The health of Florida Bay kicking off 2021 is a very different picture than what we saw during the winter and spring of 2020. In fact, we at Florida Bay Forever were incredibly anxious for the fate of the bay during last year’s dry seasons. Salinity levels were far from normal, triggering fringe seagrass die-offs in the areas where we lost more than 40,000 acres in 2016. We were concerned, to say the least.
At the same time, we were seeing traction and action for restoration of the southern estuary. Governor DeSantis continued to prioritize funding for restoration, with a focus on the EAA Reservoir Project. The South Florida Water Management broke ground (explosively, we might add) on the Stormwater Treatment Area component (their share of the 50-50 restoration plan) and conversations with the Governing Board focused on how to eliminate the barriers to moving water south toward Everglades National Park and Florida Bay. Just yesterday, the district awarded the final contract for the STA. Even in the midst of a global health pandemic, federal and state legislators paved the way for full restoration funding and passed the Water Resources Development Act of 2020.
Even with all this progress, Florida Bay was parched during the spring. Even with all this progress, we had to ask ourselves if we were going to have to watch as the bay once again turned into a toxic slurry of algae blooms, dead fish, and dead seagrass? It was nerve wracking.
Then, Mother Nature did the work. The rain came. Late in the wet season, we saw 23.5 inches of water fall across the Everglades. Enhanced infrastructure and new operations plans brought more water to the southern estuary. Florida Bay was happy to take as much hydration as it possibly could.
While this has been wonderful news for the southern estuary, the rest of the greater Everglades did not fair so well. High water levels on Lake Okeechobee prompted billions of gallons of nutrient-laden waters to be discharged to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers. Water stacked up in the Water Conservation Areas, drowning wildlife and negatively impacting the tribes that call those areas home. The health of one part of the system came at a cost of hell for others.
So, where does this leave us in 2021? Florida Bay is healthy with salinity levels mirroring pre-drainage levels. This has translated into a more robust fishery and clear water in the southern estuary. This shows us what Florida Bay can look like in the future if we continue the fight to restore it.
That fight has not gone anywhere. Where 2020 was the year of progress and full funding, we have already heard alarming statements from the state Senate regarding support of the EAA Reservoir. Yes, the Governor is still fully supporting restoration and his recently released budget reflects that, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be met with resistance at every turn.
As residents of the Florida Keys, it is imperative that we continue to watch (and pick up the phone, write letters, go to meetings, and send emails) to ensure that Florida Bay sees the restoration it is entitled to. Will you join as as we work to protect, preserve, and improve Florida Bay?