The Future of Florida Bay

Can Florida Bay be restored? Yes. But we are twenty or thirty years beyond the time where nature’s resiliency might have proven shortly. Florida Bay is heavily damaged. Its water quality bears little resemblance to what sustained remarkable biodiversity. Today, scavenger species roam the blighted underwater landscape. The scale of the tragedy is so great, that if its destruction had been above the surface, we would be squirming under withering international criticism.

Recently, AP published yet another report of Florida Bay “on the brink of collapse”. It’s a good update, but in truth Florida Bay is not on the brink of anything: it is gone. A rout of gargantuan proportions.

Twenty years ago, when the decline of the coral reef and shallow water wilderness of the Florida Keys came into focus, environmentalists talked gingerly about ecological collapse. They didn’t want to scare off people. They didn’t want to sound negative. The environmentalists began talking about decline as a cascading phenomenon. Each and every insult needed to be noted and carefully measured– the loss of sea grass habitat, the effects of reckless boating on shallow water flats, the algae blooms and transformation of species. Those who agitated for law enforcement were instantly confronted by property rights activists and anti-government fools. Malcom Gladwell’s explorations of “tipping points” was added to the mix. Then, “shifting baselines” gained currency in the public realm; a term applying equally to measuring change as to tourists whose happiness seemed to scarcely alter from watching nature’s splendor to peering at each other through face masks and turbid, lifeless waters. Last but not least, investigators, scientists, NGO’s and user groups grew from a cottage industry to a full-fledged movement, organized in hotel conference rooms, consuming powerpoint presentations, Danish, and contributions, issuing report after report about a place, Florida Bay, whose surface on many days is impenetrable as a mirror and shows, for the most part, our own shortcomings.

Florida Bay made a lasting impression as a young man in the early 1970’s. On a handful of days with a fishing guide, I witnessed the bay firing on all cylinders. In the early morning light, there was riot of wildlife as far as the eye could see. Schools of bonefish–hundreds and more– roamed like platoons of soldiers stitching together acres of bay bottom; their fins pushing wakes in nervous wedges. Sharks and rays. Bird life everywhere. Tarpon rolling in channels and deeper sloughs. You had to wait a long time for these moments to occur. Now you have to wait forever. Who knew my generation would be the last to witness the flickering of a splendid corner of creation: the Everglades? Florida Bay on unpredictable days and certain tides was like a diorama sprung to life. That movie, Ben Stiller in “Night at the Museum” where after closing the contents spring to life? It was Florida Bay. The silliness of ancient peoples and native Indians springing to life also has its own warped analogue there.

The AP calls attention to the role of the Miccosuckee Tribe in litigation wrapping up the future of Florida Bay. The Tribe are descendants of native Americans chased into the swampy wilderness by the US Army in its last prosecution of the Indian Wars in Florida. In the beginning, they hid on tree islands. Today, their durable housing, satellite TV’s, SUVs and other conveniences are still threatened by floods, at the mercy of a massive, mechanical flood management system that “controls” the Everglades.

With considerable revenue from slot machines and gambling, the Tribe can raise funds easily for litigation: an exceedingly difficult piece of the environmental agenda. But the Tribe’s litigation strategy is a disturbing paradox. On the one hand, the Tribe has been stellar in suing on water pollution overlooked by the US government and the State of Florida in its operation of the South Florida canal system bordering and inside the Glades. Its chief litigator is a head-strong former US Attorney Dexter Lehtinen. On the other hand, the Tribe has been a vociferous opponent of pulling apart the dikes and levees and elevating Tamiami Trail that prevent and obstruct more fresh water from flowing through the Everglades to Florida Bay. Underlying its litigation is a sequence for “restoration” the Tribe agreed to, nearly two decades ago, that calls for opening up the Everglades carefully, depending on massive reservoirs to hold excess water, before releasing clean fresh water in gradual doses to mimic the natural flow of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee and its northern feeders all the way– more than 90 miles– to Florida Bay.

It is all hypothetical. The sequence depends on cleaning excess nutrients from polluting sugar fields and cities to less than 10 parts per billion: like removing dust from a bag of flour. The Tribe is insistent that polluters be forced to clean up their own pollution before allowing it to be injected into public waterways, including Everglades National Park.

The federal and state government, accordingly, have laid out a plan that includes a reliance on engineering solutions that principally fill campaign war chests for elections across the spectrum. Those fake alleyways include the “safe” manipulation of aquifers in porous limestone and the largest above ground, concrete lined reservoirs ever constructed. The initial results, a decade after the plan was authorized by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton and witnessed by former Gov. Jeb Bush at a Rose Garden ceremony (on the day that the Supreme Court was deciding the outcome of the 2000 presidential election), are pathetic.

It doesn’t take much more thinking power than parsing the difference between a possum and a cat to know the core technologies used by federal and state agencies are a poor substitute for more paying to take lands out of sugar production– more than 700,000 acres of historic Everglades are used to farm a crop, sugar, that is heavily dependent on federal subsidies– and returning them to filtering marshes. Along this line, Gov. Charlie Crist — now running for US Senate to fill the seat vacated by Mel Martinez, also a Republican– set out to steer the state to acquire lands owned by the US Sugar Corporation. The Tribe strongly opposes the acquisition through an aggressive litigation strategy. While there are plenty of reasons to mistrust the federal government, the historical animosities have turned the Tribe into rigid, unyielding, and wealthy supporters of a failed plan to restore the Everglades. The AP report doesn’t come right out and say so: it leaves room for interpretation.

To look back at the lost decades of Florida Bay fills one with foreboding. It brings to mind a moment — my last conversation with the late Congressman Dante Fascell, whose district encompassed Florida Bay and the Florida Keys. It was October 1995, and I spotted the Congressman and his beloved wife, sitting quietly and unnoticed where I joined them on a banquette in the anteroom of the Biltmore Hotel ballroom in Coral Gables where President Clinton was holding a final fundraiser before the November election.

Many decades earlier, Congressman Fascell had helped shaped federal policies to protect Florida Bay. He had been a giant and his time was nearly done. “What are you doing here?”, Dante asked me quizzically. I followed his glance over the crowd of lobbyists organized around clusters of well-heeled clients waiting their turn to slip into the big ticket fund raiser. I told him, “I’m delivering a letter from NRDC to the Clinton administration informing them of our intent to sue if they convey the Homestead Air Force Base to Miami-Dade County without performing adequate environmental studies on its impacts to Florida Bay and the Everglades.” He nodded wanly. “I made a mistake not including the Keys in Everglades National Park,” he said. A silence fell between us. “Dinosaurs. We are all going to be dinosaurs.”

Hours later, I was able to hand deliver the letter. “I hate the government for making my life absurd,” the late urbanist Jane Jacobs told one interviewer. I know exactly what she meant.

ALAN FARAGO writes on culture, the environment and politics in Coral Gables, FL. He can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net











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Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net

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