December 25, 2019

FLORIDA KEYS — Santa delivered a wet but welcome early present for Florida Bay and Everglades National Park.

Appropriations committee members in the House and Senate of the U.S. Congress agreed Dec. 17 to sign off on $200 million for the Everglades Agricultural Area Southern Storage Reservoir Project in the 2020 fiscal year budget.

“If passed by both houses and approved by the president, this agreement means that Everglades restoration is poised to receive full federal funding for only the second time in 20 years,” said Eric Eikenberg, chief executive of the Everglades Foundation, a nonprofit organization.

“It is a welcome and historic step that will accelerate completion of projects to reduce the discharge of algae-causing polluted water to our coasts and restore the flow of fresh water south through the River of Grass.”

In June, huge blankets of Sargassum seaweed caused fish kills by depleting oxygen and aggravated boaters.

The federal appropriations package signed by President Trump on Dec. 20 will nearly triple funding from $67.5 million in 2019 to $200 million.

“After a year of fighting tooth and nail, Congress finally stopped kicking the can down the road and came together to triple funding for Everglades restoration projects,” said U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Stuart. “This is a huge victory for the Everglades and our fight to stop harmful discharges.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is seeking about $255 million in Florida Bay and Everglades funding from the 2020 Florida Legislature.

In October, U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Miami, hosted Democratic U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano of California, chair of the House Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee, at an Islamorada roundtable with Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers representatives and local conservationists.

Experts have calculated that less than half the fresh water that historically flowed south into the Everglades and brackish Florida Bay now reaches South Florida after extensive channeling and dredging. The current restoration effort aims to construct a massive water reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, along with treatment areas to remove unwanted nutrients.

Embattled plan

The Restoration Blueprint, a draft update to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, was released in Marathon in August to decidedly mixed reviews.

As outlined, the report cites “a range of potential changes to existing boundaries, regulations, and marine zones in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to better address long-term declines to the region’s marine resources as well as ongoing and emerging threats due to changing ocean conditions.”

The Restoration Blueprint, a draft update to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, was released in Marathon in August to decidedly mixed reviews.

Commercial and recreational fishing interests balked at potential loss of fishing areas. Recreational divers and boaters were wary of a proposed 132-square-mile area off Key Largo that would ban anchoring and require use of permanent mooring buoys.

Off Long Key, a special-use zone now covers 118 acres at Tennessee Reef. Under the sanctuary’s “preferred Alternative 3,” a shoreline-to-deep-reef area would be enacted to cover 6,125 acres that provides a corridor for marine life that ranges from mangroves to open ocean.

Environmental advocates said marine conditions are getting worse, which threatens the coral reef and fish life. “It won’t get better unless you protect it,” said Doug Gaston of the Audubon Society. “It will involve shared sacrifice.”

An interactive online version of the 581-page draft document allows people to search a Florida Keys map to focus on waters and wildlife management areas that are of particular interest to them. Public comment on the Restoration Blueprint will run until Jan. 31, 2020.

Federal and staff officials will then focus on a process expected to last several months to create a final draft, which will return to the Florida Keys for comment.

Iconic Reefs

In early December, the National Marine Sanctuary program launched “Mission: Iconic Reefs,” a multi-agency effort to restore seven Keys reefs by partnering with the Coral Restoration Foundation, Mote Marine Lab and other institutions. Corals nurtured in open water and onshore tanks will be used to restore reefs hit hard by the stony coral tissue loss disease and degraded water quality. Sea urchins and crabs may be introduced to the targeted reefs.

“The once iconic coral reefs of the Florida Keys have suffered dramatic declines over the last 40 years and now straddle a tipping point,” Dr. Neil Jacobs, acting NOAA administrator, said in a statement. “Quick and decisive action has the very real potential to turn this decline around before it’s too late.”

Sargassum surge

Sargassum seaweed has always been part of the Keys marine environment, but in June, huge blankets of the floating weed caused fish kills by depleting oxygen and aggravated boaters.

“Sargassum was something that was really unique and deserving of protection,” said Brian Lapointe, Ph.D., a research professor for Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. “All of a sudden, global change is going on and sargassum is becoming harmful. Now it’s the largest harmful algal bloom on earth.”

Agricultural nutrients flowing from South America and the Mississippi River are among suspected causes of the blooms.

Bay fee dispute

In 2020, fees for taking a powerboat into Everglades National Park’s Florida Bay are scheduled to rise to $35 for a seven-day pass, or $70 for an annual pass.

The boating fee for about 1,000 square miles of Florida Bay technically took effect last January but enforcement by park rangers was largely limited to warnings, according to reports.

Keys fishing guides, who in 2020 will pay $850 for an annual Commercial Use Authorization pass to do business in the park, objected to proposals that call for individual client anglers to pay an entry fee as well.

The Key Largo Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors passed an Aug. 28 resolution saying the business group stands “with our tourism operators to abolish the newly implemented water fees by the Everglades National Park.”

The Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association, with about 100 members, followed with a September declaration, “We do not … support the newly enacted ‘waterway entry fee’ and its collection policy, which we have been advised by legal counsel may not be legally enforceable.”

Everglades National Park staff in October said in a statement, “Paying an entrance fee is one of the ways we continue to sustain our beloved national treasures. … The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act gives certain parks, including Everglades National Park, the authority to charge a recreational entrance fee.”

Aquarius mission

On an upbeat note, the Aquarius undersea laboratory off Islamorada in June staged its first mission since Hurricane Irma.

A four-woman crew of NASA researchers and prospective astronauts submerged for a nine-day saturation mission to conduct experiments during the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operation 23 (NEEMO 23). Tasks included testing devices for potential space missions.

The Aquarius, now operated by Florida International University, lies near Conch Reef, 62 feet down. The only open-water operational underwater habitat in the world, Aquarius suffered damage to its life-support buoy and underwater stations during the hurricane. The 43-foot-long habitat did not suffer serious damage.