The Everglades and the Keys are closely connected

Dr. Steve Davis, chief science officer for the Everglades Foundation joined Good Morning on KeysTalk 96.9/102.5FM this morning to talk about what’s been going on with water.

The Everglades have far reaching impact – even into the Keys.

Dr. Davis said, “Our ecosystems are all tied from north to south by the flow of freshwater. The economy in the Keys, perhaps more so than any other place in the state is just so closely coupled with the health of the waterways, Florida Bay, the shallow coastal waters around the Keys and of course, all the way out to the reef tract.”

High temperatures in the waters can cause issues, as well.

Dr. Davis said, “Many people recognize how shallow the water is around the Florida Keys, Florida Bay has an average depth of about three to four feet. These shallow waters really track the air temperatures that we’re experiencing day after day. We have another heat advisory and that’s something that people should certainly heed in terms of how to prepare and whether to limit their exposure outside. Unfortunately, our environment doesn’t have sort of that refuge that many of us have. So the fish, the wildlife, the ecosystems are experiencing the same temperatures day after day. The heat, in particular, we’re seeing it in Florida Bay. Some of the highest recorded temperatures in coastal waters around Florida have been in the Florida Keys.”

A mass seagrass die off occurred in 2015.

Dr. Davis said, “And we’re still seeing eight years later, sort of the remnant effects of that die off. It takes nearly a decade or two for the Bay to fully recover from that. We continue to see stressed grasses. We continue to see algae blooms associated with those areas that are still in recovery and this heat really sets back that recovery because we’re seeing patchy seagrass die off just associated with the heat. We’re seeing sponge die off, small fish kills and it’s in combination with the salinity of the water. Fortunately, today we’re seeing good salinity levels in the Bay because of the progress that we’ve made with restoration that allows us to get more freshwater across Tamiami Trail, and then beginning that journey down through Everglades National Park and the Florida Bay. So we’re seeing the benefits of that right now. But the heat is having the overriding effect, and it controls the system by limiting the amount of oxygen that the water can hold. Of course, fish require that oxygen, shrimp, crabs, think of all the recreationally important species, but all the food for those recreationally important species depends on oxygen in the water. The hotter that water is the less oxygen it can hold.”

The freshwater flow from the Florida Bay is critical for fresh water in the Keys.

Dr. Davis said, “Florida Bay is the estuary of the Everglades. Estuaries are where that freshwater mixes with saltwater and it produces sort of a unique set of habitats that can only exist in that sort of estuary type environment. If you cut off the flow of freshwater, then you start to lose the sea grasses. In some coastal areas we have oysters that are dependent upon that brackish, fresh saltwater mix. For the last 100 years, because of the drainage and compartmentalization of the Everglades cutting it off from Lake Okeechobee, we’ve seen Florida Bay as an estuary decline in health because it’s become too salty. So restoring the flow of fresh water we know will have just enormous benefits for the health of the Bay, the health of those habitats, and then that translates to increased fish production and anglers see it on the water with improved tarpon, snook, redfish. The fisheries that are highly sought after depend on those conditions that Florida Bay is known for.”

Agriculture runoff can affect the Bay as well.

Dr. Davis said, “That water that historically hit Lake Okeechobee from as far north as Orlando, would make its journey down to the edge of the peninsula and flow into Florida Bay. Of course, we interrupted that flow building the dike around Lake Okeechobee, connecting the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie on the west and east coasts. Now because we have that large agricultural area that’s primarily sugar south of the lake, that water can’t flow south naturally. That’s why we’re building these key infrastructure projects like the EAA reservoir. It’s almost like a heart bypass surgery for the Everglades. But right now until we have that reservoir built, there’s no other solution but to dump that excess water east and west where it actually causes harm. It’s too high a volume and we know that that water is contaminated from agricultural pollutants from the south from those sugar fields and also from the north. So as part of this restoration strategy, it’s about reducing those discharges, storing that water south of the lake, and then cleansing it through roughly 70,000 acres of engineered wetlands that are designed to remove that phosphorus contamination so that we’re sending clean water to the Everglades and ultimately to Florida Bay.”

The latest groundbreaking for the EAA reservoir will be part of the overall project.  

Dr. Davis said, “That’s the critical piece to this puzzle, getting that reservoir built, having that capacity to flow large volumes south. It benefits Florida Bay. It also benefits the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie where we know those algae blooms are problematic. It wrecks those estuaries and we also know that there’s a direct connection to real estate values, potentially human health. There’s been studies recently that have definitively connected discharge to the west coast and exacerbation of red tide in that particular area. So we know that it’s in our best interest to redirect water flow south for all those reasons.”

The Road to Restoration was a tour that reached out to a number of people and businesses to help with this project.

Dr. Davis said, “We’ve just begun this journey. We’ve got basically to the end of this decade to really get that reservoir built and get significant volumes of water flowing south. So the point of Road to Restoration is really just to educate people to maintain that engagement with key communities like the Florida Keys, Stuart on the east coast, Fort Myers on the west coast to understand why Everglades restoration is in their best interest. It’s easy to lose sight of what’s going on. It is a very slow, deliberate process and these projects are hundreds of millions to over a billion dollars to get constructed. Everglades restoration is a $20 plus billion replumbing of south Florida, and connecting with these communities and business owners, realtors, many of them get it already. But it’s just maintaining those touches, those connections and updates on why this is important and the progress that we’re making. And the benefits that we’re seeing. We’re seeing the benefits of restoration right now.”

Funding is also being sought from the state and federal legislatures.

Dr. Davis said, “We’ve seen record funding out of Tallahassee over the last four to five years. We’re making progress in Washington, DC, a recent injection of $1.1 billion to get some of the projects that have been lagging, getting them off the sheet so that we can move forward with this critical reservoir project. So we’re making progress. It’s important for folks to understand that this is a 50/50 partnership between the state of Florida and the federal government, the South Florida Water Management District and the Army Corps of Engineers at the federal level. So every dollar the state spends, the feds have to match that. That’s critically important because this is a 20 plus billion dollar program and having that 50 percent cost share has been critical in helping us to make this progress. Our job at the Foundation is to provide the science that needed to sort of advocate on behalf of this ecosystem, on behalf of the business owners, the anglers, fishing guides, the realtors, as to why this is important and maintain our foot on the accelerator to the road to restoration.”

The process of keeping the Everglades healthy has been going on, technically, for more than 30 years.

Dr. Davis said, “I just think it’s important for folks in the Keys to understand that they stand to benefit most from Everglades restoration. It’s about getting freshwater all the way down into the park ultimately down to Florida Bay and the Florida Keys. That benefits our water supply, certainly the water supply in the Keys as well. You’re umbilically connected to the Everglades through your aqueduct. That goes all the way up to Florida City right outside of Everglades National Park. We’re all connected to this ecosystem.”

For more information on the Everglades Foundation, click here: