Special Conservation Coverage Sponsored by Global Rescue Crisis in Florida Bay:

An Argument for More Water NOW!

by Bill Horn


Important Florida fisheries are imperiled by the slow, tortured pace of Everglades restoration. Florida Bay, a once spectacular fishery wedged between mainland Florida and the Keys, continues to be starved of fresh water, creating hypersaline conditions and toxic algae blooms decimating fish and the natural environment. East central Florida’s St. Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon and the Caloosahatchee River and Bay on the west coast are still receiving phosphorus-laden water from Lake Okeechobee because the water may not be sent south into the Everglades. Of course, insufficient quantities of water going south exacerbates Florida Bay’s problems as the ultimate recipient of water that should flow to it via the Glades. Scientists and decision makers know what needs to be done, but bureaucracy, litigation, political opposition, and the unforeseen and often unintended consequences of Everglades restoration requirements contribute to the continued demise of these fisheries. The situation is especially disheartening since some small steps toward restoration were beginning to show improvements in Florida Bay until inaction and more manmade and drought hit the Bay, putting it back on the ropes. Anglers need to understand the specific Everglades issues impacting these fisheries and begin to insist that federal and state restoration programs and projects, some approved 27 years ago, get completed and get completed fast. In the interim, the dire conditions in Florida Bay may demand short-term emergency measures to provide more freshwater there immediately; continued delay and inaction may push the Bay and its fisheries past the point of no return.

The Everglades Problem

The historic Everglades was pretty simple: vast Lake Okeechobee would fill up each summer and fall with rains from summer storms and hurricanes, causing it to overflow; water would seep out slowly, flowing south through saw grass and cypress in a river miles wide and inches deep. Author Marjory Stoneman Douglas christened it “The River of Grass.” The freshwater ultimately issued into Florida Bay via Shark River and Taylor Slough within Everglades National Park. Between 1948 and 1965 the Glades were dammed, diked, and diverted by 1,700 miles of levees and canals, with most of the water flushed out to the Atlantic Ocean. The dried-out lands became the 70,000 acres of sugarcane in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) and the sprawling western suburbs of Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. Downstream, Everglades Park dried out, too, and Florida Bay, starved of freshwater, began to turn hyper-salty with adverse impacts on sea grass, water quality, and fish and wildlife. Hypersaline water kills sea grasses, which have evolved to thrive in a brackish mix of fresh- and saltwater. Dead grass releases nutrients into the water, feeding algae blooms that turn the water a sickly turbid green. This shuts out the sunlight needed by the sea grass, causing more grass die-offs and more nutrient releases, which suck life-giving oxygen out of the water. Shrimp, crabs, and other organisms die or flee the suffering grass beds, and without clean water and forage, the fish disappear as well. This cascading environmental damage became acute in the l980s. Whole fisheries collapsed and millions of colorful, exotic wading birds disappeared. It prompted efforts to put more freshwater back into the Everglades, especially Everglades Park and Florida Bay. A full-scale multibillion-dollar Everglades Restoration Program was approved by the state and federal governments in 1998. Known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program (CERP), it has a simple mantra—“get the water right.” But an unforeseen problem raised its head: years of intensive agriculture and cattle operations around Lake Okeechobee had filled it with phosphorus to the tune of approximately 100 parts per billion (ppb). Water with more than 10 ppb phosphorus triggers fundamental changes in the water chemistry and vegetation of the Everglades. So, before water could be restored to the Glades, the 100 ppb phosphorus level needed to be reduced to 10 ppb or less—a difficult, costly, and time-consuming process. The federal government and the State of Florida entered into a binding legal agreement to this effect, with the State responsible for the water cleanup. The bottom-line result of these restoration measures was to leave the Everglades and Florida Bay facing two waterrelated challenges. First, sufficient quantities of water need to be sent south from Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades and into the Bay to keep it brackish, not hypersaline. And the water must be able to physically flow, miles wide and inches deep, to Florida Bay. However, with miles upon miles of dikes and canals, and the Tamiami Trail highway (US 41) acting as a dam, traditional Everglades “sheet flow” is now impossible. The physical changes necessary to send more water flowing south in a natural manner are being made, but slowly. They may be completed by 2025. Second, the water must meet the quality standard: 10 or fewer ppb of phosphorus. Right now, there is simply not enough “clean water” available to significantly improve the water flows sent south via the Glades to Florida Bay. The State has “Restoration Strategies” to clean up sufficient water, but they involve the construction of 6,500 acres of new Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs) with a total price tag of $880 million (STAs store and process water to remove phosphorus for subsequent release into the Glades). If the funding is in fact provided, restoration-size quantities of 10 ppb water may not be sent south without violating the water-quality agreement, and this water cannot be stored in Lake Okeechobee because of its leaky dikes, nearly 300 billion gallons of heavily phosphorus-laden water (the 100 ppb stuff) are sluiced each year into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers, causing havoc for the fisheries of those systems.

