February 26, 2020

KEVIN WADLOW/Free Press
Longtime Upper Keys resident Van Cadenhead worries that a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operations system intended to bring more fresh water to Florida Bay doesn't do enough to preserve seagrass in the dry winter months.

KEVIN WADLOW/Free Press Longtime Upper Keys resident Van Cadenhead worries that a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operations system intended to bring more fresh water to Florida Bay doesn't do enough to preserve seagrass in the dry winter months.

ISLAMORADA — A planned freshwater flow to Florida Bay comes at the wrong time and doesn’t deliver enough, Florida Keys residents and environmentalists told U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staff Feb. 19.

“Frankly, I am freaking sick of this. … Now we’re going to get more fresh water but in the wet season,” said Steve Friedman, commodore of the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association. “Send clean water south when it’s needed. We are absolutely reliant on clean water for our livelihoods.”

Florida Audubon’s Jerry Lorenz was also critical of the Corps’ Combined Operational Plan.

“This does not provide benefits for the dry season,” he said.

A dry winter season can cause water in Florida Bay to evaporate, raising salinity to the tipping point where vast areas of critical seagrass die and fuel algae blooms. Ominous conditions already are evident, speakers said.

Taylor Slough feeds the southern Everglades and Florida Bay but has lost 60% of its historic flow because of manmade changes to the Everglades system, Lorenz said.

“This [plan] doesn’t add that much more. It’s not much of an increase for a billion dollars,” he said.

Mary Barley of the Everglades Foundation blistered Corps staff for minimizing effects of agency freshwater allocations on the Florida Keys.

“I am really appalled,” she said. “We are part of Florida. … We started Everglades restoration. Islamorada was where it all started. … This is war and the Florida Keys are going to win.”

In 2019, the Army Corps lowered the level of Florida’s largest reservoir, Lake Okeechobee, and moved more fresh water to South Florida, the Everglades and Florida Bay. In 2020, the Corps plans to hold back more fresh water in the dry season, saying it is needed for municipal supplies and agricultural interests.

“Big Sugar got hold of them and they’re raising the level of the lake [for storage]. The reason we’re not getting water is because Big Sugar needs the water,” said Kellie Trotta of the Friends of the Everglades and the Herman Lucerne Memorial Foundation. “It shouldn’t be going to subsidized sugar farmers.”

Benny Blanco of the Everglades Guides Association said the drawdown “worked last year, so why would we deviate from that and make a change? Because of infiltration by sugar in backroom meetings.”

Col. Andrew Kelly, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Jacksonville district that covers most of Florida, said relatively recent funding for major Everglades restoration work means “we’re going to be putting lot of infrastructure in the ground … and link the system from Kissimmee River to Florida Bay, eventually.”

Large parts of that plan, like the 10,100-acre, 23-foot-deep Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir, have barely started work that could take a decade to complete.

The Islamorada meeting Feb. 19 outlined the draft environmental impact statement of the Combined Operational Plan for the southern end of the system, from water conservation areas north of the recently bridged Tamiami Trail to Florida Bay.

“With momentum and effort, we can turn the corner and start making a significant difference,” Kelly said. The South Florida operational plan “opens up the bottom of the system … It will allow water to move efficiently and effectively to the bay. Without [the operating plan], we end up with water bottled up and can’t get down.”

The C-111 system, part of which runs under U.S. 1 on the 18-Mile Stretch, is a complex system that takes in “eight basins, 58 hydraulic stations, nine canals and three [water] detention areas,” Corps engineer Lan Do said.

Final approval for the plan tentatively is expected by August. About 28% more fresh water annually would be sent to critical pathways like Taylor Slough and the Shark River Slough by managing existing water supplies differently.

“This increase in annual flow is a redistribution of the existing water budget, meaning no new water has been added,” a Corps fact sheet describes.

“It is a bit anemic, not what taxpayers expected,” said Jacqueline Crucet of the National Parks Conservation Association. “We expect more than marginal benefits and marginal benefits is what this plan offers. Now is the time for a more bold plan.”

kwadlow@keysnews.com