April 11, 2018

MARATHON — Solving problems of Florida Bay as part of the Everglades system restoration effort will be neither easy nor cheap, state water managers said Friday, April 6.

“Florida Bay may be the most complicated estuary system in the world,” Fred Sklar, an Everglades assessment director for the South Florida Water Management District, told Florida Keys officials at a briefing in Marathon.

Success of the restoration effort heavily hinges on more funding from Washington, D.C., Water Management District Executive Director Ernie Marks told county commissioners and other Keys representatives.

“People often ask me what are the priorities” for Everglades system restoration, Marks said. “Well, they’re all priorities.” 

Progress has been made to send more fresh water through the Everglades and Florida Bay, noting signs of improvement in the Taylor Slough system that feeds Everglades National Park and Florida Bay, district officials said.

“We’ve talked about the great and wonderful things that we’re doing, and we actually did some of the those great and wonderful things,” district Engineering Chief John Mitnik said.

He outlined the district’s nearly complete $6 million project intended to move an estimated 17 billion gallons of fresh water out of flood-control canals and detention areas and into the national park and Taylor Slough headwaters during the dry season.

“We have been using the project, putting it in operation while we’re trying to build it,” he said.

“It’s working,” Marks said, describing a recent flight over mainland projects designed to help Florida Bay that showed green growth while other areas had turned dry-season brown. “I don’t think it’s the silver bullet, but it’s going to help.”

A newly approved plan for the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir, to be located south of Lake Okeechobee and calculated to hold and clean 370,000 additional acre-feet of fresh water that can be moved south annually, has yet to receive a firm financial commitment from the federal government, Water Management district officials said.

“Everybody has been focused on the cost of the reservoir,” about $1.9 billion, Marks said Friday. But related projects critical to sending the water south likely will raise the overall price tag to around $3.1 billion. Florida has committed to spending at least $1 billion on the effort.

“We don’t get the benefits (from the reservoir) unless everything else is in there, too,” Marks said. Delaying Everglades system restoration projects will only increase costs, he said. “I think folks are starting to get that.”

South Florida’s congressional delegation has been largely supportive of the effort, district officials said.

County commissioners David Rice and George Neugent queried water-district staff about the effects of seagrass die-offs and ongoing turbidity in Florida Bay.

“To see that stuff coming through the Seven Mile Bridge and onto our reef, it is just gut-wrenching,” Neugent said. “This has been going on for decades. … It’s clearly affecting our environment down here.”

Sklar described the “cascade effect” of a series of environmental events that can cause seagrass die-offs that lead to algae blooms.

Hurricane Irma, which forced vast amounts of seawater into Florida Bay, caused an historic spike in bay salinity.

Conditions in the months since the hurricane have have improved, Sklar said, but long-term effects remain uncertain. 

“Are we out of the woods yet? The answer is no,” he said.

Hurricane Irma damaged mangroves critical to Florida Bay, which could have serious environmental impacts if the trees do not survive, he said. 

“I don’t know if they’re going to come back or how long it will take,” Sklar said. 

kwadlow@keysnews.com