Experts in the field of water quality and coral reef ecology made their case Tuesday night why major ongoing Everglades restoration projects will benefit the Florida Keys environmentally and economically.
The Florida Keys environmental group Last Stand and the Everglades Law Center scheduled two public forums in the Keys this week to better explain the importance of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project.
The panel of experts gave an overview of how the Everglades restoration projects will bring more and cleaner fresh water into Florida Bay, benefitting Keys waters, "one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the Caribbean," said panel member and National Marine Sanctuaries Program Regional Administrator Billy Causey.
Decades of water management policies redirected the natural flow of fresh waters away from the southern end of the Everglades and Florida Bay, essentially to benefit the agriculture industry and residential development in South Florida. Those practices led to a collapse of Florida Bay and its seagrass ecosystems in the early 1990s, as half of its fresh water influx was removed, said panel member Tom Van Lent, director of science and policy for the Everglades Foundation.
State and federal government projects to fix the water flow began in the early 2000s, and continue today.
The road to Everglades recovery must include more clean fresh water; remove barriers to natural water flow; and restore the historical flow, Van Lent said.
One of the biggest Army Corps of Engineers projects currently ongoing is the Central Everglades Planning Project, which will restore the flow of water across hundreds of acres in the center of the Everglades, according to Van Lent's presentation.
"It's not as easy to put it back to what it was, but that is Everglades restoration," Van Lent said. "It won't heal itself."
Florida Bay encompasses the Upper Keys backcountry waters, and is frequented by nearly all of the Upper Keys flats and backcountry fishing guides.
The ocean, reefs and backcountry waters off the Keys alone generate more than $140 million a year directly through fishing and diving, according to NOAA statistics.
The Florida Keys is also the highest grossing commercial seafood hub in the state, in terms of revenue, and third largest in the country, bringing in more than $100 million a year, according to the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association.
For every $1 the government puts towards Everglades restoration, there is a $4 return to the South Florida economy, said panel member Jerry Lorenz, Audubon of Florida's director of research at its Tavernier Science Center.
Lorenz, who actively conducts bird and fish counts in the Everglades and Florida Bay, argued that the health of key species of commercially and recreationally fished marine life -- such as spiny lobster, stone crab, redfish and snook -- depend on healthy water flows out of the Everglades and into Florida Bay and the Keys.
"It's not just about the ecosystem, it's about the economy," Lorenz said. "This is what we sell. This is what we are."