Monday, October 12, 2015

Florida Bay on the rocks ... by gimleteye

Sea Grass die-off Florida Bay

 My life as an environmentalist started in the late 1980's when I moved to Key West and straight into a devastating algae bloom in the northern part of the bay. I had the good fortune to fish these waters -- from Everglades City to the Marquesas -- in the 1970s with my late father. I knew what Florida Bay was -- one of the most splendid and diverse shallow water ecosystems on the planet -- and I was devastated both how they had been stripped bare by toxic algae and how public officials turned a blind eye to the upstream culprits.

In this context, and the intervening thirty years, I'm unsurprised by the dismal news that Florida Bay -- and the natural resources that remain -- are buckling under the threat of an even more toxic algae bloom. This time, even scavenger species like catfish that repopulated the upper bay may succumb.

There is nothing that can be done for Florida Bay until the campaign finance system is changed, to eliminate the vast gulf between what people want and what corporations require of politicians they sponsor.

What is happening in Florida Bay reflects the toxicity of Florida's shadow government: Big Sugar and the control of the South Florida water management system by growth-at-any-cost. It also reflects the indifference of public officials whose hands are out, continuously for campaign contributions from big sprawl developers and their supply chain.

What's most depressing in the Staletovich report: Mike Collins, former chairman of the South Florida Water Management District and Jeb Bush appointee, beating his chest how upstream phosphorous pollution standards and environmental groups are at the root of the problem in Florida Bay. Collins once used to represent Florida's flats fishing community.

Too bad for all of us, how these decades turned out. To blame environmentalists, as Mr. Collins appears to be doing, is the purest form of nonsense.

In late September, state biologists navigated through mats of dead seagrass in Florida Bay. About 13 square miles of seagrass meadows died over the summer with early signs of an algae bloom now appearing near Rankin Lake and Garfield Bight. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

A slimy toxic algae bloom in Florida Bay that researchers thought was years in the future might be just around the corner.

South Florida Water Management District scientist Fred Sklar told district board members last week that levels of chlorophyll are starting to rise in shallow water where miles of seagrass meadows died over the summer. The last time so much grass died in 1987, it took five years for algae blooms to erupt that would devastate the bay for two decades.

Toxic sulfide has turned parts of Floriday Bay stinky yellow as miles of seagrass have started dying around Johnson Key and Rankin Lake. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

If this bloom worsens, it will have taken just months to appear.

“We’re not sure there is a cure,” Sklar told the board. “Once something like this starts, we don’t know what makes it stop.”

The crisis in Florida Bay also has escalated a prolonged fight over water in South Miami-Dade. Farmers have long complained that groundwater is being kept too high, drowning crops. Scientists and environmentalists argue that the bay, which desperately needs more water to flow in from the Everglades, is being sacrificed to save farms.

“You just can’t let … Florida Bay die,” said Jerry Lorenz, Audubon Florida's state director of research. “It’s far more important to get water into Florida Bay and try to mitigate to farms than the other way around.”

At nearly 1,000 square miles, Florida Bay is one of the planet’s most complicated ecosystems with a patchwork of about 24 different basins separated by mud banks. It is also a vital part of the region’s economy and a $723 million a year fishing industry.

The 1990s algae bloom started with the death of more than 15.5 square miles of seagrass after a prolonged drought. So far, scientists have recorded about 13 square miles of dead seagrass around Johnson Key and in Rankin Lake, a shallow bight tucked into a horseshoe-shaped mud bank now beginning to show signs of an algae bloom.

The die-off also coincided with a cloud of yellow sulfide — something Sklar said scientists have never before documented in the bay — that spread across 25 square miles.

“We’re talking between 50 and 75 square miles of seagrass beds that could potentially die,” he said.

A team of researchers who have been monitoring the bay and are now trying to find a solution say that the brewing crisis is no surprise. Years of flood control have robbed the bay of historic sheet flow that fanned across rocky glades from two sloughs in Everglades National Park. What little trickled out of five creeks into the bay in August dropped to the lowest level recorded since gauges were installed in 1996. Worse, a second year of dry weather spiraled into a severe drought. Salinity in some areas reached more than double the concentration of sea water.

The district tried to manage the situation by moving more water south “making it less likely to go into a cascade,” Sklar said. And recent rain — more than 10 inches fell in September — helped flush salt. But it was too late.

“Once the train leaves the station, we don’t know when it stops,” he said.

As Florida Bay wilted over the summer during a deepening drought, scientists arrived to find miles of dead seagrass smelling like rotten eggs in a cloud of yellow sulfide. They suspect hot, salty water from adjacent mud banks slid into the bay and created a lid that trapped sulfide in the muddy bottom and kept oxygen out.

Another complication: Pollution from vast sugar fields south of Lake Okeechobee must be cleaned. Billions of dollars in efforts have made the water cleaner — but not enough for the sensitive Everglades. Farmers and state officials increasingly hostile to environmentalists have for years blamed the mandate, part of a federal court ruling, for holding up restoration. District board member Jim Moran called it “the gorilla in the room,” that should be relaxed.

“Too much deference is being given to park staff and the NGOs,” Mike Collins, a fishing guide and former board member, complained during the meeting. “If you don’t have science and you don’t have engineering, go sit in the corner and shut up. We don’t have the ability to allow political science to drive this issue any more.”

Environmentalists shot back that Everglades restoration was largely due to their efforts.

“I didn’t realize we built the Tamiami Trial,” which blocked water, said Drew Martin, a conservation chair for the Sierra Club. “We didn’t blow up the Miami falls. We didn’t drain the [Everglades Agriculture Area]. All these things were changes done not by the NGOs but by the development of Florida.”

Jenny Staletovich: 305-376-2109, @jenstaletovich


Anonymous said...

Seems like this and coral bleaching is what Ros-lehtinen and friends should care about and not the no fish zones of Biscayne National Park.

Anonymous said...

"Shadow government" is right, Gimleteye. Behind every government action in the Everglades is a private financial interest. It was there when the Everglades Agricultural Area was formed and drained. It was there when Tamiami Trail was built and when the Everglades was carved up in the 1950s and '60s. It was there last year when Rick Scott and the SFWMD Governing Board refused to buy US Sugar land. It's always there, and then we wonder why things like this happen.

Anonymous said...

This will be big blow to the tourism and real estate industries, the thing the Chambers of Commerce care about. Maybe they will care now when there are no fish no corals, and spoiled and stinky beaches.

Anonymous said...

If I had a multi-million dollar house on the Bay in the Keys and this yellow toxic crap started washing under my dock...I would slap these GOP legislators in the face when they visited my Keys house for their fund raisers.

cyndi said...

People can say anything they want. i have the video begging to send clean water south by hundred of people. who do I forward it to?

terreg said...

There is a "cure" for all the ailments that are springing up in our midst. It is called "THE VOTE". If and when all citizens decide to exercise their right to elect competent, intelligent, service oriented, decent individuals, we might be able to address these issues. I still find it incredible that 60% of the registered voters did not bother to vote in 2014, thereby electing the worst Governor in Florida history.