A fresh-water-starved Florida Bay is facing an emergency with a fraction of Everglades restoration projects complete, a Keys captain told members of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment during a Sept. 24 hearing. 

Elizabeth Jolin, captain of Bay and Reef Company in Islamorada, appeared virtually before U.S. House members to provide testimony on how a fraction of historical water flows from central Florida to the Everglades have affected her business. When visiting the Keys and booking a charter, Jolin said, people will see fish, herons and dolphins. They’ll even explore the mangroves and dive into clear waters. 

While out on the water, Jolin said it’s unlikely that wildly fluctuating salinity levels of Florida Bay will be discussed. Nor will they visit the 40,000 acres of dead seagrass in the bay caused by salty conditions. 

“We will certainly not spend any time in the nearshore ocean zone that has been suffocated by algae laden bay water circulated on the tidal exchange,” Jolin said. “And finally, we will not discuss the future of the Florida Bay — because it is in crisis.”

Jolin spoke during a hearing that delved into water management and environmental restoration activities by the Army Corps of Engineers in Florida. Challenges are being confronted regarding water management and water quality, including harmful algal blooms and environmental restoration efforts. 

In 2000, Congress looked to address those challenges in Florida through passage of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, or CERP. It’s the largest ecosystem restoration project in the nation, covering 16 counties and 18,000 square miles. The framework of CERP aims to balance water supply, mitigate flood issues and return natural water flow through the Glades. 

In July, lawmakers in the subcommittee and House approved the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2020, which includes funding for the Army Corps of Engineers for new projects and changes to existing ones in the Everglades. The bill was subsequently passed to the Senate where it awaits a vote. 

Last October, federal, state and local officials convened in Islamorada to kick off the subcommittee’s work in establishing a blueprint for WRDA 2020. Legislation provides funding for a two-year period and was last authorized in 2018. In attendance for the meeting was the subcommittee chairwoman, Grace Napolitano, who said that the status quo cannot be maintained. On Sept. 24, she said the Army Corps must balance the flood control, environmental restoration, water supply and other authorized purposes during both wet and dry seasons. 

“When faced with too much water, the Corps seeks to manage the system to avoid flood events that would impact Florida communities by releasing water east and west from Lake Okeechobee, because the mechanisms to hold or send more water south is incomplete.  This can lead to challenges like harmful algal blooms in the St. Lucie Canal, or to avoid dumping too much water to meet its water supply obligations within the state,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, subcommittee vice chair, said restoring the Everglades to a condition that resembles natural water flow from 100 years ago is a monumental task that’s been going on for two decades. 

“And we have at least another decade to go,” she said. “The goal is to move more water south. Not east and west — where residents often face harmful algal blooms — but south, where the water can flow naturally through vegetation and grasslands that clean the water and then enter the Everglades National Park to keep our wetlands wet and provide freshwater to the Florida Bay.”

The Everglades ecosystem provides drinking water to 8 million Floridians and serves as a backbone to South Florida’s economy. Jolin said the emergency witnessed on the Florida Bay is affecting not only her business, but also many others throughout Monroe County. 

“There isn’t a single job in the Florida Keys that doesn’t rely on a thriving and vibrant natural resource,” Jolin told House members. “Our teachers, policemen, restaurateurs, housekeepers and, of course, fishermen rely on a healthy Florida Bay. It is quite literally the foundation of our community.”

Jolin said she has confidence in the citizens, scientists and legislators who are all working on the issue.  She said she hopes urgency can be attached with restoration efforts prioritized. 

The hearing came 19 days after President Trump visited Jupiter to address his budget proposal allocating $250 million in annual funding for restoration and infrastructure projects for the Glades. Reducing harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee and addressing red tide and blue-green algae issues were among his priorities.  

The president’s administration also recently announced the awarding of a contract to allow for the second and final phase of the Tamiami Trail Next Steps Project to begin. Roughly 6.7 miles of the eastern Tamiami Trail will be raised and reconstructed to improve water conveyance and stormwater treatment. Construction is set to begin in November. The Florida Department of Transportation awarded the project to General Asphalt Jones Benitez Joint Venture. 

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