Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Virginia professor to speak on Aquarius' fate

KEY LARGO -- The future of the underwater science laboratory, Aquarius Reef Base, could be in the hands of a few optimistic scientists.

Mark Patterson, a marine science professor at Virginia Military Institute, said funding for the underwater research lab is in a state of flux.

Aquarius, which sits three miles off Key Largo in 60 feet of water, is owned by NOAA and has been operated by the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. NOAA spent $1.2 million on the lab this year. But the lab was cut from next year's budget recommendation put out by NOAA, and appropriations committees in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives concurred with that recommendation.

"It's amazing how many people live in the Keys and don't know about the project," Patterson said. "It's about what will be lost"

An upcoming presentation Patterson will give in Key Largo will include recommendations for acquiring the facility by raising funds through public-private partnerships and from wealthy donors at the Ocean Reef Club and other parts of South Florida.

Patterson said NASA is scheduled to put some money into the facility next year for aquanaut/astronaut training exercises, but the space administration does not want to take over the facility full-time.

The University of North Carolina-Wilmington is leaving the project and any potential new owner would want to make sure there are available customers for the project. Patterson said preliminary conversations are being conducted with Florida International University.

"We're looking for a new mix of funding that's not just federal money," he said.

Patterson also said he will speak on the challenges with working with NOAA.

"They don't want to support us," he said.

Patterson said the fight isn't about next year's dollars but 2014.

"It's too late for next year," he said. "But it's better than a 50-50 shot, we'll at least have a couple of missions next year."

Patterson said he plans to encourage citizens to contact politicians to make funding a priority.

"It can mothballed for many months at a time, but someone still has to maintain it," he said.

This year being an election year has made it difficult to secure federal funding, he added.

Recently, Patterson was swimming up from the underwater laboratory with activist Sylvia Earle and was greeted at the surface by three members of the U.S. Congress. He said he was surprised by the show of support of the three Republican politicians.

Patterson said the brief meeting with the Congress members led to a 30-minute roundtable discussion with them about the financial issues the lab is facing.

"It was a positive discussion," he said.

Earlier this year, Aquarius advocates conducted a national media blitz to raise awareness about the plight of the undersea lab.

Patterson's lecture, called "Aquarius 2013 and Beyond," is hosted by the Friends of the Key Largo Cultural Center. It is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12, at the Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center, mile marker 102, bayside. A meet-and-greet with Patterson begins at 6 p.m.

"We want the locals to buy into this," Patterson said. "Ultimately everything gets decided in this country at a grassroots level."

jgore@keysnews.com

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