Hypersalinity. Sediment destabilization. Nutrient release. To the general population, these words are “science speak.” Without context or real-world examples, they are meaningless.
To water bodies like Florida Bay, these words are actually ecological occurrences that are wreaking havoc on the ecosystem. They are a byproduct of the way water is mismanaged in Florida, creating a harmful chain reaction that could take years for the ecosystem to recover from.
About Florida Bay
Florida Bay is the southernmost estuary of the Everglades ecosystem, located at the tip of the mainland and cradled by the Florida Keys to the south. Spanning nearly 1,000 square miles and dotted with numerous basins and mangrove islands, it is one of the world’s largest estuaries and seagrass communities.
Florida Bay is also one of the most valuable and unique fisheries in the world. Highly-regarded game fish such as tarpon, permit, bonefish, snook, redfish, and trout, migrate to its pristine flats and luscious mangroves. It’s a nursery, nesting site, and feeding grounds for wading birds, crocodiles, manatees, dolphins, crustaceans, and sea turtles, who all partly depend on the healthy seagrass.
Lack of fresh water, too much saltwater
When we talk about Florida’s water crisis, the impacts to Florida Bay aren’t as easily seen.
Historically, fresh water flowed south from Lake Okeechobee, through the River of Grass and into the bay, naturally balancing its fragile ecosystem. Today, when water levels in the lake reach a certain threshold, water managers send it to tide via the St. Lucie River to the east and the Caloosahatchee to the west.
As a result, Florida Bay receives only one-sixth of the freshwater flow it once did and the ecosystem is imploding. In the summer of 2015, roughly 40,000 acres of seagrass died in Florida Bay due to lack of freshwater flow and unnaturally high salinities. Aquifers in South Florida are experiencing saltwater intrusion as a result of decreased sheet flow in the Everglades, threatening the drinking water supply for 8 million Floridians.
How do we fix it?
We must build the reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. Because of water quality regulations aimed at protecting the Everglades ecosystem, the polluted water from Lake Okeechobee must first be cleaned in man-made wetlands before being sent south. This will require additional storage and stormwater treatment areas (STAs) south of the lake, where aquatic vegetation will remove nitrogen and phosphorous from the water as it slowly flows towards the Everglades.
Benefits of the reservoir:
- Re-directs the flow of water to the south, providing water managers with another option
- Reduces discharges to St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee by 55%
- Stores and cleans water to send south to the Everglades and Florida Bay where it’s desperately needed
Awareness is key
In 2018, we joined a gathering of key agencies to spend a day on Florida Bay with fishing guides and learn about the health and challenges its facing. In February 2019, the Everglades Foundation hosted a similar event, inviting media contacts from across the country to set out on the bay and learn about these issues from scientists and conservationists.
This spring, a new conservation-based TV series called Florida Sportsman Watermen will premier, hosted by Florida Bay fishing guide, Captain Benny Blanco. This show was created to bring awareness to water issues around the state from toxic algae blooms and seagrass die-offs to degradation of springs and spreading coral disease. Woven together, of course, with fishing.
We must continue to advocate for Everglades restoration as a whole connected system. Understanding the impacts allows us all to stay vigilant, have informed conversations with others who are affected, and press for science-based solutions that will benefit the entire system—starting with the EAA Reservoir.