The Florida Bay Problem

Being at the end of a largely empty pipe is the Bay’s fundamental problem. With historic water flows via the Everglades at a trickle, local rainfall in southern Florida is the Bay’s primary source of freshwater. And when Mother Nature serves up a drought period, the Bay suffers. That’s happening now with hypersaline conditions afflicting significant areas and excessive nutrients impacting others with sickly green algae blooms. As noted, these conditions kill sea grass, deplete benthic organisms, hurt fisheries, and wreak ecological havoc. From an angler’s perspective, this is bad news for the bonefish, redfish, snook, tarpon, sea trout, snappers, and groupers. The Feds recognize the problem: Florida Bay’s water quality has “moved farther from restoration targets over the past four years.” (Corps Draft Report, Oct. 2015, p. 23). In other words, despite decades of Everglades restoration work (mostly planning so far), the Bay continues to decline and may be near the point of no return. The agencies know that a lot more water must come via the Everglades for the Bay to survive. Estimates are that freshwater levels in the Shark River must be raised a half foot or more to restore the Bay to its pre-drainage condition. Unfortunately, even full and immediate implementation of approved restoration projects will provide no more than 65 to 70 percent of natural water flows to the Bay. That’s the price of having nearly six million people residing in south Florida. At this writing, some progress has been made regarding the northeast corner of Florida Bay. Fed by Taylor Slough, the State accelerated its phase of the C-111 Canal Spreader project, completing construction in 2012, to keep more water in the Slough flowing down to the Bay (the old C-111 Canal diverted this precious freshwater to the east). Injection of this additional water temporarily improved the Bay’s condition until the recent drought wiped out these gains. These events are clear evidence that restoration, at least in part, can work, but the Bay remains highly sensitive and fragile until more robust restoration occurs. The Feds have responsibility for the next C-111 phase, with construction slated to start in 2016 and full operations (restored flows) unlikely until 2019. The long-term solution for the Bay is for much more water to flow through the central Everglades into Shark River Slough and into the Bay. Unfortunately this part of the restoration has been the slowest, held up for years by the water cleanup limitations, resulting shortage of sufficient water quantity to be sent to the Glades, and lack of progress in eliminating the dikes, levees, canals, and highway embankments that block more natural water flow. Continuing decline of the Bay and the recent relapses demonstrate plainly that time is of the essence. We cannot wait a decade for the restoration projects to come slowly online, as the Bay may well be terminal by then. But what can be done in the near term to help the Bay?

Action Options while Waiting for Restoration

How can we get that vital water into Shark River and Taylor Slough and into the Bay soon, rather than waiting for the restoration projects to kick in five, 10, or more years from now? Water not tainted by phosphorus could be taken from agriculture or city/suburban users and sent to the Bay. But don’t bet on that happening. The Feds are in no position to grab local water, and elected Florida officials are unlikely to support a scheme that deprives their constituents of water or makes them find costly replacement supplies. Plus, extracting groundwater for this purpose probably would contribute to saltwater intrusion into the drinking water supplies of Dade and Monroe counties. An “emergency idea” is to use water now being thrown away—that is, the heavily phosphorus-laden Lake Okeechobee water sluiced down the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers. This would require relaxing, on a temporary basis, the 10 ppb standard, enabling the Lake Okeechobee water to be sent south rather than east and west (where it’s unwanted). The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District have sufficient physical control to assure that extra emergency water can make it to the Bay, especially if the two agencies have greater volumes of water to manipulate. But what are the consequences of sending >10 ppb water into the Glades versus the effects of continued dewatering while waiting for sufficient 10 ppb water will be limited. Others contend that long periods of >10 ppb will cause irreversible damage, albeit of a different kind. So, which course of action is likely to cause the most damage? The NAS Committee noted that insufficient water quantity appears to be the greater problem, especially for critically endangered species such as the Everglades kite (a bird) and Glades tree islands, which are facing extirpation. Having personally listened to, and participated in, some of these discussions, I am persuaded that continuing to dry out the Glades, and thus causing more years of hypersalinity and toxic algae blooms in Florida Bay, is a greater environmental threat than accepting >10 ppb water for some finite period. Yes, accepting more phosphorus-laden water would create more cattail growth in the northern Everglades—Water Conservation Areas (WCA) 1 and 2—and impact native vegetation. But cattails extract phosphorus from water, meaning that the water flowing south into WCA 3, Everglades Park, and the Bay will likely be close (15 to 20 ppb) to the 10 ppb clean water restoration standard. In essence, this approach would treat the northern WCAs like STAs for whatever temporary period the 10 ppb standard is relaxed or suspended. I know many will view this idea as pure heresy, but I can think of no other practical way to secure, in the near term, needed additional quantities of water for the southern Glades and the Bay.

Leadership Needed

It is going to take hands-on political leadership to save Florida Bay and speed up the effort to save the Everglades and Everglades National Park. An occasional speech or ribbon cutting won’t get it done. If some temporary relaxation of the 10 ppb water-quality standard is needed to get more water into the Glades and Florida Bay, someone has to stick out his or her neck to make it happen. Those who care about the Bay and the Glades, need to tell elected and appointed officials—clearly and emphatically—that more water is needed now and prompt action to make that happen cannot be delayed further.— Bill Horn. Editor Note: Bill Horn served as Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks under President Reagan and was part of the mid-80s negotiations to secure more water for Everglades National Park. For four years (2007–2010) he served on the National Academy of Sciences Committee for the Independent Scientific Review of the Everglades Restoration Progress contributing to the reports issued in 2008 and 2010. A resident of the Florida Keys, he is also the author of Seasons of the Flats: An Angler’s Year in the Florida Keys.

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