BY BRIAN BOWDEN Free Press Staff

SOUTH FLORIDA — A South Florida Water Management District operational plan will provide as much as 6.5 billion gallons more fresh water per year to Florida Bay beginning in September, according to the state entity. 

The large body of water, used heavily by commercial and recreational anglers, is in desperate need of water after suffering a massive seagrass die-off in 2015 that wiped out a documented 22,000 acres. The die-off was caused by high salinity levels in the northeastern portion of the bay.

“This will go a long ways to helping [the current condition],” district Director of Everglades Policy and Coordination Ernie Marks told the Free Press.

The plan calls for canals, weirs and pump stations, among other structures, to push direct flow into Taylor Slough — the main freshwater tributary of the bay.

According to Akin Owosina, chief of the district’s hydrology and hydraulics bureau, this plan will send roughly 20,000 acre-feet of water more through the head of Taylor Slough. He said that is double previous amounts.

The plan still needs the go-ahead from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. According to the district, it will cost between $1.8 and $3.3 million.

Locally, some politicians are far from satisfied with the plan.

“They’re putting a Band-Aid on something that requires 20 stitches,” Village Councilman Mike Forster said. 

While Forster believes the water district wants to fix the bay, he accused the state of not prioritizing Everglades restoration projects that would benefit the bay. The SFWMD nine-person governing board is appointed by Gov. Rick Scott. The two Monroe County representatives are Melanie Peterson, a Sotheby’s International Realty agent in West Palm Beach, and Kevin Powers, an Indiantown Realty Corp. partner in West Palm Beach, he said.

“They [the water district] are feeling the pressure,” Forster said. “This [the plan] is just a great PR campaign.”

The plan comes on the heels of Islamorada adopting a resolution calling on state and federal officials to expedite billion-dollar Everglades and bay restoration efforts, including purchasing U.S. Sugar-owned land south of Lake Okeechobee for water storage purposes. The Monroe County Commission is expected to adopt a similar resolution at its meeting Wednesday, July 20, in Marathon.

The increased flow to Taylor Slough will not change the criteria spelled out under the district’s Minimum Flow and Levels rule, which Islamorada requested be increased to deliver more water to the bay.

Since the rule was adopted in 2006, the district is required to maintain at least a net discharge of 105,000 acre-feet of water into the northeastern part of the bay over a 365-day period. Flow is measured at the head of five Everglades tributaries, including Taylor Slough.

In August 2015, the flow dropped to roughly 78,000 acre-feet.

The district has violated the rule twice over the past 10 years with the first notice in 2008-09 and following in 2014-15. For a violation to occur, according to district Director of Water Resources Terrie Bates, salinity readings above natural seawater levels must happen on back-to-back years.

The new operational plan, according to Marks, serves as a “gap filler” until other long-term bay projects under the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan can be completed.

Owosina also pointed out that this plan will have no adverse impacts on South Dade agricultural areas as it moves water west and not the east. In the past, environmentalists and farmers have gone head-to-head over water flow through the area. While the former said it is needed for sustainability of the Everglades and bay, the latter said it was flooding crops.