingo. To get there, you must enter the gates of Everglades National Park, then drive for an hour more, carving through an endless expanse of marsh, cypress heads, and dwarf-pine prairies.
Don’t bother mapping it from an app. You’ll lose cell service halfway in, but once you reach the marina, you’ll know you’ve arrived. Faded pink buildings with bright blue trim overlook Florida Bay, charming and lively despite signs of weathering from hurricanes past.
Flamingo was the meet-up point for the second annual “Florida Bay Day,” an event intended to create alignment and build relationships with our allies in the fight for clean water. Key government agencies, conservation organizations, and Everglades stakeholders, gathered to discuss challenges and solutions facing Florida Bay and our coastal estuaries.
Rather than meeting in a conference room, this event provides a unique opportunity to experience the resource we’re fighting to restore. To spend the day with knowledgeable fishing guides and hear firsthand the degradation they’ve witnessed. To see the bare and turbid flats, once gin-clear and thick with turtle grass. To personally observe the native wildlife and indulge in the uniqueness of the landscape.
This event was particularly important because we had the opportunity to welcome Lt. Col. Todd Polk, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ incoming Deputy Commander for South Florida, who will be stepping in to fill the position of Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds.
As the group circled up for introductions near the marina basin, an occasional silver flash disrupted the surface. “What is that?” someone asked. Captain Benny Blanco, a longtime Florida Bay fishing guide, responded with a smirk, “Tarpon.”
Florida Bay relies on freshwater
After a winding trek through the flats, the five boats tied up near Johnson Key. Dr. Steve Davis, Senior Ecologist for the Everglades Foundation, positioned himself mid-flotilla to set the theme of the discussion, “When we’re in a drought is when we see problems in Florida Bay. This is why we’re pushing for the EAA Reservoir.”
The Everglades and Florida Bay receive only one-sixth of the freshwater flow they once did from Lake Okeechobee. Human interference decades ago—damming, ditching, and diverting the natural flow of water for the purpose of land-use south of the lake—laid the groundwork for water mismanagement to occur.
Lack of rainfall and freshwater flow from Lake Okeechobee perpetuate drought conditions in Florida Bay, increasing salinity levels (too much saltwater) that ignite an adverse chain reaction, threatening to collapse the entire ecosystem.
Dr. Jerry Lorenz of Audubon Florida reminisced, “I worked here before the bay collapsed in the late 90’s; it was actively dying. I have yet to see it like it used to be since then. Now, I’m watching it die for the second time. It’s heartbreaking.”
Lorenz noted that drought conditions present in 2014 should’ve been a warning sign, yet were ignored. Then, in the summer of 2015, lack of freshwater flow and unnaturally high salinities caused a 40,000 acre seagrass die-off in Florida Bay, a portion of the largest documented seagrass community in the world.
Seagrass provides habitat, food source, and natural filtration, all needed for ecosystems to thrive. Without it, ecosystems suffer, wildlife disappears, water quality diminishes, and the livelihoods of those who rely on the water are threatened.
Cara Capp, the Everglades Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, explained, “Our message has been to protect Florida Bay in drought. If it’s not more resilient for the billions of dollars worth of infrastructure we put here, then what was it all for?”
A greater connected system
When we talk about issues in Florida Bay, it’s important to take a step back and understand how this translates to the entire connected system.
- Drought in Florida Bay = lack of freshwater flow from Lake Okeechobee and lack of rainfall.
- Instead of flowing south as it historically did, freshwater from Lake Okeechobee is diverted east and west to the coastal estuaries via the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers.
- The saltwater coastal estuaries receive too much polluted freshwater, causing toxic algal blooms and killing seagrass, oysters, and marine life.
- Conversely, the Everglades and Florida Bay don’t receive enough freshwater, creating hyper-saline conditions that starve the ecosystems, causing ecological harm and threatening the drinking water supply for 8 million Floridians.
Restoring the flow of fresh water south will reduce harmful discharges to our coastal estuaries and send it to the Everglades and Florida Bay where it’s desperately needed. Ongoing projects such as stormwater treatment areas (STA’s) and natural filter marshes are designed to clean the polluted water naturally.
