June 6, 2018

Kevin Wadlow photo
The late George Barley was a real estate developer and Islamorada homeowner.

Kevin Wadlow photo The late George Barley was a real estate developer and Islamorada homeowner.

SOUTH FLORIDA — Inspired by trouble in the warm waters of the Florida Keys, an international science competition with a $10 million prize soon turns its focus back to South Florida.

The George Barley Water Prize is named for the Florida native, a successful businessman with an Islamorada home who actively campaigned to halt degradation of fresh water suffering from nutrient pollution.

“This is an issue that affects the Everglades and Florida Bay,” Barley Water Prize director Loren Parra said last week. “That’s how we got got here.”

Phosphorus is a common ingredient in fertilizers used worldwide. But too much phosphorus reaching natural water systems through runoff can trigger harmful algae blooms.

Excess phosphorus accumulation in waterways gives “rise to the growth of algae that is sometimes toxic and always blocks sunlight from the life-giving grasses below the surface,” says the Everglades Foundation, organizers of the competition.

“The algae kills fish and wildlife, ruins beaches and boating, and potentially poses a deadly threat to drinking water supplies across the planet,” reports the group founded by George and Mary Barley. “No safe, effective and affordable means now exists for the removal of excess phosphorus, and efforts to reduce its use have been unsuccessful.”

The Barley Prize competition concluded its initial phase two weeks ago. Nine teams refined their phosphorus-removal systems during three months of cold weather at Holland Marsh, a damaged water body near Toronto. The Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change worked with the project.

Now a panel of experts will spend three months reviewing Holland Marsh results achieved by the nine teams — an international field formed by universities, government agencies and private companies — to select four finalists. A Broward County company, Green Water Solutions Inc., was among the Ontario researchers.

Those four finalist teams each will receive $125,000 to continue their work in a concluding 14-month phase, based in Florida and likely beginning in early 2020 after planning and preparations.

“We definitely want to make sure [the winning technology] will work in warm weather with variable conditions and the potential of hurricanes,” Parra said. “Those all are eventualities we might see in Florida.”

The George Barley Water Prize draws its inspiration from “the incentive awards that inspired Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight from New York to Paris and that led to the development of commercial space travel,” the Everglades Foundation says. The competition, believed to be among the largest ever for conservation, recently was featured on NBC Nightly News.

“We have tried litigation, legislation, regulation and education, so now we are putting our faith in innovation, hoping to inspire the world’s brightest scientific minds to find a solution,” foundation Chief Executive Eric Eikenberg said in a statement.

Foundation Vice President Tom Van Lent, a Key Largo resident who previously worked as a state wetlands scientist, and Parra helped launch the Ontario phase of the competition.

In addition to his real-estate business, George Barley served on multiple conservation and environmental panels. He served as first chairman of the Florida Marine Fisheries Commission (now the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) and a three-year term as chair of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.

An avid angler, Barley, 61, was killed in June 1995 in the crash of a private airplane in Central Florida. He was traveling to urge action on Everglades restoration projects.

kwadlow@keysnews.com