Several Keys leaders entering new government positions aren’t new to the issues surrounding Florida Bay and what drove water quality to deteriorate and seagrass to die off. A recent roundtable on the bay and Everglades restoration, however, drove home just how vital a clean and healthy bayside is to the Keys community and economy in the years and decades to come.
Florida Bay Forever and its executive director, Emma Haydocy, convened newly-elected officials from the federal level to village level, as well as fish captains, at Anglers House Marina in Islamorada for a discussion and bay tour on Dec. 15. Haydocy, who’s served in her current role since February, said the goal was to bring the different voices to the table to discuss the internationally-recognized treasure in America’s Everglades and a crown jewel in Florida Bay.
Talks also outlined Florida Bay Forever’s recommendations to invest in the bay through consistent funding for Everglades restoration projects. The nonprofit is also urging passage of the federal Water Resources Development Act on a biennial schedule to ensure timely project authorizations and congressional funding. Newly-elected U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez and Florida’s congressional delegation will be key in moving those priorities forward in 2021.
“While Gimenez is versed in water quality issues facing South Florida, we in the Keys have a unique ecosystem and a unique set of problems,” Haydocy said. “Today, it was really about getting him out on the water and talking with longtime residents and elected officials who all have to come together to implement the known, scientifically-driven policies and programs to be able to help our water quality to restore Florida Bay.”
Gimenez, who beat out Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in the general election, brings over 40 years of public service experience in Miami-Dade to his first term as congressman in District 26, which represents the Keys and Miami-Dade. Gimenez, who was joined by his wife, Lourdes, on the 2-hour bay tour, said he couldn’t ask for a better day with knowledgeable guides to witness what’s happening with Florida Bay.
“Restoring natural flows back into the bay is vitally important, and that’s all part of the Everglades restoration,” Gimenez said as he exited the boat. “Then the storage of water especially during the winter and the dry months and why we need to restore freshwater flows into the bay. I kind of knew that before. It just accentuated it again and drove the point home.”
With a new Congress set to meet in just weeks, Gimenez said he’s hoping to be added to the “right committees” to advance Everglades restoration. Haydocy said placing Gimenez on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee would be critical to the Water Resources Development Act, which includes funding for the Army Corps of Engineers for new projects and changes to existing ones in the Everglades.
“Being able to get him up to speed and understand this is our lifeblood … this is what supports every aspect of our community, and this is why we need (our elected leaders) to hit it hard for us was what we were trying to drive home.”
State Rep. Jim Mooney is no stranger to the bayside waters, having grown up in the Keys. The former Islamorada mayor who won the election to become the next representative for the Keys and south Miami-Dade in Tallahassee joined the talk and tour.
For Mooney, the Florida Keys Stewardship Act that’s brought millions for water quality projects and acquisition of conservation land will be a main point of emphasis entering session at the state capital. Mooney said he’s also encouraged with how in tune state House Speaker Chris Sprowls is with the environment.
“He was raised on water. He understands water quality, albeit different water quality in Hillsborough County,” Mooney said. “I think for the first time in a long time, there’s consensus on the problems we have to face.”
Mooney did take issue with Senate President Wilton Simpson’s remarks that he wasn’t sold on a $1.6 billion reservoir project south of Lake Okeechobee. During a recent Florida Chamber of Commerce summit, Simpson, a Republican, said Florida “probably should stop building” the reservoir that would help move water south. He also said that the state should look at deep injection wells on the northside of Lake Okeechobee.
“There’s nothing wrong doing projects north of the lake. Any project you do to improve water going into the lake only makes it better coming out of the lake,” he said. “You don’t stop one project to do another.”
Sixth-generation Islamorada resident and current mayor Buddy Pinder joined Gimenez and Mooney for the discussion and a ride out to the bay. Pinder, who won in the November election to serve on the dais, noted how important it will be in the new year to work as a team with Gimenez in Washington, D.C. and Mooney in Tallahassee.
“I think it’s going to be good. There’s strength in numbers,” Pinder said. “We need not only the local congressman, but also everyone throughout the state because it’s all about the clean water coming south. It was good to see us come together.”
With new faces in leadership roles, Florida Bay Forever seeks bipartisan support on the federal, state and municipal levels with laser focus on the Everglades Agricultural Reservoir and Comprehensive Everglades Restoration projects for clean water to come south. They also hope to see high-level engagement between President-elect Joe Biden and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration to include regular tours of the ecosystem and discussions with stakeholders.
Also joining in the roundtable discussion was new county commissioner Mike Forster, who represents Key Largo and Tavernier.