There are many issues that contribute to degrading water quality throughout Florida. In order to be effective, Captains For Clean Water focuses our resources on a single solution that will provide the greatest benefit and relief in the quickest amount of time. In this case, that’s building the EAA Reservoir and critical projects needed to send water south to the Everglades and Florida Bay.
As the old proverb goes, “If you chase two rabbits, you will catch neither one.”
Economic impact in the words of a fishing guide
Conversation swirled around the flotilla with perspectives on science, progress, and solutions. Lt. Col. Todd Polk listened intently while scribbling notes and occasionally chiming in. After observing the water conditions at Johnson Key, the convoy headed to an area known as Snake Bight, the epicenter of the 2015 seagrass die-off.
Florida Bay fishing guide, Captain Benny Blanco, explained the changes in water quality and the what it means from an economic perspective. Blanco has played a critical role on the forefront of the fight for clean water, effectively bridging the gap between the poling platform and the political arena.
“Florida Bay is the mecca of sight-fishing. People come here from all over the world. It’s the only place on the planet where you can target the “big five” game species—snook, tarpon, permit, redfish, and bonefish—all in the same day. Prior to 2015, this flat was one of the most clean, beautiful flats anywhere; a sight-fisherman’s dream. Since 2015, I’ve not seen a single fish here.”
“We passed a handful of boats on the way over here. Each person on a boat represents $1,000 to $5,000 worth of business to this area—lodging, restaurants, charters, retail, recreation—we lose that if they don’t come back because the fishing was bad. One guide fishes 200 people a year. Multiply that by 300 registered guides in Everglades National Park, then by the revenue they bring to the area. That’s up to 300 million dollars of economic impact from ENP alone.”
This is the turning point
Dr. Bob Johnson, Director of the South Florida Natural Resources Center, a division of the U.S. National Park Service, is optimistic about what’s to come, “I’ve been watching this issue since ‘83. This is the turning point. The projects are lined up, the politics are lined up; if we can just keep the money sustained, we’ll have progress.”
Critical restoration projects are in the works and, once complete, will facilitate an additional 500,000 acre feet of flow per year south to the Everglades.
Since the early 1900’s, Tamiami Trail has been a barrier to flow. Projects have recently been completed, elevating more than three miles of the barrier road and immediately allowing water to flow beneath. The next phase will elevate six more miles, allowing the maximum flow of water to the Everglades.
When the bay receives freshwater flow, the benefits are instantaneous as Dr. Steve Davis illustrated, “This ecosystem responds immediately to fresh water and relies on it. In 2017, Hurricane Irma brought record rainfall and we saw an influx of fish and wading birds immediately.”
Cherly Meads, South Florida Water Management District governing board member, reminded everyone about the beneficial operational changes recently made by the Army Corps of Engineers, “The Corps took a real risk this year. They lowered the lake so we wouldn’t have the discharges like in 2018. Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds was pummeled for it, but it did work out. We’re enjoying a beautiful year of water quality for it.”
Meads also mentioned that the District is focusing on blue-green algae like never before, “That’s because people are coming to these meetings and sharing their stories about how this is impacting them—their dog, their family, their health, their property values. There are so many stakeholders that want different things—You have to be the stakeholder that is willing to fight for this.”
We need full federal funding
Earlier this year, the governor secured a record amount of state funding for Everglades restoration. We must now remain focused on securing the full $200 million per year in federal funding to advance critical restoration projects and reinforcing the priority of these efforts at the federal level.
There’s an ever-increasing spotlight on environmental protection, more than ever before, especially going into an election year in 2020. Water quality should be a bi-partisan issue. Stay vocal, stay vigilant, and let’s continue to uphold the momentum we’re seeing to improve our water quality!
Special thank you to incoming Deputy Commander, Lt. Col. Todd Polk of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, our conservation partners, government agencies, and to those who made this event possible: Superintendent Pedro Ramos of Everglades National Park, Cara Capp of National Parks Conservation Association, Dr. Steve Davis of Everglades Foundation, Capt. Chris Peterson of Hell’s Bay Boatworks, Capt. Benny Blanco, Florida Bay fishing guide, Dr. Jerry Lorenz of Audubon Florida, and Capt. Matt Bellinger, Florida Keys fishing guide.
Photos by Gary Gillett