It's been a decade in the making, but the Navy is finally at work on a $50 million wetlands restoration and runway safety project that its environmental director says will restore many salt marsh vegetation habitats that historically dotted the areas around Boca Chica Field.
Geiger Key residents already may have noticed the heavy work being done that collectively will include about 1,300 acres on Rockland Key, Big Coppitt Key and the airfield itself, said Naval Air Station Key West Environmental Director Ed Barham.
The Airfield Environmental Mitigation Project took flight more than 10 years ago when the Navy began the permitting process via the Department of Environmental Protection and Army Corps of Engineers to remove mangroves and buttonwood trees near the runways deemed to be a flight hazard, Barham said.
"The work began to restore the flight lines to ensure the airfield was in compliance with both FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] and Navy requirements required to operate a safe airport," Barham said. "Over the years, mangrove and other vegetation had grown up to a point that it became a safety hazard for pilots and for air traffic controllers who must see all areas of the runway. The trees were interfering with their line of sight."
In order to comply, however, the Navy was required to remove the mangroves while being in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, and so began years of working with the U.S. Fish Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to get the work done. Typically, an airport will put in low-growing grass and mow it, thus providing an unobstructed level-view of the runway. The environmental aspects of Boca Chica Key made that impossible, Barham said.
"So, we're replanting areas with wetland grasses so there is no net loss of wetlands," Barham said.
It is illegal to remove mangroves without prior approval from the Department of Environmental Protection.
"Where we're removing mangroves and buttonwood trees, we're replacing them with marsh grasses and wetland grasses that are still preferred habitat for species like the Lower Keys marsh rabbit."
The Navy maintains there will be no net loss of wetlands, rather the work will actually restore wetlands in what Barham called "probably the biggest wetland restoration project in the Keys," in the 22 years he's been working in Monroe County. Barham was a field manager with the Department of Environmental Protection prior to his work with the Navy.
"What residents, particularly those on Geiger Key, are seeing right now is the work to restore those sites back to their historic wetland condition," Barham said. "Years ago, when subdivisions were put in on Geiger Key back in the 1950s and 1960s, many of those areas were filled in with coral rock." Workers are now going back and removing that scrap fill and then planting marsh plants and grasses that are historically native to the area as well as connecting those wetlands that used to be connected, Barham said. The Navy researched shoreline impacts on the endangered smalltooth fish as well as the marsh rabbit.
Mark Songer, president of the Keys-based nonprofit environmental group Last Stand, said Friday he had not fully researched the Navy project, but hopes it is successful.
"My general experience with wetlands restoration is that when you try to create them, it almost never works, but if you're trying to put them back to their original state, there's a higher success rate," Songer said. "Overall, restoration is a really difficult thing to do right. I'm sure [the Navy] is trying to do it right, but even when you do it correctly, you don't always succeed."
The difficulty, Songer said, is that when natural water flows are blocked for many years, it can be difficult to restore them.
"You're dealing with Mother Nature and she's changing too," Songer said. "They may get a really good result and it may be a marked improvement, but only time will tell."
The project also calls for improvements to stormwater drainage systems on Boca Chica Field, but engineers hope that water runoff will also provide a win-win situation by curbing mosquitoes that normally would breed in formerly stagnant water, Barham said.
The work is projected to take at least two years to complete and will become more visible to residents and motorists on U.S. 1 in the coming weeks and months, base spokeswoman Trice Denny said.
"You'll notice it more, especially in areas like Rockland Key," Denny said. "Some of the work is going to look bad, but ultimately it's for the greater good and we'll have a more environmentally friendly airfield when the work is done."